Don’t say ‘misogyny’
'This isn’t an essay about trans rights or what it means to be a woman. It is an essay about how language shapes the way we see each other, and language reaches far beyond the trans debate.'
On what should have been a boring Wednesday morning, TikToker and trans activist Jeffrey Marsh wakes up to a death threat. Jeffrey is posting videos about trans identities and acceptance on TikTok, and uses words like “non-binary” and “cis gendered,” giving linguistic expression to experiences that previously have had no language. It’s enough for someone to want them dead.
In another part of the United States, on a hot day in June, right-wing commentator Matt Walsh is faced with a threat to his life so plausible that he is prompted to call the police. It comes at the heels of his documentary What is a Woman, where he ties the definition of “woman” to biological traits and questions the validity of trans experiences. He uses terms like “gender ideology” and “the Left,” speaking to his followers about what he perceives to be indoctrination, far removed from biological reality. The documentary is enough to make someone want him dead.
Both Marsh and Walsh are considered by many as a voice for good. But how can we hear either of them when we live in a world so polarized, we no longer speak the same language?
This isn’t an essay about trans rights or what it means to be a woman. It is an essay about how language shapes the way we see each other, and language reaches far beyond the trans debate. From “mask hysteria” to “ableism,” expressions not only affect our perception of the phenomenon described; they affect what we think of the person making the statement. They place this person squarely inside a group of people we already have an opinion about.
Such stock phrases do not represent a neutral description of reality; they enhance a part of it from a specific point of view; they take a polemic position and make moral judgements based on this position. And we reach for them instinctively, almost like a shield against our opponent’s opinions: “#Sexist!”
Perspectives on Phraseology
When left-leaning people like me encounter phrases like “fake news” or “deep state,” we stop listening. These expressions strip away any curiosity we might have had about the argument. They feel like a gimmick, a weapon, void of any content. Yet we fall into the same trap when we make our own case, prompting opponents to roll their eyes, or worse, to dismiss everything we have to say from then on. That is why “misogyny” won’t make Megxit-criticizers believe in the plight of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle any more than “sustainability” will inspire republicans to live eco-friendly lives.
Back on YouTube, Matt Walsh makes it clear that death threats do not deter him. If anything, they make him more radicalized. But as he blasts his distaste for the “gay agenda” on every platform, all we hear is a close-minded right winger unable to appreciate the full spectrum of human experiences, who misinterprets our insistence as indoctrination. Jeffrey Marsh, meanwhile, fills his TikTok with come backs to his “cis gendered” attackers, and all they see is a naïve show-off who blindly repeats the libs’ fancy new vocabulary.
Women who wish to travel are forced to share irrelevant and intimate details about their private lives.
The problem is that these words aren’t arguments; they are, at best, the result of a line of arguments that we have skipped. When we use these expressions, we avoid explaining why we think what we think. We take for granted the existence of a “patriarchy” but will not bring our opponents to that realization by banging the word on the table. In the same way, we’re not inclined to believe in a “deep state” simply because we hear it often. And even if we take the time to explain the meaning of “sustainability,” it is likely that our opponent has stopped taking us seriously the minute that word has left our lips.
Granted, we should all say what we mean and express ourselves in a way that feels natural. But let us stop and think why we participate in a debate. Is it to exchange ideas? Is it to gain insight into someone else’s world view? Is it so that harmful ideas will not stand unopposed? Or is it to convince the opponent of our own point of view?
Whatever the case, it is worthwhile to look for alternative words which might justify, and thereby render superfluous, our loaded stock phrases. Instead of stating that “the patriarchy is alive and well,” we could say that we are living in a society where most of the power lies in the hands of adult men, and this is what we wish to challenge.
Norwegian men as an export item
Clearly this is both mentally taxing and time consuming; we are forcing ourselves to be specific and transparent, making it easier for the opponent to bring counter arguments. We may also have to back up our claims with facts. And when we articulate our opinions in different words, we might realize that our understanding of something was fuzzy, or that connections we thought we saw, do not exist.
So, if our motivation for debate participation is more than to receive simple accolades from our echo chamber [another stock phrase], we’d be well advised not to push people away with verbal daggers, because we know in our hearts that they might read our argument to its end if they never came across the word “mansplaining,” like we would theirs if we never came across “woke.”
I write this, not because I want to silence or “polish” people like Jeffrey Marsh, or to suggest that the hatred they receive is caused by their language. I write it because I want them to have a voice, and to be taken seriously by people who might not otherwise listen to them. But I also write it because I want people like Matt Walsh to keep participating in our public debate. Few things are more dangerous than extremist views gone underground. But if we’re going to argue with him, we must speak the same language.
The opinion piece was first published at rappler.com February 1 2023.