The Philosopher of #MeToo
Kate Manne and the fight against misogyny.
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Manne’s thread caused a stir, as her posts often do. Men rushed to Pinker’s defense. A Twitter user calling himself “He-Him” (his avatar is the cartoon character He-Man) said Manne’s scholarship was an example of “toxic femininity.” Another, “Wisdomination,” declared, “Pinker is right and you’re wrong,” and then, having pondered his contribution for two minutes, followed up: “More importantly, Pinker is a good person and you’re not.” Several posters asked Manne to provide better evidence; one suggested she try cognitive behavioral therapy. And then there were the cruder responses, the ones that women who think in public have learned to expect: the knocks on her intelligence, the speculation about her love life, the slur “soulless bitch.”
For Manne, Rodger’s killings, which he claimed were revenge for being sexually rejected, were part of a pattern. They provided the spur to write Down Girl, her first book and the first book-length treatment of misogyny in analytic philosophy. In it, Manne attempts to correct a “naïve conception” whereby misogyny is considered a psychological problem: the blanket hatred of all women. By this definition, even a serial abuser of women would avoid the label of misogynist if he could prove that he really did love his mother.
Manne argues that misogyny is, instead, a “political phenomenon,” best considered from the perspective of its victims. Misogyny, whether perpetrated by an individual or an institution, is about punishing “bad women” and rewarding “good” ones. She argues that sexism is the theoretical basis of the patriarchal order, while misogyny is its “law enforcement branch.” “Sexism wears a lab coat; misogyny goes on witch hunts,” Manne writes. Misogyny has a “hostile flavor”; it is essentially “punitive.”
Down Girl was a remarkable success, especially for a book that was academically rigorous and theoretically complex. Published just one month after Ronan Farrow’s exposé of Harvey Weinstein in The New Yorker, Down Girl seemed to speak directly to the political and social concerns of the moment. The book catapulted Manne into public life. The year after Down Girl was published, she embarked on what she calls a “frenetic” speaking program, giving 35 talks across the country. Journalists started consulting her as an expert on misogyny. She criticized the Canadian psychologist and self-help author Jordan Peterson; in response, he threatened to sue her. (The lawsuit never materialized.) She wrote opinion pieces on accused men — Eric Schneiderman, Brett Kavanaugh, Al Franken — explaining why they deserved opprobrium and why many of us were reluctant to deliver it.
Manne — who received tenure at Cornell University in the spring of 2019 — is now at work on a second book, to be called “Entitled,” which will expand on her observations about the sympathy we reflexively extend to powerful men. She calls this feeling “himpathy.” The book will be published by Crown and marketed to a general audience. She hopes to finish work on “Entitled” before the birth of her first child in December. (Manne and her husband are expecting a girl.) In September, the British magazine Prospect named her one of “the world’s top 50 thinkers.” Manne has evidently fulfilled a calling she felt early in life: to become a public intellectual.
It is all the more surprising, then, that Manne, who can seem fearless online, makes every effort to insulate herself from the harsh, unpredictable world. “The thing I look for in a place to live is just somewhere where I can be as peaceful as possible and have as stress-free a life as possible,” she told me when we met in Ithaca, N.Y., in late June. She writes from home, taking breaks to walk her corgi in a nearby park or to cook dinner. She is easily overstimulated. In her Twitter bio, the same one that pops up every time she leaps into the fray, she describes herself as an “aspiring recluse.”
Ambitious and politically committed, Manne is nevertheless attracted to a quiet life and material comforts. At times, she has felt ashamed of her desire to retreat from the world. “At certain points I could have died of guilt and shame — not quite literally, but not exactly metaphorically, either,” she said. “I was constantly feeling like a bad person for saying no to certain things, or for having a modest set of hobbies, decorating my house or whatever.” Some of that guilt still lingers: Manne might spend most of her days arguing that women should not be coerced into providing care and attention to everyone they meet, but she sometimes wonders if she is giving enough of herself.
“I have a very vivid sense of my own insufficiency,” Manne told me. Though firm in her beliefs, Manne can seem remarkably open to suggestion: If you advised her to quit her job, sell all her belongings, and devote the rest of her life to crisis relief, she would probably spend a few days thinking seriously about the idea. She is possessed of a calm affect and a quiet confidence, but she is also highly sensitive, internally conflicted, and intensely self-critical. Sometimes, she feels like a prisoner — not of patriarchy, but of her battle against it.
Gleaming copper pots hung on the walls of an impossibly clean kitchen; mid-century modern furniture decorated the rooms. (Manne tweeted in August that interior design is her “unpaid side hustle.”) She had set out a platter of cheese, dried fruit, and crackers along with a few bottles of water. She then added a bowl of chocolates to the spread; when I told her I liked them, she tried to persuade me to take the rest of the bowl home. She is generous, intellectually and materially, and remarkably attuned to other people’s comfort.
Manne grew up on 20 acres of brush in Cottles Bridge, Australia, 45 minutes northeast of Melbourne. The family raised sheepdogs, ponies, and chickens. Manne tried and failed to befriend the kangaroos that visited her backyard. “It was a kind of idyllic childhood in lots of ways,” Manne said. “It sounds elitist but everyone in the area had a pony, so I had a little pony called Sonya who I loved.”
Her father, Robert Manne, is a political scientist who, in 2005, was awarded the title of Australia’s leading public intellectual, according to a survey in The Sydney Morning Herald. Robert began as an anticommunist and antiracist; his parents had escaped from Europe during the Holocaust, and he has written at length about Australia’s racial injustices, particularly about the “stolen generations” of Indigenous Australians — mixed-race children who were taken from their families in the years between 1910 and 1970. Her mother, Anne, stayed home until both her children were of school age — Manne is the older of two sisters — and then herself embarked on a career as a writer. Anne might be called a “maternal feminist.” Her first book, Motherhood: How Should We Care for Our Children? (Allen & Unwin, 2005), attempts to revalue mothering in a culture that sometimes sees it as a distraction from more important pursuits.
Robert always believed his daughter would be a philosopher — it was something about the way she argued — and he compared her to his friend Rae Langton, a philosopher with whom Manne later studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As a small child, she received history lectures from Robert on the way to school; years later, father and daughter were so immersed in a conversation about the nature of free will that they got lost while driving. “I was very much constructed to be what I am,” Manne said.
Part of that construction involved the careful attention Manne’s parents paid to her education. When Manne was 5, she said, her parents removed her from a school with “a vaguely hippieish vibe” after a troubling incident that she writes about in her book: a classmate strangled her to unconsciousness using a piece of yarn. “After I came to,” Manne writes in a footnote in Down Girl, “I was told he’d had some trouble processing being runner-up to me in the spelling bee.” She describes in the book how strangulation — a crime typically committed by men against female intimate partners — not only endangers its victims’ lives but also silences their voices, what the philosopher Kristie Dotson calls “testimonial smothering.”
At some point, Manne formed a goal: to attend an American Ivy League university for college. To do that, she would need to go to a school with an International Baccalaureate (IB) program. At the time, Manne was a student at Ivanhoe Grammar School, a private school comprising three campuses: one for lower-school students and two for high-school students. One of the high-school campuses was coed, while the other was only for boys. (The school is now entirely coeducational across its three campuses.) The coed high school did not offer the IB program, but the boys’ high school did. Ivanhoe’s new principal decided that any student at Ivanhoe should have access to all of the school’s offerings. So, the boys’ campus opened its doors to three female students who wanted to take IB courses. They were the only girls on a campus with 750 boys. Manne was one of the three.
One alumnus who overlapped with Manne described her as “a smart and ambitious person.” Laurie Ince, director of the IB program at the time, praised the three pioneering girls for their “courage,” and remembered Manne in particular as “very strong-willed,” with an “acute sense of injustice.”
Things went well at first. Manne continued to excel academically and made friends with some of the boys in the IB program. Then something changed. Manne thinks it might have been that she started dating a boy from another school, taking herself off the market romantically. Whatever it was, it provoked an onslaught of harassment. Manne lost some of her new friends. Her locker was defaced with sexist slurs and doused in fish oil, which she later interpreted as an allusion to female bodily odors. (An alumna of the school remembered hearing about this incident.)
And then Manne struggled to make friends with the other female students. In a 2018 interview, she described feeling as isolated from the other girls as she did from her male classmates: “Misogyny has a way of getting in the way of female solidarity, regardless of how much we need each other.”
There was one rare day that Manne found herself sitting outdoors with two other girls, but it didn’t end well. “A circle of boys descended on us,” she told me, and threw at the girls “either water balloons or maybe condoms that they had jacked off into.” There was no disciplinary action that Manne recalled; “it was just written off as a prank,” she said.
A classmate of Manne’s disputed this account; in an email, she insisted the water balloons were filled with water, and she described the incident as a spontaneous prank rather than a premeditated attack.
But other alumnae corroborated Manne’s account of hostility on the part of the male students, even if they couldn’t speak directly to the water balloons. Boys threw apples at the female students and called them names. Laura Szekfy, who graduated two years behind Manne, said that even after the first year, the transition to a coed IB program “threw up a lot of social challenges.” Paul Walsh, Ivanhoe’s current director of admissions and community engagement, said in an email that “adolescence is a difficult phase in a teenager’s life” and that now, “Ivanhoe Grammar School is a very inclusive co-educational, innovative, and welcoming school.” He noted, “We have all come a long way in that space in 20 years.”
The bullying rocked Manne’s confidence. “It was so abusive and so ugly and violent,” Manne said. “I can’t go within 10 kilometers of that area in Melbourne without starting to panic.” Even after burying herself in her studies, earning a score of 44 out of 45 on the IB exam, Manne was too shaken to go abroad. Instead, she enrolled at the University of Melbourne. This way, she could stay close to her high-school boyfriend, who had become, in her word, a “lifeline.”
It’s tempting to see Manne’s high-school experiences as her formative encounter with misogyny, the primal scene that gave rise to her future work. Down Girl begins with strangling and goes on to talk about the ways that women are intimidated into silence. “You can put words into her mouth,” Manne writes. “You can stuff her mouth and cheeks full of deferential platitudes. You can threaten to make her eat certain words that she might say as a prophylactic against her testifying or so much as recognizing what is happening to her and others. You can stonewall, and make her utterance doomed to fail, less than hollow.” It’s hard not to hear in these words an echo of Manne’s high-school years.
But Manne herself doesn’t quite see it that way. On the day we met, she described herself as “insulated from a lot of misogyny.” “I’m so privileged,” she explained. “My day-to-day life is so easy, so cushy.” In conversation, she readily points to aspects of her privilege: her race, her economic stability, her heterosexuality. (In September, she wrote on Twitter about how, while she was flying pregnant and in first class, a flight attendant had treated her rudely. The incident prompted her to think about flying while disabled: “Just another facet of my privilege I’d never thought to examine,” she tweeted.)
It took a couple of days, and many hours of conversation, before Manne acknowledged that she has encountered misogyny in her life and that she continues to do so, even as a privileged white woman and tenured professor. She told me about a recent talk at another university. After the talk, a male professor asked her why she had “dressed up.” (Manne, a casual dresser, was wearing a cardigan, a skirt, and flat boots — not exactly formalwear.) When Manne explained that she wanted to give the impression that she took the occasion seriously and that she didn’t always feel comfortable flouting social convention, the professor reached out and patted her on the head. “It’s all in your mind,” he said.
It’s hard to imagine a better example of what Manne calls “down girl” moves — gestures “which function to downrank and degrade girls and women relative to whatever values and/or hierarchies are ready to hand,” as she put it in an interview. In her book she elaborates:
Adults are insultingly likened to children, people to animals or even to objects. As well as infantilizing and belittling, there’s ridiculing, humiliating, mocking, slurring, vilifying, demonizing, as well as sexualizing, or, alternatively,
, silencing, shunning, shaming, blaming, patronizing, condescending, and other forms of treatment that are dismissive and disparaging in specific social contexts.
This is to say nothing of violence and threats of violence. Though Manne has not experienced physical violence since her high-school days, the thought of it is not far from her mind. Once, giving a lecture, she noticed a visibly hostile male audience member — she said he “stared daggers” at her — carrying a large backpack. She worried that he was planning to assassinate her. Her first thought was that she needed to protect her students; her second was that if she were to die in that moment, she would be proud of the work she had accomplished. (The man left the lecture hall without incident.)
Manne wouldn’t dream of canceling a planned lecture, even if she felt herself to be under threat. When her Cornell office was covered with hateful fliers — Manne recalled one that said “something like, ‘anti-Semitic Jews are rape apologists’” — she wasn’t even sure that she wanted to involve the campus police. At the behest of her department chair, she did contact the police; they suggested installing security cameras by her office, but Manne declined. She wanted to carry on as normal.
Still, she thinks it’s unfair to demand that women remain undaunted by sexual harassment and misogynistic threats. Some women are easily cowed by intimidation; others endorse male supremacy of their own volition (or so they claim). For Manne, the problem isn’t that some women fulfill patriarchal conventions — they may need to do so in order to protect themselves. The problem is that we deem these women “good” and shower them with praise. “We should also be concerned with the rewarding and valorizing of women who conform to gendered norms and expectations,” she writes in Down Girl, whether they are “loving mothers, attentive wives, loyal secretaries, ‘cool’ girlfriends, or good waitresses.”
But to Manne, this doesn’t always mean that loving mothers — or Trump-supporting white women — are themselves misogynists. For Manne, the term “misogynist” is a comparative one: it should be applied to “people who are consistent overachievers in contributing to misogynist social environments,” she writes. Some have challenged her on this: in a forum on Down Girl printed in the spring 2019 issue of the APA’s Newsletter on Feminism and Philosophy, the philosopher Kathryn Norlock suggested that some women — cyberbullies, “mean girls” — might fit Manne’s definition of misogyny. After all, they often use “down girl” gestures to enforce social norms. Manne’s response, in the same issue, was that women are often judged more harshly for moral errors than men are (here’s “himpathy” at work again). She wondered whether such women might be better described as conduits for misogyny — as all of us are.
Manne had to train herself to extend her sympathies to women. In response to the philosopher Briana Toole, another contributor to the APA’s forum, she explained why, while writing Down Girl, she decided to focus solely on women’s experiences. (Toole’s contribution had asked how misogyny might harm men.) We are trained to notice men, Manne wrote, and to care more about their lives than we do about the lives of women. Research in the social sciences indicates that the average teacher calls on male students more than on women, she explained. “I don’t consider myself above the moral average, except by dint of strenuous moral effort.”
Though Haslanger began her career in metaphysics, she had found prominence since in social and political philosophy and feminist theory. Manne was amazed by the lecture. “I hadn’t really thought before about the moral importance of theorizing social phenomena,” she told an interviewer in 2018. “It felt like a whole new realm of inquiry had been opened up for me, in one afternoon.” Shortly thereafter, Manne applied and was accepted to MIT’s doctoral program to study with Haslanger. She began in 2006.
In Cambridge, Mass., Manne was more at ease than she had ever been. The cafés were filled with people reading; her fellow graduate students liked nothing more than to sit in the department lounge and talk about ideas. Manne no longer felt, as she often had in Australia, that she wasn’t “chill.” “It was a big transition, but I loved it,” she said.
At the same time, she was struck by the inequality she witnessed, especially economic inequality, which had been less visible to her in Australia. She couldn’t ignore the people in need of food or shelter who congregated in Cambridge’s Central Square. Once, she found herself standing in line at a Walgreens behind a man who was trying to buy two jars of nuts. The man’s coupon wasn’t working, and he couldn’t afford both jars. Manne recalled “feeling the intensity of that humiliation on his behalf, and wishing I could step in — but just feeling that would be incredibly patronizing.” It would be easy to tell someone like Manne to stop dithering and just buy the nuts — but then some of us might not notice the customer at all.
At first, her experiences in Central Square didn’t inform the work she was doing a mile away at MIT. Haslanger recalled that Manne initially tried to reconcile her interest in social issues with her technical background: “That didn’t work out so well.” Haslanger had observed that women in philosophy often gravitate to the discipline’s most formal, rigorous areas. Manne was not an exception; when she first arrived at MIT, she planned to specialize in logic. “I was kind of pulling her away from that,” Haslanger said. She would tell Manne, “They’re engaged in these conversations — and you can have these other conversations.”
So, one day, when Haslanger challenged Manne and other women in the grad lounge to move away from the more formal fields, she found that Manne was receptive. Manne soon changed her area of study to ethics and meta-ethics, with an interest in feminist philosophy. Haslanger told me that Manne has “incredible social aptitude” for a philosopher. Most of her peers “go into this little compartment and do philosophy,” she explained. “Whatever is outside doesn’t really affect what’s going on in the compartment,” and vice versa. Manne is “an integrated person,” Haslanger said. “It makes her more vulnerable, but it makes her work really special.”
Haslanger herself is a lifelong activist. Her philosophical papers — in critical race studies and gender studies — grew from and contributed to her organizing efforts. “I have a lot of rage, and I need to have ways to express my rage,” she told me. “There’s nothing better than marching with people. There’s nothing better than creating a sign.” She jumped up to show me a few of her protest signs and the stash of blank foam board she keeps in her office — “I’m ready to go at any time!” Manne says she is “not a marcher,” but she and Haslanger bonded over a shared frustration with philosophy’s apolitical tendencies. For Manne, Haslanger remains a reminder of the possibility of living an engaged, embodied life in the most cerebral of fields.
Manne was a confident, self-directed graduate student. She had rigorous formal training, a sense of social engagement, and a journalistic sensibility. All of this struck Richard Holton, her dissertation chair, as an “unusual” combination of attributes. “She writes wonderfully,” said Julia Markovits, then an adviser of Manne’s and now her colleague at Cornell. There’s a difference between clear philosophical writing, Markovits said, and “writing that has the color that will make you appealing to a broader audience. Kate’s writing definitely had that color.” Even in graduate school, Manne was contemplating how she could reach a broader audience. Haslanger remembered that Manne “saw all along the power of the public intellectual life.”
After receiving her doctorate in 2011, Manne accepted a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship at the Harvard Society of Fellows. With a job at Cornell awaiting her, she could use the time to consider carefully the kind of scholar she wanted to be. The Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond, who overlapped with Manne at the society, remembered her as “the smartest person in the room — but you would learn it two-thirds of the way through dinner.”
Desmond recalled an evening spent with Manne outside the society’s offices on Mount Auburn Street. They were talking about a New Yorker profile of the late philosopher Derek Parfit, by the journalist Larissa MacFarquhar. Parfit, MacFarquhar related, loved bluebell woods. He loved them so much he bought a house in Wiltshire, 10 minutes away from a glorious bluebell wood. But Parfit never went. He spent his days in his home office, with his blinds drawn. The profile was called “How to be Good.”
Desmond remembered that Manne was troubled. She didn’t think this was how to be good, or how to practice her vocation. “She was like, ‘I want to be in the fray. I want to be a philosopher that has her blinds open and is out in the world.’ ”
Luckily, she had a strong support system during this transition: Her husband. Daniel, who insisted on taking Manne’s last name when they married in 2009, is a broad-shouldered embodiment of male feminism. “I often say that I won the privilege lottery: white, cis male heterosexual, brilliant, good-looking,” he joked when he joined us at the dining-room table. “I think it’s so important for men to be allies, to be able to speak out, not because our opinions are worth more but because our opinions are perceived as being worth more.” Manne recalled thanking Daniel for something a few days earlier; Daniel’s response had been to note what a shame it was that men are so generally inadequate that he could be thanked for performing a simple task.
The couple met early in Manne’s time in Cambridge — he helped her navigate the Harvard Square T station, and then started chatting with her while they waited for the train. They bonded over a love of Susan Faludi’s Backlash. They moved in together seven months after meeting and were engaged soon after that. When they first met, Daniel was at a Boston law firm and doing pro bono work for women seeking protection orders against abusive husbands. The work was important but emotionally taxing, and eventually he decided to pursue a master-of-law degree at Harvard Law School. He wanted to study the problem of domestic violence, but he couldn’t continue to look at it up close.
Manne, who can sometimes seem tense, relaxes around her husband. The two finish each other’s sentences. “You have all these cool ideas and you know all these things that you bring to me, and then it’s my job to write them up,” Manne said to Daniel, discussing her writing process. “I contributed a number of ideas to your book, but it’s all you,” Daniel responded. “Not just the writing, but I learned so much when you were working on it.” Manne came up with the idea of reflexive sympathy for men, but it was Daniel who coined the term “himpathy.”
Manne brings to her study of misogyny the same intensity — she might call it “obsessiveness” — that she brought to her schoolwork as a child, or to her study of music as an adolescent. (At 15, she gave herself tendinitis from playing three Beethoven sonatas over and over and over.)
She first started working on the topic in May of 2014, in the wake of the Isla Vista killings. She was trying to write an op-ed, and she looked for a paper on misogyny in analytic philosophy that could help her, but she couldn’t find anything. She started writing her own philosophy paper on the topic. Around the same time, Peter Ohlin, an editor at Oxford University Press, contacted Manne to see what she was working on. When he heard that she was theorizing misogyny, he encouraged her to sign a book contract with Oxford. He was interested in a “crossover book,” an academic work that would nonetheless attract general readers.
Five years on, Manne can barely recall the time she spent working on the book. “It’s all very much a blur,” she told me. “I was in such a dark place writing and I really thought no one would read it or I’ll be killed.” She worried she would get something crucial wrong and that the whole project would be invalidated; she worried too that the book would invite hate mail like the kind she’d received for a New York Times op-ed about trigger warnings. (That hasn’t come to pass: “It turns out they don’t want to spend $10 to $25 on a book,” Manne speculated.)
Without Daniel and Ohlin, Manne says, she would have been unable to finish. They were her two first readers, and they both approved the book’s dramatic introduction, in which Manne describes the effects of strangulation on victims in great detail. The section, which took 20 revisions to get right, drew on Daniel’s legal work. When he was still at the Boston law firm, he had advocated for a state law that differentiated strangulation from other forms of assault — this was necessary because, as Manne writes in the book, “victims of a non-fatal attack of this kind have also been found to be some seven times more likely to become the victim of an attempted homicide by the same perpetrator.” (The law has since been adopted.)
Down Girl was published on November 8, 2017, in the midst of the #MeToo reckoning. The book found its audience. “I feel like she really had her finger on the pulse,” Markovits, Manne’s colleague, told me. Down Girlwas reviewed widely — in The New Yorker, The Guardian, and the London Review of Books, among others — and praised by philosophers and general readers alike. New York magazine’s Rebecca Traister offered an enthusiastic blurb. It went through numerous printings. Ohlin told me that Down Girl “outperformed even our most optimistic expectations.”
The book made an impact within philosophy, but more importantly for Manne, it reached general readers. The feminist writer Moira Donegan recalled a kind of “rumbling” among her friends when it came out. She told me that though she was at first a bit “taken aback” by the work’s academic style, she soon found herself “enthralled by the analysis.” Donegan was particularly grateful that Manne offered an account of misogyny that went beyond the Marxist feminist account of gendered labor. To Donegan, Down Girl provided “a rubric that is applicable across the lines of race and class and that could be applied to many of the different hydra heads of patriarchy that we’re fighting.”
Some writers would experience this kind of critical reception as a triumph, an indication that a book’s argument was persuasive and maybe even correct. Not Manne. She doesn’t consider Down Girl the definitive book on misogyny, but rather a partial attempt to define a problem. In the book’s introduction, she writes of how its “biggest omission” is a discussion of transmisogyny — “I regret not being able to speak to its nature,” she writes, but “I didn’t have the requisite authority.” In her response to critics in the APA Newsletter, she expressed the hope that “other theorists” would fill in the gaps in her argument. Manne is comfortable admitting to her own blind spots and misinterpretations: “As a white het cis super privileged woman, I’m gonna make a ton of errors,” she said.
While waiting for our food — Manne ordered pancakes — I remembered an anecdote she had shared with me several days earlier. It was from Larissa MacFarquhar’s book Strangers Drowning, about people guided by an extreme sense of altruism. As Manne told it, a woman in the book goes to a fair and considers buying herself a candy apple, but she can’t bring herself to do it — she knows that the money she would spend on the apple could be better spent on those in need. When her partner buys her the apple anyway, she breaks down in tears. Manne had been disturbed by the story. “I want women to feel comfortable with a small sense of entitlement to modest pleasures,” she’d said. “Sometimes self-care does dictate getting the candy apple” — or, perhaps, the pancakes with local maple syrup.
The evening before, I’d watched Manne give a lecture on what she calls “the bodily imperative.” This theory is part of her continuing effort to locate moral authority in a secular world. Manne’s lecture style was even and deliberate, with an emphasis on clarity: She asked whether a point made “basic sense” a few times. She argued that we act morally — we rescue a drowning child, we refrain from kicking a dog for fun — because vulnerable creatures “cry out” to us to be good. As witnesses to suffering, we feel compelled to act not because we make a rational decision to do right, but because we cannot physically stand to be idle. “We wanted the booming voice of God, and what we got was the whimper of a vulnerable creature,” Manne explained to the audience.
Over brunch, the conversation turned — as it often does with Manne — to ongoing atrocities and her helplessness in the face of them. “I was reading an article last night, ‘Three things you can do to help with the crisis at the border,’” Manne said, visibly relieved at finding such a guide. She didn’t understand how other people could go about their days without thinking constantly about how to ease the suffering of others. “I just find it almost comical that philosophers are pondering the reality of other minds,” she said. “It’s like, of course we know: We live in a social world where, if we’re paying even mild attention, we notice that there are people all around us who both require and invite response.”
But Manne also concedes that she can’t respond to everyone who invites her attention. “I do think a real moral flaw of mine is that there are certain things I prioritize, like fighting misogyny,” she said. “I end up doing a lot to try and make my life in thinking and writing about misogyny more bearable,” she continued. “It ends up being a lot of ‘bougie’ stuff, and when I think about what’s happening at the border, it’s utterly unjustifiable.” But, “I think part of me has made my peace with there being one big project,” she continued. “For whatever reason I find working on misogyny so exhausting and demoralizing that it feels like to be able to keep going without sinking into deep depression — it just feels like it requires a lot of scaffolding.”
This is Manne’s moral quandary: to respond to all suffering, at the expense of her work and herself, or to prioritize her philosophical work, and live with the guilt of the well-off. For now, she’s found a balance that is livable, if not always easy. “I’m so much happier now,” she told me. “I used to feel clammed up, like I couldn’t speak.”
Her words reminded me of the strangled women at the beginning of Down Girl, women who were forced to stay silent or to eat their words. It also recalled her younger self, the bullied teenager who was scared and friendless in a hostile high school. But that girl, vulnerable yet stubborn, excelled academically and made it to graduation.
Manne had always thought of her high-school years as a case study in inertia: terrified, she neither fought nor fled, but froze. Speaking of that period now, for the second time in several days, she wondered aloud if perhaps her refusal to leave the school was her way of fighting back. “I was determined,” Manne explained.
She still is. “There is this kind of imperative,” she said, “for me, and I think for a lot of people, to say what you have to say.”