Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

Can men spot misogyny?


Earlier today a lovely friend of mine shared this picture in response to an objectionable arse who was trying to deny that women suffer oppression in all sorts of ridiculous ways – many of which constituted a flat-out refusal to accept the reality of women’s lived existences.
Men don't get to decide what is misogynistic.

That guy was clearly wrong to deny that women suffer from sexism, misogyny and injustice. However, the response, although common and very popular, was also wrong. We can see how wrong it is by looking at what it is premised upon and what it leads us to conclude.

  • Only Ps get to decide if Ps are suffering injustice.

This claim is made on the basis of the fact that Ps know what they experience, but other people do not. If a P claims that they suffer injustice, and a Q denies it, then the Q is wrong because they lack access to the standpoint that the P comes from. Thus:

  • Only Ps can know if Ps are suffering injustice.


  • If you are not a P, then you cannot know if a P is suffering an injustice.

If a P claims to be suffering injustice, then a Q must either accept their claim or remain agnostic; the Q cannot deny it unless another P says that Ps are not suffering an injustice. But then the Q cannot know which P is correct. If Ps disagree about whether they suffer injustice then Qs can only ever remain agnostic. If Ps can disagree about whether Ps suffer injustice, then it seems like:

  • Ps can be wrong about whether they suffer injustice.

At the same time:

  • Only a P can know if a P is wrong about suffering injustice.

So, if a P says that they suffer injustice, a Q knows that that P may be wrong, but cannot know whether they are wrong. At the same time, the Q would be wrong to say that either of the Ps is wrong about it. If another P says that the first P is wrong, then Q knows that it’s possible that either of them could be wrong, but that it would be wrong to agree with either. If Ps can be wrong about injustice, and Qs have no way of knowing whether Ps are wrong or right when they claim to be suffering injustice, then, even if all Ps agree that they suffer injustice, Qs cannot know that they do and can neither agree nor disagree with their claim. To me, this seems ridiculous.

I can see why people make the argument: women feel oppressed (because they are oppressed), but then someone says that they aren’t oppressed, and the natural response is to say ‘I know how I feel, how dare you tell me how I feel! ’ This is because being oppressed is often accompanied by feeling oppressed, and denying oppression seems like it also denies feeling, and we can’t be wrong about how we feel. But, people can be oppressed without feeling oppressed (they might not know that they are oppressed for example), and people can feel oppressed without being oppressed (they can be mistaken about being treated unjustly). The claim can also be: ‘You haven’t experienced what I have, therefore you don’t know what I do.’ – which is also true; we none of us experience what others experience. However, the fact that only we experience what we experience doesn’t make us infallible about moral claims connected with those experiences. Nor does it mean that other people can’t observe the experiences of others and correctly make moral claims about those experiences. I may not be Jewish, but I know that that the horror, indignity, and injustice written about by Primo Levi in If This is a Man was wrong, and if I met a Jew who denied the wrongness of the Holocaust I’d have no hesitation in disagreeing with him or her.

Effectively, the kind of argument I’m addressing here entwines with the subjectivist approach that says morals statements are simply statements about feelings, and we cannot be wrong about our feelings. This means that when someone says: ‘Killing is wrong’, they are really saying ‘I disapprove of killing’. Thus, when two people disagree, they are really disagreeing about how they feel, not about whether killing is wrong. We can’t be wrong about our feelings, therefore we are infallible when we make moral claims, and, what is more, we cannot disagree (so long as we sincerely report our feelings). The upshot of this kind of moral reasoning is that when someone says: ‘P say is being treated wrongly’ their statement must be true, and when someone else says ‘P is not being treated wrongly’ their statement must also be true. One is saying ‘I approve of this treatment’ the other is saying ‘I disapprove of this treatment’, but they have no basis for argument or disagreement – people can have different feelings without their being any contradiction. But, when I say ‘women are systematically treated unjustly because of their sex’ I am not expressing mere feeling, I am making a claim that women are treated wrongly regardless of whether anyone else feels differently. Simple subjectivism just doesn’t capture moral argument; we aren’t infallible when it comes to making moral statements, and we do disagree about moral claims.

Bottom line – guys denying clear injustice against women are wrong. They are factually wrong, and they are usually morally wrong too. Responding to their wrongness with unsound arguments based on subjectivism is a mistake. Doing so is actually counter-productive to the cause of advancing justice: how do we stop men from behaving unjustly, or dismantle patriarchal structures if men cannot know that injustice occurs?

Edit: it was remiss of me not to link to a couple of excellent related blog posts:


Author: Steve Cooke

I work in normative ethics, specialising in animal and environmental ethics and political philosophy.

10 thoughts on “Can men spot misogyny?

  1. People in positions of power
    don’t get to decide what is considered oppression
    that’s how we move backwards not forwards

    This is not a claim that people in power cannot have knowledge of injustice, but that allowing people in power to use that power to tell others they are not oppressed is socially regressive. Spot the difference?
    The point is not that people in power cannot see oppression, but that due to their privileged position they can choose to ignore it – so very often they do not see it.
    And this very post proves it. You are using your privilege to lecture someone less privileged on how they should and shouldn’t react to oppression (hint: bad). And you are baldly assuming your “friend” simply can’t understand the logic of it, rather than assuming that you may not have fully understood the dynamics of oppression (hint: prejudice).

    “I’m not sexist, but when women complain of sexism, I tell them they’re doing it wrong.”

    • I’m a little unclear about your point. I looks like you accept that that members outside of a particular group or category can spot injustice against those within the group. But, you claim is that those with power should not disagree with those who are oppressed. So, it looks like people with power ought not disagree with claims about injustice, even if they can tell that they are false, which is quite an odd claim.

      As for the last set of claims: I am not ‘lecturing’ my friend, I am disagreeing, and I am giving my reasons for disagreeing. I am not assuming my friend cannot understand the logic of my argument at all – because we are both a) friends and b) adults when we disagree we are capable of listening to one another and changing our views based on reasons given. What you are doing is dismissing an argument, without engaging with it in the slightest, and relying on ad hominems to do so. By ‘privilege’ you appear to mean ‘rational argument’ and by ‘prejudice’ you appear to mean ‘holding a different view to you’.

      Finally, you appear to claim that a man disagreeing with a claim made by a feminist must be sexist. Given that there are lots of different varieties of feminism, and they disagree in very significant ways, your claim would mean that a man arguing from the perspective any of those feminist perspectives would therefore be sexist. Frankly, that claim strikes me as utterly implausible.

      • Yes, I can see you don’t understand.

        If I said: “If we want to end bullying, we shouldn’t let the bullies decide what constitutes bullying”, would you disagree?

        Does it imply a bully cannot have a (reasonable) opinion on what bullying is?
        Does it imply disagreeing* with a bullied person on what is bullying, is in itself bullying?
        Does it imply that if someone is telling you they are being bullied, it might be good idea to shut up and listen?
        (Hints: no – no – yes)

        Neither mamastiles nor I are saying “you cannot have knowledge of injustice if you are not the victim” or “you cannot (reasonably) disagree with an oppressed person about what constitutes oppression. ” To pretend either of us is, is flat misrepresentation.

        Nor are you – in this post – disagreeing with anyone on what oppression is. Your post doesn’t contain any argument why something in particular is or is not oppression. Your only point is that your friend shouldn’t have *reacted* in the way she did. Unfortunately, this is *the single most common* reaction of the privileged to any and all complaints from the oppressed.

        Btw: My last sentence in the previous post simply summarises your reaction. If *you* think that is sexist (I didn’t say so), maybe you should rethink it.
        *Note that disagreeing =/= blurting out the disagreement as immediate and only reaction to their telling you this. The latter probably does constitute bullying in and of itself.

      • If someone tells me they are being bullied I might want think about whether I agree that they are being bullied. If I see someone being bullied, I might want to do something about that bullying. The position I am disagreeing with seems to end-up saying that I ought do neither. I disagree.

        My point isn’t that my friend should not have reacted in any particular way, my point is that I think some of the claims made about how we ought to respond to a very real form of oppression were false. If someone ways ‘I’m being harmed, so we ought to do X’, I can agree that they are being harmed without agreeing that we ought to do X. You seem to be suggesting that any disagreement by me is bullying and oppressive (and if you’re not being explicit, you’re certainly implying).

        You say that it’s a misrepresentation to claim that “you cannot (reasonably) disagree with an oppressed person about what constitutes oppression.” – yet it’s extraordinarily hard to read the claims in the image I’ve posted in any other way (at least not without imagining that the words written mean something other than they ordinarily do).

        Having a reasoned disagreement with moral relativism, or with constructivism, is not oppressive or an exercise of privilege. A liberal feminist disagreeing with a radical feminist’s ontology is not bullying or sexist. The argument I’ve made in the main post is pretty close to a debate feminists began having in the late 70s/early 80s – it wasn’t oppressive to have that debate then, and it isn’t oppressive to have it now either.

      • “Men don’t get to decide what is misogynistic” does not mean
        “you cannot (reasonably) disagree with what someone else thinks about it”.

        get to decide =/= have an opinion
        The “get to” implies entitlement, having the power to, and the “decide” implies it doesn’t just concern yourself, that’s why it’s not “get to believe” or “get to think”.
        get to decide = being the one(s) whose opinion counts / drowns out other opinions / who impose their view on society. And of course due to the power differential that’s exactly what has happened for centuries and still happens in men vs. women or white vs black.

        “However, the response, although common and very popular, was also wrong. We can see how wrong it is by looking at what it is premised upon […]”
        flatly contradicts your comment
        “My point isn’t that my friend should not have reacted in any particular way,”
        It may not be your “point”; it *was* what you wrote about. I encourage you to think about the fact that this is the single most common reaction of the privileged towards the oppressed. Your approach is not novel or radical, it’s what everybody does.

        Unfortunately, your idea of what mamastiles respnse is premised upon is wrong. It is a *fundamental misunderstanding* to believe that oppressed groups saying “you don’t get to decide what is oppression” are embracing the approach that moral statements are only statements about feelings.*
        They fully understand that everybody’s feelings may be different, which would make it impossible to achieve agreement. They fully understand that if the oppressor was incapable of knowing injustice they could hardly be expected to refrain from it. This is simply not what they are saying.

        They are saying that in the past the oppressors *have* imposed their views, e.g. that “separate but equal” is equal, and that now the oppressed are standing for it no longer.

        * Though they may in general feel you should respect someone’s feelings. So if someone tells you they are being bullied and you just want to “think about whether you agree” rather than empathise with their pain – which they feel regardless of whether *you* are convinced that they are really being bullied – well, that’s pretty callous.

      • Of course people who are not part of an oppressed group should not be the only people who decide how to respond to injustice. But then, I don’t think what counts as injustice and what should be done about it is subjective, so it would be incompatible with my position to argue that what counts as injustice depends upon whether a particular group says it is. But making claims about what counts as injustice and how we ought to respond to it is a different question from asking who ought to act to address it. And it’s different from examining whether particular groups have benefited from or perpetuated injustice.

        Having an opinion is not the same as imposing an opinion on society. Your argument seems to be that if someone outside of an oppressed group disagrees with someone inside an oppressed group, they should simply remain silent. If they do not, then they are engaging in oppression. But, people in oppressed groups oppress people in those groups, and they oppress people outside of those groups. We end up in a situation where nobody is permitted to challenge oppression or express disagreement. People outside of oppressed groups ought to stand up against oppression and do something about it.

        Just on the point about reaction – I thought I was clear on this: my friend’s anger, outrage, and challenge to sexism was fully warranted, but the claim that only Ps get to decide what counts as oppression against Ps is unsound. The reaction was warranted, the argument unsound – this is not a contradictory statement.

        If it were true that the claim I’m disagreeing with was merely that oppressors have historically exerted power over the oppressed & this was wrong, then there would indeed be no disagreement, but I don’t believe that’s the claim I challenge at all. What I think sits underneath the claims I challenge is that reality is personally constructed, that we ought to accept someone’s account of their experiences because they are true for them, and that to challenge someone’s claim about their injustice therefore constitutes an oppressive imposition of a competing construction of reality. These are just the sorts of claims that were made in the Consciousness-raising feminism of the 1970s and Constructivism of the 1980s, and it’s leads to what the link I provided in the post refers to as ‘identitarian deference’. If you want to say that that view is not yours, then fine – it’s not you I’m disagreeing with then.

      • Look: you “get to decide” what you write on your blog. You could tell me that I don’t “get to decide” what you write on your blog. That doesn’t mean you would be claiming I may not have an opinion, or comment on what you write without being oppressive. If I kept insisting this was what you really meant, how would you respond?

        Perhaps you could ask your friend whether she meant:
        “you are not allowed to have an opinion, or if you do you must remain forever silent on it because any kind of comment from you is oppressive” (this is the opinion you keep arguing against) or whether she meant something like:
        “for all of known history you and your kind have dictated to me and mine how we should feel and what treatment we have to put up with. I don’t care anymore whether you accept I’m being oppressed, I will not allow your denial to carry the day. Now get lost.”

      • Great; you’re arguing against something I’m not arguing for, and I’m arguing against something you’re not arguing for. Glad that’s cleared up.

      • You wrote mamastiles’ “response, although common and very popular, was also wrong.”
        I said your opinion is based on a fundamental misinterpretation of what the response means.
        If that clears it up for you, great.

      • Alas, then we disagree after all. I am engaging with a view that has been expressed in various forms for 40 years. I’ve been clear about that that view is and what it entails. You say that that view doesn’t exist, I say that it does. You also seem to be saying that the precise sentences, which are representative of the view I’m arguing against, mean something other than the words that comprise them express. Well, fine – perhaps the person who wrote those words meant something other than she appeared to mean, but the argument I’m addressing still exists and is still well represented by those words. What you have written doesn’t seem to be aimed at addressing a misconception, it appears to be telling me that I’m arguing against something entirely different than what I’m intending to argue against and what I’ve said I’m arguing against.

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