Cohen accused Knowles of misogyny in a piece he’d written about Laurie Penny, and then neatly segued into an overarching condemnation of the way female columnists are treated in comparison to their male counterparts.
Nick Cohen was right when he accused journalists of finding “a special thrill in attacking women who write forcefully about politics”, but I don’t agree that Daniel Knowles was particularly misogynistic. No matter though; because this piece isn’t about either of them. This piece is about us.
Almost as soon as the piece was published, “Nick Cohen” started trending on Twitter. Clicking on the topic revealed scores of men and women sharing and praising his article; congratulating him for “nailing” the subject.
Did he really? Funny; because I seem to remember contributing to a piece on the New Statesman a few weeks ago on this very subject. I remember Laurie Penny herself doing a better job of “nailing” it with her own piece a few days later. And, if I’m not mistaken, the Guardian asked four women to join a panel discussion about online misogyny that very same week.
Maybe I imagined all that: maybe it didn’t happen. After all, it didn’t trend on Twitter when women pointed it out; and if I remember rightly, a great deal of respondents told us to stop being so weak. Brendan O’Neill — God love him — even dedicated an entire column to it.
How strange, then, that Cohen’s piece should be the subject of such adulation. How unfathomable it is that his opinion should be lauded more than those for whom misogyny is a lived experience. It seems, as one Twitter user put it to me, that when “feminist women call sexism they are portrayed as killjoys; when feminist men do it, they are portrayed as white knights riding to the aid of defenceless women.”
The thing about living in a structurally sexist society — yes, a patriarchy if you’re not afraid of that old hoary term — is that sometimes sexism happens without anyone even registering. It’s not all Zoo magazine and “calm down dear” — in fact it rarely is. Most of the time, it’s just arduous, exhausting daily life. Most of the time it’s men getting congratulated for saying the same things women have written about, debated, and received abuse for.
In 2009, an activist blogger called Chris Crass wrote about his experience of being told he was guilty of sexism. His female friend told him:
You cut me off when I’m talking. You pay more attention to what men say. The other day when I was sitting at the coffee shop with you and Mike, it was like the two of you were having a conversation and I was just there to watch. I tried to jump in and say something, but you both just looked at me and then went back to your conversation.
Crass went on to describe sexism in the activist group he was part of. He relays the moment where the women of the group try to explain the sexism they’ve experienced, and says “the discussion quickly turned into women defending themselves, defending their understandings of their own experiences”.’
His account is ratified by reams of sociological research. In 1998, sociologist Senta Trömel-Plötz wrote, “Men, the speakers of the dominant style, have more rights and privileges. They exhibit their privileges and produce them in every conversational situation.”
Don’t get me wrong: there are feminist reasons to praise Nick Cohen’s article. After all, we’ll never smash the patriarchy until men start brandishing metaphorical hammers as well. But the congratulations he received weren’t simply a result of him dipping his toe in the feminist water. It was relief: because now a man has condemned misogyny online, we women can be confident it’s actually real.
With all due respect to Nick Cohen, I don’t need him to tell me sexism is a problem. The twentysomething years I have inhabited this planet have taught me that. But I’m glad he threw his hat in the ring, because what he said was important. It’s also, unintentionally, a reminder of how far feminism has to go.