I’ve been meaning to post about the Isla Vista shootings in California, and I spent a week of false starts and frustrations because I’m really having problems coming to to grips with it. The shooting themselves were not, alas, an uncommon event in the United States, which has had more than 70 mass shootings in the last thirty years at an ever-increasing rate. What has made this one notable — and by notable I mean that it hasn’t immediately faded into media oblivion — is that it’s triggered a huge public debate on misogyny in our culture.
The shooter has been identified as Elliot Rodger, an outspoken member of the Men’s Rights Advocacy and the “Pickup Artist” movements (MRA and PUA, hereafter). Before beginning his shooting spree he issued a long, rambling and quite frankly stomach-turning manifesto on how much he hated women for scorning his advances and men for not recognizing that he was a true “alpha” male. He blamed everybody but himself for his perceived sexual inadequacies — particularly the fact that he was a 22-year-old virgin — and vowed revenge. His YouTube channel was apparently full of similar rants and threats, and he’d been brought to the attention of the police more than once.
Not being a mental-health professional, I don’t think I can credibly comment on Rodger’s mental state, whether he was a “madman” as he’s been branded in the media. I also don’t wish to weigh in on the whole “gun culture” angle of this tragedy: It’s been done. As well, I’ve made my position on the alleged Mens’ Rights movement pretty clear on this blog before, and I’m going to stand by it — I think MRAs are sad, pathetic, and frightened child-males who need to grow the fuck up.
I want to write about my response to Rodger’s openly-stated misogyny. He was our generation’s Marc Lépine: He went out to kill women because he hated women. Simple as that. That he also killed men during his rampage doesn’t change the misogynistic foundation of his intentions. He was involved in the deeply anti-feminist Mens’ Rights Advocacy Movement: he hated, resented and (I suspect) feared women. In that, he was absolutely typical of the MRA. That’s not to claim that every MRA adherent would resort to violence (although there has been a great deal of both open and implied support of the shooter in their subculture), but I think we need to recognize that Rodger’s actions were a difference of only of degree, not kind; it was an extreme example, but it’s typical of the all-too-common misogyny in our culture.
The first, reflexive reaction to Elliot Rodger, by pretty much every man I know, was to state firmly “Not all men are like that.” That is a very human, very understandable response, especially when you understand that the man in question is really saying: “I’m not like that.” It is an attempt (unconscious or not) to reject that entire culture of misogyny; that subculture of men who hate and fear women even as they try and manipulate and dominate them for sex and control.
Not all men are like that. I understand that reaction. I had that reaction.
It is not a helpful reaction.
Stating “not all men are like that” does nothing to address the real issue: Some men are like that. Some men hate women. Some men hurt women. Some men kill women. And you know what? Women understand that not all men are like that. They don’t need to be told. But by interjecting that statement, all we are doing is derailing the vital conversation that some men are, in fact, very much like that.
Doug Muder, author of one of my favourite blogs The Weekly Sift, summed the problem up rather neatly: Men tend view the Isla Vista massacre as a seperate, discrete event; Women tend view it as an outlier of a continuum that they have to deal with every single day. Walling it off, making it an atrocity on its own, is a good deal easier for men than realizing the massacre is just an extreme example of the routine misogyny that marks every day of of a woman’s life.
Which is why, as painful and difficult as it is for me as a man, I’ve been trying to read posts on the brilliant social-media response to the notion of “Not All Men” — Yes All Women. It’s a raw, open and very powerful sharing of the enormous amounts of sexist shit that women have to wade through every day. It’s inspired many women — including women who I know and care about — to share their stories. It’s triggered a couple of conversations with The Wife, who being a woman has had her own awful experiences, and those conversations have left me deeply, profoundly angry on her behalf, and on behalf of all the women that I know who’ve had to suffer for it.
One of the touchstones I’ve embraced in my life is something that sci-fi author Spider Robinson once wrote: “Anger is always fear in disguise. Always.” When I have an anger reaction, I try and understand what is frightening me to trigger that reaction.
So what is it that I’m afraid of?
After some serious thought and soul-searching I realize, after a week of not being able to get this blog post put together, that I’ve been hitting a wall not because I’ve been angry about what women face but because I’m afraid that, as a man, this is my fault. That, best-case, I’ve not been preventing these awful things and that, worst-case, I’ve been actively contributing.
Maybe it’s coming from a foundation of historical chivalric reenactment, or maybe it’s my lefty-socialist politics, but on a gut level I believe (and I’ve always believed) that the strong have a duty to protect the weak… that if you’re able to help others, you have an obligation to do so. And if men have the strength and power and privilege in our society (however fairly or unfairly) then we damned well shouldn’t be using it to hurt others.
And, shamefully, it’s clear that we as men aren’t living up to that standard. If there is a silver lining at all in this whole awful mess, it’s that women have come forward to tell their stories, and that men are listening to it. The solution to misogyny in our society is going to have to come, not only from the courage of the women who are confronting the problem, but from the men who are willing to listen and then act to put our own house in order.
This is a gendered issue, gentlemen: Women have their work in this fight, but we have ours, too. Men need to step up, as men, and cope with the bitter reality that we are failing in our duty to provide a decent world for our mothers, partners, and daughters.
Think about that for a moment. Contemplate that. That bitter taste in your mouth? That’s shame. I don’t want to be ashamed of myself and my gender anymore, and I bet a lot of you don’t either. This is a male problem, and it behooves as men to come up with a male solution.
So here’s the plan:
The first thing men need to do is listen, carefully and respectfully, to what the women in our lives are going through every day.
The second thing is that we need to make a deliberate and calculated effort not to derail that conversation with our own pain, anger and shame. We have to resist the urge to deny our own culpability by saying “not all men are like that.”
The third thing we have to do is shoulder our burden and work towards fixing it. We have to stop turning a blind eye to the problem of male violence in our culture. We have to confront men who hold misogynist opinions, or who disrespect women. We have to make it clear to our brothers and sons that it is not acceptable to act in that way.
I am not — emphatically not — advocating wrapping women up on cotton batting “for their own good.” Locking women out of a full and equal participation in our society as some bullshit method of “protecting” them is just another form of misogyny, if only for the simple reason that women in our society have made it clear that they desire an equal footing with men.
So that’s our assignment, gentlemen: We need to step up, work with women, and make a decent world for all people regardless of gender. We are going to have to step out of our comfort zone and confront other men who are behaving in a misogynistic fashion. We are going to have to take a hard look at ourselves and confront the inherent misogyny we see there. We are going to have to acknowledge our privilege, and we’re going to have to put it down. We are going to have to make amends and change the way we act.
I maintain no illusions: this is going to be a long, hard, and painful struggle. It’s going to take real effort, real work. It’s going to require the construction of a positive masculinity, rather than embracing a toxic one. It’s going to be hard.
But then, where is it written that being a good man is supposed to be easy?
Update 12:30: Once again, if you’re going to comment on my blog, please read the rules first. And to quote Billy Connolly: If you don’t like the rules, don’t play the fucking game.