Content warning: this post discusses rape threats and misogynistic abuse
A pattern has developed in mainstream political discourse: white woman politicians and paid hacks keep experiencing misogyny.
Oh, and there’s other things going on in the background: legitimate criticisms, indefensible actions, racism, literal wars… I could go on, but hey, let’s focus on the fact some egg on twitter called the subject a bitch.
There are approximately 800 million examples of this going on, from the decision to bomb Syria (which led to some of those who decided it was cool to kill loads of children with expensive missiles to receive rape threats) to a petition to sack an incredibly biased boss at the BBC being shared with accompanying misogynistic comments.
I suspect what’s going on here is something called “dead cat politics“, which floppy-haired twatbanana Boris Johnson–himself a heavy user of the tactic–explains:
“The facts are overwhelmingly against you, and the more people focus on the reality the worse it is for you and your case.
“Your best bet in these circumstances is to perform a manoeuvre that a great campaigner describes as ‘throwing a dead cat on the table, mate’.”
Going on to describe the manoeuvre he explains: “The key point, says my Australian friend, is that everyone will shout ‘Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!’; in other words they will be talking about the dead cat, the thing you want them to talk about, and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief.”
In this situation, the misogyny is the dead cat. And let us be clear: the dead cat is actually present. There is misogyny going on. It is just that the misogyny is levelled as a distraction from issues they don’t want you talking about. Receiving rape threats doesn’t change the fact that it is wrong to choose to drop bombs on children, it simply shifts the discussion away from the inherent wrongness of dropping bombs on children. Using misogynistic language does not change the important discussion about bias from a public broadcaster, it merely deflects away from what we ought to be talking about.
It is worth noting at this juncture that the dead cat tactic only works for some people–in my first sentence, I mentioned that it is white women who use this. This is perhaps linked to the white woman tears phenomenon, an example of privilege that white women hold under white supremacy. They are also invariably cis, and middle-class.
Very frequently, when the misogyny dead cat is thrown at the table, a particular name comes up, condemning it: a Labour MP called Jess Phillips. Now, Phillips herself clearly has an agenda at play: as a Blairite, her vicious politics are slowly dying on their arse, and she’d rather we didn’t notice, so tends to fall down on the wrong side. She also demonstrably does not care about misogyny when it is not afflicting white women with whom she agrees. Phillips remains notoriously tight-lipped whenever misogynoir (the intersections of misogyny and antiblack racism) is thrown at her colleague Diane Abbott, and in fact has gleefully perpetrated it herself.
I use Phillips as an example of this problem, not the sole source: if I went into every single example of white women having an incredibly specific model of misogyny we’d all grow old and die. What matters is that misogyny is more than just a white woman receiving misogynistic tweets: but the dead cat always looks like the Angry Trolls On Twitter, Poor White Women.
There are ultimately three tactics for dealing with dead cat politics, of varying functionality. Some may be more effective for dealing with the dead cat of misogyny than others.
1. Drop the dead cat under the table: In this scenario, where the distraction tactic is attempted, just ignore it and attempt to steer the conversation back to what it was. Unfortunately, this has limited use, with an unsympathetic media who are profoundly fond of pushing the Online Spaces Are Misogynistic narratives because the internet is kind of killing their filthy industry. They will continue yelling that there is still a dead cat under the table, and they’re right about that.
2. Throw the dead cat right back at them: This can work under very specific situations, especially with politicians. Look at their voting records: did they, for example, vote for laws which would make abortions harder to access, or to cut domestic violence services? Fucking throw that right back at them, and show that they are using misogyny as a distraction rather than something they truly care about. This tactic, again, is a difficult one to wield, though. One needs direct ammunition–it doesn’t matter if they are the sort of politician who votes repeatedly in favour of austerity, and austerity hits women the hardest: sadly, while this is entirely true, the link is not direct, and dead cat politics is a very simple, blunt-force instrument. The dead cat you’re flinging back needs to be so obvious a three-year old could understand it’s bad.
The other downside to this approach, you’ll have probably noticed, is that the real issue has got lost in among a dead cat-flinging fight. You may be able to drag things back on course. You probably won’t.
3. Keep all the cats alive: The easiest way to avoid a dead cat attack is to avoid any cats dying nearby. As a cat person, an idealist, and a stone-cold pragmatist, I like this strategy the best, but it is the one that requires the most long-term work. The only way we can truly stop seeing misogyny being used as a dead cat is to stop with the fucking misogyny. Don’t give them anything, and they cannot use it against you.
Why say “horrible woman” when you can say “horrible person”? Why say “shrill” when you can say “odious”? Why say “bitch” when you can say “butcher”? This is all commonsense things we should be striving to do anyway, and yes, it still matters when it’s someone we dislike. This also requires keeping our own house in order–taking steps to deal with misogyny where we see it, as a means to keep the conversation on track (as well as it being fucking vital anyway).
Any cat owner will know that when there’s a live cat on the table, you kind of get on with it: it’s only the dead ones that need dealing with.
I find it deeply unpleasant that there are certain quarters who are deploying the very real and expansive issue of misogyny as a little curtain to draw in front of their own messes. Much of the time, these are women who do not bat an eyelid at playing an active role in making the material conditions of other women far worse: transmisogyny, supporting the Nordic model, supporting austerity and playing to misogynoir.
They are able to use the power they have because they can, steering the very definition of misogyny to centre only themselves.
It is for this reason that the rest of us have so much more work to do, to educate about the intersections, to support marginalised women, to oppose the violent structures of overlapping and intersecting oppressions.
In an ideal world, these women would not throw the dead cat on the table–as many of us do not, because we must pick our battles–it ought to be their responsibility to stop with the dead cat politics. Unfortunately, the political system is not built for people to behave like mature adults. And for this reason, hopefully that, too, will die out with all of the violences it props up.