Among the many excellent and impassioned objections to Missouri Republican Todd Akin’s horrible comment about “legitimate rape,” I have yet to see someone say what seemed so obvious to me: this phrase is an insult to the very concept of legitimacy. I understand, of course, that legitimacy hardly requires defense. Defined, according to my dictionary, as lawfulness, rightfulness, or the popular acceptance thereof, legitimate more or less is as legitimate does. Thus, perhaps the reason that no one else has felt especially aggrieved on behalf of legitimacy is due to the fact that the definition of “legitimacy” is apparently doing fine, while the definition of “rape” is getting ever narrower—and, indeed, that significant political problem is very much what was at stake in Akin’s comments.
Nevertheless, as both an English teacher and a decent person, I object to a phrase like “legitimate rape” because it is an oxymoron, meaning that it yokes together two words that have a contradictory logical relationship. It is logically impossible for rape to be “legitimate,” just as it’s logically impossible to have legal crime, vegetarian chicken, or Microsoft Works.
Rape is a crime. It cannot be lawful or legitimate. So say we all. End of story
But, the problem with using a phrase like “legitimate rape” is that logic is not culture, and what counts as a contradiction in logic sometimes gets absorbed and resolved in culture. After all, the world is populated with oxymorons, including things bittersweet chocolate, deafening silences, or, after 9/11, a sign that hung outside the security checkpoint at the Baltimore-Washington Airport: “Jokes Aren’t Funny.” Culture is not simply a series of propositions that can be logically debated. It’s the messy world we live in, and it does a lot to fill in the blank spaces between coolly logical propositions.
Still, logical objections can do a lot of cultural work. Take for example Erin Gloria Ryan’s column today on Jezebel detailing the whackjob doctor whose highly equivocal writings about obstetrics and gynecology form the scientific alibi for Akin’s misogynist rabble. As she brilliantly lays it out, the blatant disregard to the reality of female biology and experience takes as a partner an exaggerated, emotional and completely absurd view of the male reproductive role: “Sperm = life juice and penises = basically Gandalf’s staff.” This way of redacting the point shows that Akin’s and others’ argument isn’t just hating on women; it’s also bad reasoning. Indeed, it’s transparently bad reasoning, once it’s laid out clearly.
For those playing along at home, this kind of a mistake or (ahem) misconception in logic and reasoning is called a fallacy. There are quite a few of them, and some are so ancient that they had names in Latin. The personal attack is an example of a very old fallacy, and its Latin name, ad hominem, means literally to the man. To issue an ad hominem attack, all I have to do is to direct attention away from the issue that we are logically debating and focus it instead on your person. For example, if a chief executive of the opposing political party institutes a series of successful fiscal policies to stabilize a flagging economy, I might ask to see his birth certificate. Policy, schmolicy. I mean, is he even a citizen?
In the past few decades, a corollary term has come into some small use, ad feminam, literally, to the woman. Ad feminam attacks are used much the same way as ad hominem attacks, directing attention away from issues and toward persons, but they specifically target attributes of the female body. Need an example? Must be your time of the month.
The fallacy that Ryan points to doesn’t have a name. But its strategy is clear. Direct attention away from the population most likely to be affected by a law or a policy, and instead defer to and protect the sovereignty of the penis. It doesn’t matter if the penis is uninformed, or somewhere it shouldn’t be, or not especially relevant to the issue we’re making policy about. I mean, there is no logical planet on which the question of a woman’s response to rape is an issue that has much to do with the sovereign rights of penises or penis-havers. The penis came and went. That’s actually the problem.
I fear that the fact that Akin’s comments have gotten so much traction (for, but mostly against) means that we’re focusing too much on his words and not enough on the logical problem. So, I propose we call out the logical problem, much as Ryan has done, and name it ad phallum, the phallic fallacy. Ad phallum occurs when someone thinks that penises or the people who have them deserve rights and privileges that non-penises or the people without them shouldn’t have. Disagree with my legal reasoning, my medical opinion? You must be forgetting my fine life-giving penis.
The thing to note about ad phallum is that it is more or less the opposite of feminism. Once upon a time, feminism proposed (again, according to my dictionary) that men and women should have the same rights and privileges. This was a controversial idea, it was unevenly implemented, it caused a lot of backlash, and, more recently, it was rejected by many women of a younger generation who sought its goals but disliked its name. Feminism made sense logically, but its lived contradictions were too much culturally.
The culture has changed a bit since the heyday of feminism, meaning both that more women are working, spending, and leading alongside men, and that more batshit crazy misogynist legislation is afoot than could ever have been imagined a generation ago. So let’s work with the culture. Rather than make the logical feminist argument that women and men should be entitled to the same place at the metaphorical table, let’s instead call it illogical when someone denies that they should. After all, no one who engages in politics on someone else’s terms ever wins. And logic may actually be politics by other means.
Jordan Alexander Stein: Not Always the Theory Guy.