Himpathy: The (Pre-emptive) Word of the Year

"Believe Women Vs Kavanaugh" by Mobilus In Mobili liscensed under CC BY 2.0 (Via Flickr).

Editor’s Note: The confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh, the allegations against him, and the subsequent congressional hearing interviewing Dr. Blasey Ford have spurred many difficult, complex reactions. This week, we will be publishing varied perspectives on the spectrum of topics brought to the fore by Dr. Blasey’s hearing. This is the fourth article of that series.   

Judge Brett Kavanaugh has a wife and two daughters. He is also credibly accused of sexually assaulting at least one (and quite possibly more) women over the course of the last five decades. Since his nomination by Donald Trump to the open seat on the US Supreme Court, the country has watched his confirmation proceedings in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee with unusual attention. Historically, this is a governmental process typically kept separate from the spectacle of public campaigns; for Kavanaugh’s, the room has been upset by loud protesters, long speeches from politicians, and by Kavanaugh himself, whose own statement this past Thursday excoriated the press, the Democratic party, and his accusers with a surprising lack of decorum.

Some have argued that Kavanaugh’s emotional reaction is the reasonable response of an unfairly criticized public figure; as a family man and public servant, Kavanaugh’s outbursts give voice to his disgust at what Lindsey Graham called, “…the most unethical sham since I’ve been in politics…This is not a job interview; this is hell.”

To others, Kavanaugh’s statement encapsulates many of the character flaws that indicate he does not belong on the Supreme Court. As Jennifer Rubin said in the Financial Review, “If President Donald Trump loved the nasty, male grievance game, the rest of us had reason to wonder if anyone of this temperament – Cornyn, Graham or Kavanaugh – should be in a position of power. If they were women, they would be called “hysterical”.”

Enter Kate Manne.

An assistant professor of philosophy at Cornell University, Manne works on a variety of issues in the realms of moral, feminist, and social philosophy. Her first book, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, meticulously identifies and defines the nature of misogyny as a social practice (rather than an emotional state) addressing, among other things, the disparity Rubin references over how different genders are expected to behave differently in public. Manne summarizes this ‘gendered split perception’ by saying “His behavior seems normal, unremarkable, business as usual, nothing to see here. Her doing the same thing makes us wonder: what’s she hiding?” (pg. 270). When a man emotionally expresses frustration and anger, his behavior is excused, but when a woman performs identically, her behavior is judged with suspicion; for one example, consider the difference between Donald Trump’s descriptions of Kavanaugh and Hillary Clinton.

Similarly, Down Girl coins the term ‘himpathy’ to describe the unusual level of sympathy given to accused men (over and above any sympathy shown to their accusers and/or victims). In Kavanaugh’s case, himpathetic responses have ranged from pundits mocking his accusers, fabricating conspiracy theories to explain away the victims’ stories, at least one accuser moving her family into hiding for their safety, and senators suggesting that, again in the words of Lindsey Graham speaking to Kavanaugh, “She’s as much of a victim as you are.” Manne points out that even the oft-repeated refrain “he’s really a ‘good guy’” has its roots in himpathy, given that it seeks to downplay the force of the accusations for the sake of repairing the public face of the accused. In the court of public opinion, himpathy prevents the voices of women from being heard when they are opposed by that of a man.

Every year, several popular dictionaries, as well as the American Dialect Society, determine a “word of the year” that captures the zeitgeist of the previous twelve months. Although each list is independently managed, I suspect that in 2018 – which has seen the explosion of the #MeToo and Times Up movements, the growth of female political activism, and the exposure of several prominent sexual predators – it is hard to ignore the usefulness of a term naming a cultural practice now recognized to be as problematic as it is common. If this is true, then “himpathy” is a strong contender for “word of the year” across the board.

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A.G. Holdier is a graduate student at the University of Arkansas, an instructor for Colorado Technical University, and a co-host of The Story Cauldron Podcast, a weekly show about the folktales, fables, and philosophies behind popular films. His philosophical work focuses on the intersection of politics, religion, and aesthetics. Learn more at www.agholdier.com and www.thestorycauldron.com.