Kate Manne writes that sexism is the set of social norms underlying patriarchy. These norms are internalized and deemed natural and inevitable. When people violate those precepts, misogyny kicks in. It mobilizes to defend the sexual hierarchy under threat. Donald Trump, she argues, is a misogynist rather than a moral conservative. In his view, women’s place is not in the home but wherever they please Trump: on their knees providing sexual benefits, or in his C-suite providing business benefits.
Manne is on target when she argues that Trump speaks as a male dominant. But what is easy to overlook is that he is also a white dominant, a Christian dominant, an American dominant, an able-bodied dominant, and so on. Manne gestures at this eloquently. “To make American white men feel great again is Trump’s implicit promise,” she writes. “This will involve casting others down the relevant social hierarchies.” But this is only the first step toward noting a key feature of misogyny: it tends to be entangled with the motivation to dominate others in general, whomever they might be. Trump exhibits a classic case of what psychologists call social dominance orientation (SDO).
Social dominance theory explains sexism as well as racism, xenophobia, and even ableism.
Jim Sidanius and Felicia Pratto, who developed social dominance theory, start from the premise that, in market societies, some groups accumulate more power, resources, and respect. Their members, Sidanius and Pratto argue, tend disproportionately to value hierarchy and aggressively maintain it. They don’t care who is on the bottom, or how the bottom is defined, as long as they are on top. To measure SDO, surveys ask respondents to evaluate statements such as, “To get ahead in life, it is sometimes necessary to step on other groups.”
Social dominance theory explains sexism as well as racism, xenophobia, and even ableism (witness Trump’s pantomime of a reporter with muscular dystrophy). These isms justify social hierarchy; the corresponding action polices it.
People who score high on SDO are aggressive because they are social Darwinists. If they lose their position, they will end up on the bottom—a bad place to be if one believes that the world is a dog-eat-dog place. SDO is rooted in the sense that if one is not on top, one will not survive. This explains why, as Manne says, misogyny “wields a cudgel.”
Social dominants are not prejudiced, per se. They do not hate or dislike the groups they dominate so long as those groups provide resources, power, or respect. In fact they greatly value subordinate groups that exhibit strength—when that strength is controlled by and serves the dominant group. They don’t stereotype out of prejudice; they stereotype in order to efficiently exploit. Their discrimination is strategic.
This does not mean that social dominants are not moralistic. Trump reacts with disgust to imaginary contamination from women’s bodily fluids, whether blood from a woman’s “wherever” or Hillary Clinton’s mid-debate bathroom break. The socially dominant moralize about attempts to cross the boundary between dominant and subordinate and respond to such efforts with disgust. Disgust is a moral emotion. Those prone to feelings of disgust are more likely to be opposed to abortion, immigration, and helping people of lower status—especially when they are perceived to be “contaminated” by, for example, dirt, disease, or blood. Manne is right to see moralism in many forms of misogyny, but she fails to see it in Trump’s.
The other moralized emotion related to misogyny, as Manne suggests, is resentment. Social dominants resent those who violate a hierarchy because the violators have encroached upon their entitlement. Superiors deserve more, their thinking goes, so when subordinates claim rights or resources, they are viewed as violating a moral order. Social dominance has a morality, but it is not traditionalism. The moral code of social dominance is hierarchy. Women who claim a right to autonomy violate this notion of justice: the top deserves deference, control, and the means to maintain them, while the bottom deserves only the resources that the top metes out as reward for service. Manne shows how this works for gender hierarchy. It means that misogyny, too, has a moral edge.
Thus both sexism and misogyny express the same underlying motive: maintaining hierarchy—of any kind. In more subtle forms, social dominants defend hierarchy with sophisticated legitimating ideologies. In less subtle forms, they defend it with a cudgel, but even so, it is a moralizing one.