One of the problems facing feminist discourse in the United States (it probably exists in other places, but I’m speaking from my own experience) is a conflation of action, intention and identity. Which is to say, when an action is deemed sexist or in some way problematic, it is almost automatically assumed by the public at large that this is an ascription of malicious intent, along with a deeming of the person at fault to be in some way a fundamentally bad person. It probably began with Locke, when in a single sentence of the Second Treatise on Government, he discusses a murder, and then calls the perpetrator a murderer. It’s also probably a cognitive bias of some kind. Whatever the source, this phenomenon undermines the ability of feminists to engage in criticism of actions or messages found in the broader culture, since these frequently stem from the choices of a single individual or organized group, and such entities tend not to take kindly to being called sexist, misogynistic, privileged, or something similar.
To take a familiar example, the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case brought out a great deal of vitriol on all sides, and opened the door to the West thinking about how it reacts to rape, sexual assault, accusations of these and attitudes towards women in general. A focal point of analysis has been the impassioned and at times bizarre defense of Strauss-Kahn by friends and supporters such as the French philosopher Bernard Henri Levy, who claimed that the accusation of nonconsensual sex was questionable because cleaning women do not clean rooms alone, and especially not the room of someone so famous. If we were playing with jargon, we would call this victim-blaming, decry it as the sexist blatherings of a sexist pig and jump into an analysis of rape culture. All of those things may in fact be the case, but it occurs to me that it doesn’t necessarily do an enormous amount of good outside of a particular community to brand the man as a sexist.
A priori, it’s sort of an odd approach to make allusions about someone’s internal psychology rather than outright criticize their behavior. It works quite well if the intent is to demonize, but perhaps less so if the desire is to inform and educate the broader public. Furthermore, such a strategy puts the subject of condemnation on the defensive (since one success of feminism has been to make being a sexist a legitimately terrible thing to be), encouraging them to hold their ground and fight back rather than admit fault. In a situation where their actions were being censured, they could apologize without an intolerable loss of pride, whereas in the face of personal attacks, there is little middle ground. More broadly, while the in-group might be galvanized and inspired to fight, there is no room for support from the outside without a passing of this rather extreme gauntlet. If other feminists feel as I do, that being a feminist should be somewhat like not being a racist, an obvious fact of being a moral human being in modern society, then the most inclusive approach is probably to lay out the claims being made about the negative effects of Levy’s speech and attitudes, argue fiercely for them, and thereby open the door to a discussion of the problematic nature of his argument without engaging in an unproductive analysis of the kind of person he is.
From a philosophical point of view, I also question the meaningfulness of calling someone something like a sexist or a misogynist. Does that mean that nothing they say in the future about women or gender should be listened to? Does it mean that they have negative attitudes towards women? Which ones? How many does it take to be a certifiable sexist? The words are clearly important, and carry a great deal of weight, but it simply doesn’t seem to me to be of much use for future thought to know that someone is a sexist rather than, for example, has a history of saying sexist things, or statements that apologize for rape, etc.
If we take this thought to its full extension, it also opens up a new way of looking at accusations of sexism in general. If we are questioning a hiring practice, a movie or a vice presidential choice, it would be easy enough to ask about intent, about whether the actor (broadly construed) was or is a sexist, whether they have intentions to undermine women, whether people have a ‘right’ to be offended, what is a reasonable level of sexism it might be better to ignore and whether it’s worth fighting. But all of these seem as tangential to the central issue that feminists care about (here thought of as the position of women as a political group, and the empowerment of that group, though of course that’s up for debate) as whether or not Henri Bernard Levi, in his heart of hearts, thinks the maid could not be a victim because she should have had a brigade partner. The questions of names, labels and definitions distract from the main problem: harm. Harm done to women because they are women, or to people because they are associated with women or femininity. When we look at the world around us, what people are saying and doing and promoting, we want to know whether they will cause undue harm to women, and if they do, they should be opposed, and if they do not, then it’s not a relevant fight. Everything else seems completely besides the point.
From an activist standpoint, it might make sense to paint an opponent as evil or demonic. That tactic, however, has many pitfalls, and in trying to appeal to likely allies, there are many reasons, psychological and empirical, why it might be better to address the tangible effects of sexism and rape culture and misogyny. Best of all, we avoid entirely the mires of definitions and stick to what we can prove.