Friday, September 26, 2014

Female hysteria is not an actual thing

It's been a long time since anyone considered "female hysteria" an actual medical condition, with actual physical causes and actual pathological symptoms. There's a gross history - equally hilarious and sinister - of pre-modern doctors inventing bizarre theories about women's sex organs doing crazy things to angry up the blood, and if you still buy into any of it you probably also spend a lot of time worrying about the humors, too. For the empiricists among us, the best reason to dismiss the idea of female hysteria is that it turns out to be factually, demonstrably dumb.

That's a great reason - but it's not the only one.

Noam Chomsky, writing about another nineteenth century pseudoscience - racist anthropology - noted that when it comes to this sort of thing,
a rational person will ask two sorts of questions: What is the scientific status of the claims? What social or ideological needs do they serve? The questions are logically independent, but the second type of question naturally comes to the fore as scientific pretensions are undermined.
The answer to the second question seems obvious as well. Operationally, the diagnosis of female hysteria functioned as a way of oppressing women. It provided a medical rationalization for withholding power and responsibility from them: they were morally and intellectually weak. It played into all kinds of horrific reactionary arguments. Women couldn't be trusted with the right to vote. Their sexual behavior needed to be governed by men, because they were depraved and completely malleable. They certainly couldn't be permitted to run their own lives.

What's important to note about female hysteria, today, is that the medical details are mostly irrelevant. Even if it had a modicum of scientific legitimacy, it's perfectly clear today that its diagnosis, treatment and politics were entirely animated by its role as a pretext for oppressing women.

The progressive response should have been - and remains - extreme skepticism of any rationale for depriving women of their moral and intellectual agency. Even when such arguments are mobilized in a woman's defense, the idea that she cannot control herself, or meet ordinary standards of decency and rationality, cannot be historically severed from the claim that she must therefore be controlled or segregated. We must certainly never assume that this is necessarily a noble or benevolent thing to say about women, because we know perfectly well how destructive it can be.

Case in point:
Months ago, Twitter personality Sarah Kenzior got some threats on Twitter. Her "non-perfect" response, documented at length, was to aggressively and demonstrably libel multiple people, and to maintain a smear campaign against them that persists to this day. As Matt Bruenig points out, her defenders have a curious explanation for this:
...many of her supporters...ultimately came around to the position that, although she’s clearly lying, the spewing of lies is driven by the trauma she is currently experiencing. The argument was that Jacobin running a post that links to her public tweet about bros sending rape threats was so traumatic an experience that she just could not control herself.
Bruenig adds that "given the fact that she has continued to [lie], now months later...it would seem the 'trauma-responding' theory...doesn't really hold up." This may read like snark, but it's really quite decisive if we take the history of female hysteria at all seriously. "Trauma," as a rationale for relieving Kenzior of moral agency, is not a diagnosis to be thrown around casually by internet psychologists. It should refer to an actual medical condition; and as Chomsky put it, "if the scientific status is slight, then it is particularly interesting to consider the climate of opinion within which the claim is taken seriously."

Here, the climate seems entirely obvious - and extremely sinister. People with no clinical expertise have developed an ad hoc rationalization for Sarah Kendzior's behavior, but are in no position to evaluate whether or not it is actually correct. There is little thought for the monstrous history of using this sort of rhetoric about women, or for its entirely predictable consequences.