Words have power. Power given to them by their social and cultural context.
Different words have different strengths and will produce different reactions from people; for example, if I call someone a “dummy” they generally won’t get too upset, but if I call them a “f*cking idiot” there’s going to be a strong reaction from most people. The reason these two words produce different results is because of how often they’re used and when they’re used. The receiver understands the weight these words carry, and reacts according to that weight.
But, what if I call my friend a “f*cking idiot” all the time? Eventually, that term will lose its strong meaning and come to have a weaker meaning similar to “dummy”. This is just human nature- we get used to hearing something and slowly it becomes part of the normal background noise of life. It loses power, and even its meaning.
This is bad because it means when I need to use the stronger term to emphasize that something important is happening or to really make myself understood it isn’t there anymore. I’ve used it. Just like The Boy Who Cried Wolf- when he sounded the alarm too many times, people stopped coming or caring, and when he really needed it, it was too late.
And this is what’s happened to the word “misogyny”.
Misogyny, which literally means “hatred of women”, used to be a very powerful word in the feminist arsenal. And rightly so- it was used to describe cases of extreme sexism where the hatred of women was so strong it was violent or abusive. To call someone a misogynist was equal to calling them a Nazi, and saying they were the lowest type of human being, bordering on evil. If a woman cried “misogyny!” and pointed at something, other women listened, and it was like a battle cry for the feminist cause.
It was a rare word, a powerful word, and one which drew attention to great injustice.
Sadly, that is no longer the case.
Today on my social media pages, it’s almost a strange day when I don’t see the word “misogyny” somewhere in my feed. My more feminist friends are constantly linking to articles with that word liberally used within them, and the internet is filled with articles using it. (1.3 million hits on Google, and counting!) As a result, the word is very rapidly going from “hatred of women” to mean “stuff some women don’t like” in the popular internet consciousness.
We have a whole generation of young women growing up thinking the words Sexism (favouritism or preference towards one sex) and Misogyny are the same words, when they’re not at all. The majority of the discrimination women face is Sexist, not Misogynist, because it’s not coming from a place of hatred so much as a place of unfair attitudes towards gender roles in society. A toy maker or TV show producer who chooses only to target a male audience is being sexist, they’re giving preference to one sex, they’re not being misogynist. (Unless you can show they have made clear statements that they in some way actively hate or dislike women or girls.) And, calling them Misogynist does more harm than good because it dilutes the meaning of the word even further.
But, who cares, right? They’re being unfair, and it doesn’t matter what word we use to target them!
The problem is, it does matter.
The more you use it, the more it fades into the background, and the easier it becomes for people to just ignore. It takes on a cultural meaning of “noisy feminist stuff” and no longer gains the attention it deserves when it’s used in a proper context. And this is a shame, because it’s a strong word and a good word to have when fighting for social justice, but only if it’s properly used.
After all, when it loses all meaning, who will come when the cry is made?