Not All Men: Activism and Defensiveness in the Wake of Tragedy

19 Jun

There’s nothing particularly interesting about Elliot Rodger.

He wasn’t a supervillain, or a master criminal, or a charismatic manipulator. He didn’t embody a unique cultural moment, or speak to our society’s contradictions like a D.B. Cooper or a Patty Hearst. He was unusual in the sense that rampage shooters are statistically rare, but many utterly mundane things are statistically rare. The Santa Barbara shooting is uniquely disturbing because the poisonous ideology that inspired it is so infuriatingly, terrifyingly common.

As Joanna Schroeder wrote in “Why I Don’t Want to Write About the Santa Barbara Shooting,” the potential explosion of sexual entitlement into violence is for many women a ubiquitous threat, and the handling of that threat a major organizing principle of life:

[I]t’s something many of us who are aware of the anti-woman hatred of certain (scarily popular) online groups have felt building for years. It’s something many of us were afraid of since we were little kids, well before these online groups brought attention to it: The anger of a man rejected. The anger of a man who hates women.

In the days after the incident, women on social media shared stories of their experiences with the kind of systemic violence that polite society is so eager to write off as inexplicable, aberrant behavior. When Women Refuse  has been gathering news accounts of women attacked for rejecting men’s advances. On Twitter, these stories were grouped under the #YesAllWomen hashtag, about which a great deal has already been written. (As is common practice in mainstream reporting of hashtag activism, the hashtag’s originator has been largely excised from the discussion to focus on whiter and maler contributors; she has since asked that #YesAllWomen be abandoned, in response to the avalanche of threats she received in retaliation. It has been succeded by #EachEveryWoman.)

The narrative logic of #YesAllWomen is a specific reaction to a common response to stories of systemic misogyny; not all men are violent predators, but enough are that all women are meaningfully affected by them. Feminist blog comment threads are something of a laboratory for producing defensive, dismissive comments, and it’s recently developed into a popular meme. While ostensibly only about clarification–and who could object to precision of language in such an important issue?–this defensive insistence that such a clarification be made each and every time the topic is discussed does more to prevent discussion from happening than it does to elucidate that discussion.

Demanding that every instance of (the implied subtype of) men be explicitly identified would be awkward work in a lengthy academic treatise, let alone in spoken conversation or 140-character short messages. Because of this awkwardness, this standard of precision is rarely deemed necessary except where the members of a dominant group are being discussed. As noted by Bianca Casusöl in the satirical How To Make a Man-Friendly #YesAllWomen Post, this subjugates the free discussion of women’s lived experiences to the pacification of whatever men might happen to be reading. Inevitably, some energy is diverted away from the intended discussion to argue this rather pedantic 101 issue. Clearly, if there is a wrong way to react to a discussion, this is it, but there seems to be some confusion about how to meaningfully participate in this sort of discussion.

The first step, then, when engaging with the experiences of others–experiences that you have been conditioned not to see–is simple: don’t do that. Don’t react defensively; don’t react. The first step is to do nothing. This can be harder than one might imagine, especially if they’re used to thinking that no discussion is complete until they’ve made their contribution.

The next step is to listen, and to listen without intent of reply. Such intent tends to focus attention on the words, instead of the emotions they represent. The experiences of marginalized groups, rendered largely invisible by privilege, must be felt before they can be understood. The human mind is really good at this sort of thing, once the extraneous cultural roadblocks have been cleared.

The final step is to see. Systemic inequality conceals itself largely by rendering itself unremarkable, a kind of cultural background noise. We are, as a culture, eager to find excuses not to talk about this sort of thing, whether it’s vaguely defined ideas of “culture” as a panacea for racist policy decisions, or “self-defense” as a solution to endemic violence. In the aftermath of the Santa Barbara shooting, it became something of a popular argument to claim that the shootings had nothing at all to do with misogyny, and feminists were simply trying to exploit the tragedy for their own agenda (of addressing institutionalized sexism and violence). For many people, even a 141-page manifesto, and a plan to gain entry to a sorority house and kill everyone inside, was not sufficient to convince them that this aberrant, high-profile violence had any relation whatsoever to the mundane violence women live with daily.

In composing this post, I worried that the Santa Barbara shooting would have passed out of the public’s collective attention span. Rampage shootings are never not topical in America–between my initial outline and the draft you’re reading, we’ve had a spree killer couple in Las Vegas and a school shooter in Oregon–but each rampage shooting is horrifying in its own way, and I hoped to get this out while it remained a hot topic. On June 10th, the Washington Post published an article entitled “One way to end violence against women? Stop taking lovers and get married.” (Upon the predictable outcry, the headline has since been changed to “One way to end violence against women? Married dads.”)

This shit never stops.

Thankfully, spree killers like Elliot Rodger are fairly rare. The belief that Nature and Nature’s God have given rise to an order that is and must forever be maintained by violence–the the statistical majority of the human species should be defined by this violence–is not nearly rare enough. The opposition to misogyny doesn’t need men’s comfort, or their approval. It needs their eyes.

Peter Rauch is an ex-academic looking for his next thing. He writes about media, philosophy, and gender issues at Undisciplined, and writes shorter things as @Wordbeast.

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2 Responses to “Not All Men: Activism and Defensiveness in the Wake of Tragedy”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Week in Review | Masculinities 101 - June 22, 2014

    […] Two fantastic posts this week! First, Aimee Lutkin talks about women, comedy, and sexism. Next up, Peter Rauch revisited the UCSB shooting, the #yesallwomen campaign, and men’s backlash. He went on to […]

  2. Around the Web Digest: Week of June 15 | Savage Minds - June 22, 2014

    […] Peter Rauch authored a post on how men can participate in meaningful discussion after tragedies such as the Santa Barbara shooting. (Masculinities 101) […]

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