Systemic Misogyny, Shame and Free Speech


I listened to Kate Manne on the Ezra Klein show on Saturday. First of all, I’ve been a fan of Ezra Klein since his days writing for the Washington Post. He’s liberal. He’s also a really smart, deep, articulate thinker and writer. I was particularly attracted to this show because in the summary they said they were going to talk critically about Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson, a pair that have also influenced my thinking quite a bit in recent years. I’m always interested in hearing good ideas and thinkers intelligently challenged.

This interview did not disappoint. They talk in depth about the consequences of living in a deeply patriarchal society. In the interview, they take this mostly as a given, and so discuss the deleterious effects it has on everyone, including, ironically men. They also talk about all the ways its enforced, including, ironically by women.

There were some golden nuggets in this conversation, of which I’ll describe one section at a time.


They regret the way many invoke shame as a way to pushback against patriarchal excess. Not that shame is not deserved but that too many, rather than to sit with and learn from shame, react defensively. This talk on shame opened me up a bit. If society is deeply inflicted with something systematically problematic then we need a way to talk about the ways bad behavior arise naturally by those operating with good intentions within them. In this context, I thought about Brene Brown’s very useful and very important work on shame:

Based on my research and the research of other shame researchers, I believe that there is a profound difference between shame and guilt. I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful – it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.

I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.

I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. In fact, I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure. I think the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous.

They didn’t get into what I thought would have been an interesting conversation – about how trying to produce change through shame is probably not the best approach. Instead, they went down another equally, productive path – how the Trump phenomenon, ironically the most shameless public figure we’ve ever seen, can be seen as a natural reaction to shame. It’s impossible to knock Trump down because nothing seems to bother him. From her book Down Girl, she puts it this way:

But then I realized that Trump’s was the face of shame turned inside out – it’s exterior wall, as it were – shame refused, with fury substituted, since he and his ilk are accustomed to being treated with the greatest respect on all occasions.

That Trump was able to even so much as sniff the presidency I think has to be at least partially be explained by the shame-based way these tense conversations tend to occur and the reactions they inspire.

Systemic Misogyny

Kate Manne repeatedly said she is not interested in calling out specific people as sexists or misogynists. She does call out sexist or misogynistic behavior – she makes a distinction between the two words I won’t get into here. In particular, it’s not really about intention but more about how people are made to feel. This is important because in order to resolve this problem, we need to care more about the systems and the consequences those systems have on those victimized by it.

Girls in a classroom, for example, will be called on less than boys, even by women teachers. And these disparities grow larger in STEM-oriented classes.

Can You Explain Everything By Misogyny?

I hope it’s not controversial to say the answer to this question is obviously no. I would expect if Kate Manne got this sort of pushback, she would readily agree. She’s a professional philosopher and spends a lot of time researching misogyny in culture, so I get that she’s particularly focused in this way.

But it was frustrating for me to hear her explain fairly complex phenomenon as if misogyny was the only explanation for it, realizing though that the likely reason for this was to make the conversation easier.

They spend a lot of time describing the 2016 presidential election through the lens of misogyny. There is no doubt that when a blatantly sexist incompetent man defeats a far more experienced, capable woman, sexism has got to be a major factor. But there is also no question Hillary Clinton’s flaws were much more significant than the examples cited in the podcast. Voting for Hillary had the problematic effect of putting someone credibly accused of rape back in the White House (Hillary’s husband). Isn’t this not a reason for reasonable people to pause? Not to mention the blatant schilling for cash while she served as Secretary of State, the uninspiring play it safe campaign, the failure to even attempt to reach swing voters in the midwest hurt by globalization, etc. There were a number of reasons people did not want to vote for Hillary that had nothing to do with her gender. I know this viscerally because I spent a lot of time trying to convince these people otherwise.

Another example was in their critique of a statistic Jordan Peterson quotes all the time, namely that in Scandinavian countries, considered the most egalitarian societies in the world, the data suggests that the occupational gender discrepancies are wider than in societies that are far less egalitarian. Peterson’s worry is that if the goal is equality of outcomes, individual preferences will be overruled by the need to reach that goal, preferences be damned. Manne’s belief, however, is that you can’t trust these sorts of outcome differences because even though these countries are more egalitarian, sexism is still a deep enough problem to adequately explain occupational differences. I found that willingness to ignore data that runs counter to her narratives problematic.

Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson Were Clearly Straw-Manned in this Conversation, Especially Sam Harris

First Peterson

Vox asked Jordan Peterson for an interview and was refused, but they did interview Kate Manne about her critique of Peterson.  To be fair, Manne’s critique of Peterson is substantive. I would really love to see Manne and Peterson go head to head, but considering Peterson sued Manne for libel, the chances of that happening is about zero. It feels like the problem is that they’re operating within different contexts. The world is big and complicated and there are many systemic veins running through it. If someone is hyper-focused on misogyny and patriarchy, they’ll see everything in this way. Peterson just has a different focus. He’s much more looking at the individual journey, the way each of us create order out of the chaos in our lives. How no matter what context we operate within, we should, individually, take responsibility to make the most out of it.

Peterson is a clinical psychologist and I think comes into this kind of framing naturally. There is something that can be invigorating about this type of individual responsibility that doesn’t quite fit within Manne’s focus on group identities and problematic systems that make individual responsibility more muted.

In other words, I think both people can be right here. They don’t have to collide head to head. It would be far more productive to engage with each other generously, in good faith and see how one person’s view could force the other into richer analysis.

Just one particularly egregious straw-man, though, and that is in Manne’s critique of Peterson’s use of the phrase “enforced monogamy”. They clearly knew what Peterson meant by this phrase. Ezra Klein even explained it – that there are ways society organizes itself to incentivize monogamous relationships, relationships which society non-controversially has a desire to promote. Even though they showed they understood it, they attacked it as obviously misogynistic.  Now, maybe monogamous relationships are a sign of the patriarchy and need to be dismantled, but that’s certainly not obvious.

The Sam Harris straw-man was far, far worse

This criticism is fully on Ezra Klein. Last summer, Klein had a crazy back and forth with Sam Harris culminating in this podcast exchange that I think is worth your time. By the way, that debate had a lot of the same frustrating, circular back and forth that showed up in the Peterson/Harris exchange the first time they got together. The point of disagreements were different but I think the fundamental reasons neither could really find consensus had some of the same fundamental properties.

First of all, Harris kept trying to make, what I thought an obvious point that sometimes the data will challenge your narratives and that rather than ignore the data, you need to modify your narratives. Klein refused to concede here because he felt that the biases in the systems inevitably bias the data and when the data backs up problematic biases, you have to question the data. There’s no way, in Klein’s view, that you can trust data without fully factoring in the biases and that it’s impossible to fully do so. I feel like there’s a bit of nihilism in this reckoning, but I also felt Harris has trouble owning up to these possibilities as desperately he seems to try.

That was the crux of the two hour debate. And that, kind of also describes the Peterson/Harris debate as well, ironically enough at least if you squint.

But that’s not the way Klein presents it to Manne. Rather, he claims Harris has massive blind-spots. He hides sympathetic racial biases around free-speech arguments and even jaw droppingly accuses Harris of hiding from racism attacks by virtue of the fact he has a black friend – something I can’t even imagine Harris ever doing.

Free Speech

One point Harris and Peterson both harp on and why I think Peterson sued Manne (ironically), is their concern for free speech and their sensitivities toward mob-shaming campaigns that infringe it. They both claim freedom of speech as core principles and the only way to work through complex ideas.

Where they get into trouble, and in my opinion shouldn’t, is that Peterson, especially, is willing to dive straight into taboo areas, pushing into them, looking for flawed assumptions. Any attempts to do so appear suspect to those caught up in feminism, however, so I think it’s difficult for liberal critics of Peterson to see what he’s doing clearly.

Both Manne and Klein (and many others) scoff at the idea that Peterson and Harris’ speech has been infringed, given their massive platforms and enormous popularity. That is true. I also think they are careful, well reasoned and operating mostly with integrity. I think that mostly helps them.

I don’t think Manne or Klein properly factor in the social consequences accusations of racism or sexism can inflict on someone. People can and have lost jobs and can and have been de-platformed over something they’ve said.

They, rightly, criticize Peterson and Harris for trafficking in ideas, that may be thoughtful, but could be used by hate groups to further bad objectives. But neither Manne or Klein fully own up to all the ways they are equally vulnerable to the same problems.

In Summary

Kate Manne is clearly smarter than I am, in every way possible, so it’s a little funny for me to be digging into her interview this thoroughly. This interview definitely informed my understanding of feminism.

My concern is that feminism as a whole seems to be marching down an interesting intellectual path, though with significant blind-spots. There’s too much righteous fervor, too much assurance of the rightness of their cause. Not enough concern and care for conservative criticisms. The movement dismisses its critics far too casually and caustically.

I think feminism has a tendency to be overly self-important, too self-assured, too willing to self-righteously shame others who fall short of its high-minded principles. It’s become, ironically, a bit too Victorian.

I make this criticism with tons of caveats. I need to read her book. I can certainly do more work to immerse myself more fully in the ideas offered. I am thankful for feminists. We need them. They just need to be operating more within conversations rather than shouting down “the man” at every opportunity.