In her 2017 book, “Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny” Cornell philosophy professor Kate Manne coined a new term, “himpathy”. Like “mansplaining” and “manspreading” before it, other new words that entered the feminist lexicon giving women a word for something they long experienced but struggled to articulate, himpathy was quickly embraced by women the world over.
It is the “inappropriate and disproportionate sympathy powerful men often enjoy in cases of sexual assault, intimate partner violence, homicide, and other misogynistic behaviour”. Manne describes it as “misogny’s oft-overlooked and equally pernicious underbelly: exonerating or showing himpathy for the comparatively privileged men who dominate, threaten, and silence women.”
And along with “himpathy”, a quick glance around, according to Manne, reveals no shortage of so-called “himpathizers”, men and women who are dogged supporters of the systems and structures that maintain men’s power and pervert the course of justice for those they abuse.
So when many ask, “What was Prince Andrew thinking?” in reference to that now infamous car crash interview he gave over the weekend with the BBC Programme Newsnight presented by Emily Maitlis, I have a sneaking suspicion that, consciously or unconsciously, it was himpathy on his mind – and society’s seemingly endless reserves of it. In fact, I think he was banking on a particularly deep royal reserve of it.
But, if there is one lesson we can all take away from that interview and the overwhelming response to it, it’s this: perhaps powerful men have finally – finally – exhausted the limits of our collective himpathy.
That would, indeed, be a welcome change after recent, indulgent displays of it.
I give you the Stanford rapist Brock Turner sentenced to a mere six months in jail by a judge who cited his fathers’ positive character reference and plea that his son should not be punished for “20 minutes of action”.
I give you Harvey Weinstein’s supporters booing and heckling a female comic who called out the (alleged) rapist elephant in the room after Weinstein turned up unannounced at a stand-up night for up-and-coming performers in New York earlier this year. Poor Weinstein, a representative said, invoking a need for would-be himpathisers to understand the poor man was just “trying to find solace in his life that has been turned upside down”.
Here in Australia, I give you Seven’s soft focus Sunday Night interview with Barnaby Joyce and his new partner Vikki Campion last year, in which he was given ample opportunity to discuss the terrible strain his own infidelity had put him under (poor Barnaby), but there was no mention of the allegations of sexual harassment levelled at him by rural advocate and businesswoman Catherine Marriott. I’ll just add that should anyone wonder where we might find a high concentration of himpathisers, perhaps the good people of New England’s choice to re-elect Joyce after his affair and the allegations of sexual misconduct became public knowledge might give us a clue.
Yet, however soul-destroying these recent examples might be, there’s hope for us yet. Manne suggested we might be approaching a “himpathy reckoning” following Brett Kavanaugh’s fraught confirmation to the US Supreme Court, which saw Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault, subjected to hours of gruelling testimony and cross-examination while US President Donald Trump went on and on about how Kavanaugh was “not a man who deserves this”.
Maybe we had reached peak “himpathy”?
We’re in a moment during which himpathy is so thoroughly on display, in such a public way, that the time is ripe to push for a mass moral reckoning,” Manne wrote in the New York Times. Shame Prince Andrew didn’t get the memo.
A powerful man credibly accused of sexual misconduct and his himpathisers will erase or dismiss the perspective of his accusers, which is exactly what Prince Andrew did when asked about Epstein’s many victims and specifically about the then 17 year old Virginia Roberts Giuffre’s claim that she was forced to have sex with Prince Andrew.
“I have no recollection of ever meeting this lady, none whatsoever,” he said. When asked if he had a message for Giuffre, he replied: “I don’t have a message for her because I have to have a thick skin”. When asked if he had any guilt, regret or shame about any of his behaviour and his friendship with Epstein, he responded, “it had some seriously beneficial outcomes in areas that have nothing … to do with what I would describe as what we’re talking about today.”
Most damningly, Prince Andrew couldn’t even bring himself to say the words sexual abuse, instead suggesting Mr. Epstein was guilty of “conduct unbecoming”.
How could he, you ask? Why wouldn’t he, I say. It’s right out of the himpathy handbook.
But the swift condemnation of the British establishment, the media and palace, including the Queen herself, who yesterday agreed the Prince should “step back” from public duty, is perhaps the clearest indication yet that Manne’s predicted, or at least much hoped for, himpathy reckoning may be upon us.
Just over two years on from #MeToo going viral – two years that have seen repeated calls for “culture change” – and a week after #MeToo founder Tarana Burke travelled to Australia to accept the Sydney Peace Prize on behalf of the movement, a visit in which she echoed such calls for change, maybe we’re finally getting somewhere.
Kristine Ziwica tweets @KZiwica