Fighting words

Note: this is post is a reworking/updating of a piece I wrote for Trouble & Strife magazine in 2014.

Remember Betty Friedan’s ‘problem that has no name’? Or Gloria Steinem recalling that in the 1960s no one talked about sexual harassment–not because it didn’t happen, but because ‘it was just called life’? Naming women’s experiences of oppression has always been an important political task. Though you don’t solve a problem just by giving it a name, naming it brings it more clearly into focus, making it easier to recognize, to analyse and to fight.

Feminists don’t always agree on what a problem should be called. We have arguments about terminology—about the difference between, say, ‘prostitution’ and ‘sex work’, or ‘gender-based violence’ and ‘male violence against women’—because we don’t think these are just empty labels. They are tools for making sense of the world, reflecting different understandings of what they name.

As times change, names may also change: in recent decades there’s been a change in the way we name forms of oppression. The radical social movements of the 1960s and 70s popularised a set of terms ending in –ism (e.g. racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableismageism, classism); many of these are still in use, but more recent social justice activism has produced another set that end in –phobia (e.g. homophobiatransphobia, Islamophobia, fatphobia, femmephobia, whorephobia). This hasn’t (AFAIK) prompted much heated debate: we don’t seem to think it matters much whether we call something an ‘ism’ or a ‘phobia’. But –ism words and –phobia words frame the problem in different ways–and that difference may not be inconsequential.

If we look at their meanings in the language as a whole, words ending in –ism most commonly name systems of ideas or beliefs–political, religious, intellectual or artistic (e.g. feminism, socialism, nationalismBuddhism, postmodernism, surrealism). Terms like sexism and racism are also names for systems. They were intended to capture the systemic nature of male or white dominance, the idea that these were not just individual prejudices, they were built into the social structure and the workings of social institutions.

Words ending in -phobia, by contrast, most commonly name clinical conditions. The first ‘phobia’ word to appear in an English-language text was hydrophobia (Greek for ‘morbid fear of water’), meaning rabies; in the 19th century the term became associated with mental rather than physical illness, and in current medical usage it names a class of anxiety disorders in which something that is not objectively a threat triggers a pathological reaction—intense fear, panic, disgust, an overwhelming desire to avoid or escape the danger. In everyday parlance the term is used more loosely: it retains the sense of ‘a pathological (over)reaction’, but the emphasis is less on uncontrollable anxiety, the main symptom of clinical phobia, and more on aversion or hatred. Terms like homophobia, transphobia and Islamophobia thus suggest that the problem is not so much social structures as individual feelings or mental states.

Does the shift from ‘isms’ to ‘phobias’ go along with a shift in our understanding of oppression? Clearly there hasn’t been a total shift: we still talk about ‘isms’, and we still (at least sometimes) think in terms of systems. But in today’s progressive discourse I do think there’s a stronger tendency to link oppression directly to feelings of antipathy–and to treat those feelings as a source of harm in their own right. If I believe you hate me for who I am, even if you do nothing about it, that oppresses me.

A version of this idea has been incorporated into the law through the concept of a ‘hate crime’, an offence which is motivated by hostility to the victim as a member of a certain social group. Such offences are seen as particularly serious because the victim is harmed twice over–not only by the act itself (e.g. a threat or an assault), but also by the hostility that motivates it. The law doesn’t criminalise hate itself, but it does treat it as an aggravating factor in cases where it motivates a crime, and directs the courts to consider imposing harsher penalties.

As I explained in a recent post, in Britain crimes against women are not currently eligible to be treated as hate crimes. Some feminists have campaigned for that to change, arguing that misogyny should have the same legal status as racism or homophobia. But there are also feminists who see this demand as misguided. The commonest crimes against women, they point out, such as domestic violence/abuse, do not fit the legal definition of a hate crime. They don’t express hostility towards women in general, but rather the perpetrator’s feeling of entitlement to dominate and control ‘his’ women. A law which treats domestic abuse as less serious than ‘misogyny hate crime’ will not deliver justice for most women.   

At a more general level, this disagreement reflects differing understandings of how women’s oppression works. It’s not that woman-hatred doesn’t exist, but if we want to understand the system feminists call patriarchy, we shouldn’t over-emphasise the role played by hate, or underestimate the contribution made by acts and practices which have other motivations. Domestic abuse is about dominance and control; many forms of workplace discrimination (e.g. not hiring female job applicants on the grounds that they might become pregnant, or paying women workers less than men) are motivated by economic self-interest. Other patriarchal practices reflect ingrained cultural beliefs about women’s nature and what’s best for them: in particular, the belief that women’s ‘natural’ role is to take care of others’ needs, and that curtailing their freedom for the benefit of others does not harm them in the same way it would harm men. This seems to be the attitude of the World Health Organisation, which was criticised last week for suggesting that women ‘of childbearing age’ should be ‘prevented’ from consuming alcohol, It’s also the attitude of men who do no housework or childcare. Hatred, in short, is not a necessary feature of oppression. Is the emphasis placed on it in current progressive discourse actually obscuring the nature of the problem?.

Another question we could ask is how this emphasis on hate might be affecting our own political culture. It’s a difficult one, because there was never a golden age when feminists didn’t criticise, attack or trash each other. (As Ti-Grace Atkinson said 50-odd years ago, ‘Sisterhood is powerful’. It kills. Mostly sisters’.) They just didn’t always do it for an audience of thousands on social media. But contemporary practices like accusing people of being ‘phobic’–harbouring irrational/pathological hatred—tend to raise the emotional temperature. When hating is thought of as the ultimate sin, or even, in the ‘phobia’ frame, something akin to a mental illness, the target of the accusation is bound to resent it–and also, perhaps, the critic’s presumption in claiming to have access to her inner feelings. The object of her alleged hate, meanwhile, may feel that since the provocation is so extreme, she is justified in fighting fire with fire–with abuse, threats, or demands for the offender to be fired/de-platformed/ostracised.   

Last week, two much-discussed pieces of writing directly addressed this issue. One was an essay in which Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recounted her own experience of being targeted after making what some considered a transphobic comment, and went on to criticise the vindictive online culture which has created a climate of fear, bad faith and self-censorship. The other was an article in which Ayesha Hazarika, a member of the Board of the UK women’s rights organisation Fawcett, described current feminist debates on sex and gender as ‘fights to the death of [sic] who can scream and shame the loudest’. I don’t think that’s universally true. But I do think the contemporary tendency to label anything anyone takes exception to as ‘phobic’ or ‘hate speech’ encourages more extreme and more emotion-based responses. These labels function like ‘fighting words’, provoking or escalating conflict.

The debate Hazarika discusses is relatively recent, but many much older political arguments among feminists (some, indeed, as old as feminism itself) have come to be conducted in the same accusatory language. Familiar criticisms of make-up and high heels draw complaints of ‘femmephobia’; concerns about sexual practices like ‘breath play’ (aka choking) are denounced as ‘kinkphobia’; feminists who oppose the sex industry are accused of ‘whorephobia’. Will reframing them in this way resolve these long-running disagreements? Do the new terms shed any new light, or do they just generate (even) more heat?    

The terminology of oppression has always had a tendency to rely on analogies between different forms of it. The term sexism, for instance, was modelled on racism: many women who became active in US second wave feminism drew inspiration from their prior experience in the civil rights movement, and from the parallels they perceived between Black people’s situation and their own situation as women. This tendency has continued in the age of the internet meme, a unit of meaning which replicates rapidly, generating new variations as it goes. The recent proliferation of ‘phobias’ is one product of that process.

But the analogies are always imperfect (many commentators have criticised 1960s feminists for overstating the parallels and underplaying the differences between sexism and racism) and as they multiply they may become progressively less illuminating. For instance, it’s not hard to see the logic of labelling prejudice against lesbians and gay men homophobia: some of the forms it commonly takes do exhibit the irrational loathing and disgust the word ‘phobia’ brings to mind. But it’s harder to see why the devaluation of ‘feminine’ things should be called femmephobia. Who feels loathing or disgust when confronted with, say, a lipstick or a Barbie doll? Whorephobia is even less apt: suggesting that feminists who oppose the sex trade do so because they hate the women who work in it is like suggesting that anyone who criticises Tesco or Amazon must hate checkout operators and warehouse workers.

‘Hate’, to me (and probably to most people) is a strong word, but in some circles it and its derivatives (‘hate group’, ‘hate speech’) are used so freely, and with such a broad range of reference, it’s hard to connect the emotional charge of the word with what it’s being used to describe. A lot of this hyperbolic hate-talk is probably just unreflective habit; but that doesn’t mean we can’t stop to reflect on what it means and what it does. In my own opinion it would be no bad thing if we were more selective about what we label ‘hate’, and what we pathologize as ‘phobia’.