President Trump has weighed in on the sexual-assault allegations against his Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh: “I feel so badly for him that he’s going through this, to be honest with you,” Trump told reporters. “This is not a man that deserves this.” Conservative radio host Erick Erickson called it “character assassination.” At the same time, a number of conservative women have defended Kavanaugh on TV and Twitter under the hashtag #IStandWithBrett. One woman decried accuser Christine Blasey Ford‘s Senate testimony and warned against “gender favoritism;” another fretted about America’s sons being falsely accused. On MSNBC, a mother of two daughters said that girls being groped by high-school boys was “not a big deal.”
It all amounts to a phenomenon that Cornell philosophy professor Kate Manne has dubbed “himpathy.”
What is himpathy?
Himpathy is “the inappropriate and disproportionate sympathy powerful men often enjoy in cases of sexual assault, intimate partner violence, homicide and other misogynistic behavior,” says Manne, who coined the term in her book “Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny.”
Trump’s doubled- and tripled-down defense of Kavanaugh was no surprise — he usually sides with an accused male instead of the female accuser — but himpathy is a reflex for many. “I think the rush to take Kavanaugh’s perspective sympathetically and the way that it comes at the expense of a female perspective is symptomatic of something much broader and really pathological in our culture,” Manne recently told Vox. “The fact that the male perspective is primary in our culture causes a lot of hostility toward women who come forward and testify against them in these cases, offering a challenge to their otherwise good names or hitherto good reputations.”
Particularly insidious, says Manne, is that himpathy is often practiced by women. There is a “tendency of women to fall into this same trap, to reflexively take the side and perspective of the powerful male over that of his less powerful female victim,” she says. “They’re committed to upholding his reputation and supporting him using whatever rationale comes to hand.”
Other infamous examples of himpathy include the case of Stanford swimmer Brock Turner, who received an uncommonly light sentence for raping a woman; his athletic achievements and bright future were put forth in court by his defense attorney. And there is Trump himself, who was accused of sexual harassment by 16 women before the 2016 election and still received 52 percent of the white female vote.
How to override himpathy? “Part of what will help and get us into a less patriarchal society is for people to be more critical of their own gendered instincts and thereby raise the consciousness of others,” says Manne. “It’s tricky because emotions like sympathy and empathy are good for society, and important to being a good person, but these emotions can lead us astray if we’re not aware of what’s driving them. So we have to be hypercritical of our own moral reactions as potentially misogynistic or racist or whatever, and then make an effort to correct them.”