Monday, 9 July 2012

Gaslighting: or emotional manipulation in action

This unintentionally (I assume) self-referential piece of garbage comes from Hugo Schwyzer:


By now, you've probably heard of "gaslighting," the increasingly popular term for the various ways in which men convince women that they're "crazy," "over-reacting," or "hysterical." Gaslighting's goal is simple: Get you to tone down that oh-so-scary lady rage that frightens the menfolk. But there's another kind of gaslighting that's almost as common and which serves the same purpose. Call it the "I'm such an asshole" speech or call it strategic self-deprecation, the end goal is always the same: deflect women's anger.

Schwyzer's claim is that men use the cultural meme that "all men are useless", beloved of advertisers and the educational establishment, as an excuse for their poor behaviour, or to garner female sympathy, or to avoid doing the housework. Maybe even to get laid. It's an argument that will presumably go down well with Jezebel's target audience of hip liberal feminists. For what does his argument amount to, other than a repackaging of the very "we men are awful" manoeuvre that he purports to explain and critique?

What's frustrating, writes Schwyzer, observing the tendency of some men to play up to the "useless man" stereotype, at least in their dealings with women:

is that a lot of that self-criticism isn't about copping to a need to change. Rather, this disparagement of men in general and the self in particular has two enduring aims: To lower women's expectations and to defuse women's anger. It's more successful at accomplishing the former.


Assume that this is true, or at least that Schwyzer believes it to be true. What does it say about him, that he's writing it for an audience of women? Surely he can't be attempting to get women to nod along with his views, to post favourable comments, to share his article, to think more favourably of him, by revealing one of the many ways in which men are shit? Surely he can't be "gaslighting"?

Referring to men who (unlike him, obviously) have nefarious motives for telling women that men are useless, or biologically incapable of fidelity, or multitasking, or whatever it happens to be, Schwyzer laments:

These guys figure that if they say truly awful things about themselves, they'll force their partners to cease the search for legitimate discussion and turn to the more traditionally feminine role of soothing male anxiety. "I'm such an asshole, I don't know why you stay with me." It often works, particularly on a woman who wants to believe she can show the guy she loves a side of himself he has never seen.

...The trajectory of these arguments is always the same. Dude progresses quickly from denial to defensiveness to, finally, brutal self-deprecation. He may blame his shortcomings on women's unrealistic expectations (inflated, he might claim, by feminism). He may blame the absence of strong male role models in his own life. Whether he means what he's saying is almost irrelevant, because whether it's real or feigned, the goal is always the same: To get the woman who's on his case to back off and swallow her own anger.


For Schwyzer, such self-deprecation is manipulation. He admits, in passing, the possibility that some men "genuinely believe (or pretend to believe) that males in general... are inferior to women." But which is it? There's all the difference in the world, after all, between genuinely believing something and pretending to do so. And while Schwyzer notes that it "isn't clear to what degree young men themselves buy into the idea of men in decline", he shows little or no interest in discovering the truth, even by way of introspection, concentrating instead on the assumption that men who badmouth their own sex in front of women must have some sneaky ulterior motive for doing so. Except, presumably, for Hugo Schwyzer himself.

Why is he so uninterested in the possibility that a large number of men actually have bought into the pervasive "men are useless" theme in modern culture? It is, after all, not difficult to see how a negative self-image might arise. This may be a deeply patriarchal and misogynist society (like Afghanistan, really, though with fewer public executions of "adulterous" women), in which men have all the power and most of the money. Yet Diane Abbott can declare on Any Questions that there should be women bishops and more women bankers because "they would make better decisions" and get loud applause for saying so. I don't think everyone who joined in that applause was a woman; nor indeed that every man who joined in was doing so out of a desire to be excused the washing-up. Imagine, though, what reaction would have greeted a male panellist who pronounced that only men could be bishops because women wouldn't be up to the job, or that however bad things were in the economy at least the big decisions were still safe in the hands of level-headed, analytical, authoritative men.

What generalisations men might make about women in all-male groups, or for that matter what women say about men in all-female groups, is of no concern here. In mixed company, and in public, the double standard is striking. Women are allowed to say that men are useless; men are expected to agree; women are frowned upon for suggesting that women are in any capacity inferior; a man who even hinted such a thing would be drummed out of town.

At the same time we all have to agree that men still have all the "privilege".

It seems to me that a great many people, women and men, have internalised these contradictory beliefs. Why would praying in aid the "useless man" stereotype work as a tactic in domestic situations, if women weren't already convinced of its truth? But Schwyzer's own argument goes even further, not just by adding manipulativeness and mendacity to the list of "masculine" vices (traits associated in traditional sexist discourse with women, of course) but by portraying them as a tactic for maintaining power over women.

Here he overreaches himself (or does he?) Women, on this analysis, are still men's victims, gullibly falling for male excuses of incompetence or emotional illiteracy. They are no match for men's mastery of the language of emotional manipulation. The poor things are helpless. They need... they need a man to look out for them, a decent man on their side to warn them of the evil tactics employed by other men. Step forward Hugo Schwyzer.