Fintan O’Toole: There will always be a market for misogyny
Cod-Darwinism touted by those who dismiss gender equality does not stack up
If anything good can come from the painful results of Kevin Myers’s now infamous column in last Sunday’s Sunday Times, it is that many people who take sexist language for granted have been forced to think about it. The column was essentially an attack on the idea that women are equal to men. But this was not in itself seen as a problem by his employers. The Sunday Times, in its two statements on the affair, made no apology for (or even acknowledgment of) this argument. Myers himself, in his subsequent radio interviews, apologised profusely (and with obvious sincerity) for his use of anti-Semitic tropes. But he stood over his broader argument in the column and strongly denied that he is any way misogynistic. This self-belief is also sincere. But it is wrong.
In the column, Myers blew himself up because he strayed off the familiar path of least resistance (insulting those who do not enjoy his own privileges) into the minefield of anti-Semitic stereotypes. This was an accident. But there was nothing accidental about his use of another far-right trope and his application of it to the notion of gender equality.
The central tenet of far-right thought has always been that equality is a degenerate illusion – there is only the primal Darwinian struggle in which the weak go to the wall and the fittest survive and triumph. The core of Myers’s column is a reiteration of this “reality” to justify the unequal treatment of women, primarily by the BBC but, by implication, in society as a whole. Women go to the wall because they are no good at the Darwinian game. Men triumph because they play it properly.
All of this is quite explicit. “Equality is a unicorn” – in other words, it does not exist. Inequality – in this case the unequal treatment of women – is therefore natural and inevitable. Women, instead of “wailing and shrieking”, should accept the law of the survival of the fittest: “Get what you can with whatever talents you have.” And, if what you get is the shitty end of the stick, shut up about it.
To understand how misogynistic this is, we have to take it in its own terms. Let’s accept, even though it is nonsense, that there is only an endless evolutionary struggle for dominance. How, in Myers’s terms, could women ever win it? They couldn’t – because those terms are nothing but a series of traps designed to catch female ambition while letting the male version pass on to its well-deserved triumph.
The bogus nature of the “argument” is immediately obvious from its treatment of childbearing. If blind evolutionary drives are to be the main organising principle of society, basic logic would suggest that the primary instinct is the survival of the species. This being so, giving birth to children would be understood as an activity to be rewarded, supported and encouraged. But because it is women who do this, this logic has to be inverted. When it doesn’t suit male dominance, the cod-Darwinism that supports the whole thesis goes out the window. Or rather, it is turned back on women: women have only themselves to blame when they are paid less than the men because the men “seldom get pregnant”. What should we call it when someone upends his own argument purely to justify female biological inferiority? Misogyny seems a good word.
Ploughing on, we encounter the evolutionary characteristics that, according to Myers, fit men better for the eternal struggle. One, that “they work harder”, is so ludicrous that it need not detain us, except to note the irony of the claim appearing in a column whose author now admits to not thinking very hard about even as he was writing it. The second is that they are “more charismatic”. But charisma isn’t a natural trait – it is a matter of perception. And you have to be wilfully blind not to know that charisma in the workplace is a matter of gender. A domineering, self-centred, demanding, entitled man is charismatic. A woman with the same traits is a monstrous harridan.
Which brings us to the most Darwinian term of all: men succeed because they are “more driven” than women. Can there be a more loaded word? A man who elbows his way to the top and walks over the fallen bodies of his rivals is showing that he has drive. There is a different word for a woman who does the same. She is a bitch. But then this is what this whole linguistic game is about. Myers “argues” that women can succeed only when they act like men – or at least a caricatured version of manhood favoured by a particular variety of creep. But of course he doesn’t really believe they can: as he told Seán O’Rourke on RTÉ: “Men are driven by urges women don’t have.” Hence the trap: the girls can succeed only if they are as “driven” as the boys, but since they don’t have those drives at all, the real message is that they can never succeed at all and should stop whining about it. Men are always going to be better at manning up than women. It’s only natural.
The column itself embodies these double standards. It is hysterical to – and beyond – the point of incoherence . It might fairly be called an extended exercise in “wailing and shrieking”. But of course those are female characteristics: one of the things Myers wails and shrieks about at the height of his indignation is female columnists’ “indignant words of smouldering mediocrity”. When Myers does it, it’s heroically male truth-telling. If a woman did it (and in fact I cannot think of a female columnist in Ireland who has ever been granted such well-paid licence to rehearse prejudice), it would be proof of female emotional instability.
And if women do succeed in spite of all these traps? There are too bloody many of them. Myers tells women to forget equality and man up – but then complains in the column about “the ubiquity of Miriam O’Callaghan and Claire Byrne on the airwaves, including the weather, the ploughing championships and the Angelus”. Presumably they succeeded by being more driven than men and, um, not having babies (or at least keeping it to eight). But in the misogynistic mindset, a woman can never be right – even when she does what men like Myers tell her to do.
Prejudice depends on such ludicrous inconsistencies. But it always has a purpose: to make inequalities rooted in centuries of oppression seem entirely natural and to blame the victims for their inferior situation. Those who benefit from these inequalities love nothing better than to be told that they deserve everything they have because the world is a jungle and they are the key predators. Myers may be gone, but so long as this is the case, there will always be a market for misogyny.