If you’ve been paying attention to the news, you’ll probably have heard about the horrifying acts of Elliot Rodger, who, feeling that women owed him love and sex, and that they hadn’t given him his due, went on a murderous rampage to extract “revenge” for these imagined misdeeds of the female gender.
Just monstrous. More details have emerged since then, painting a grim picture of his twisted mindset. He seemed to be deeply immersed in the poisonous rhetoric of the Men’s Rights Activists (MRA) and the Pick Up Artist (PUA) community. It’s not my place to speculate about whether any mental conditions may have contributed to his actions, but it’s far from surprising that such hateful soil nurtured vile acts.
It’s easy to dismiss the context, to believe that evil people will simply find any reason to do evil, but that is wrong-headed. Causes are complex, but context is not insignificant. The Nazis didn’t discover antisemitism, their attitudes and atrocities grew out of a thousand years of deep-seated European and Christian antisemitism, frequent purges of Jewish communities across Europe.
Horrifying acts grow where hatred is nurtured.
After Elliot’s suicidal rampage, of course, many took to blogs, news sites and social media to express their and anger and horror, to call out the attitudes that nurtured this killer. Society reeled, especially women. Many used twitter, under the hashtag #YesAllWomen, to give voice to their own experiences with men who treat sexual attention from women as a right to be demanded, by force if necessary. Story after story poured out, a torrent of grief and horror and anger and solidarity.
And, this being social media, it was very quickly derailed.
I hesitate to call it trolling. There HAS been trolling of the feminist response, no doubt. I’ve seen facebook pages put up calling Elliot a hero, but they bear the hallmarks of 4Chan. In terrible taste, but they don’t ring true as anything other than an attempt at “teh lulz” by horrible, bored children.
What I’m talking about specifically is the #NotAllMen hashtag that quickly rose in response. Less outright trolling and more a sort of obliviousness or defensiveness, nitpicking. Which, in the context, stops seeming harmless and comes across as almost malicious. An attempt to derail women’s expression of their daily, lived experience for the sake of ego. I’ll discuss that more in a bit, but let’s just carry on with recounting events, first.
So the #YesAllWomen hashtag involved women pouring out their souls and experessing their horror, the #NotAllMen responded by nitpicking how that expression was phrased, because it hurt men’s feelings, and basically online war erupted. I’ve read almost as much rage against the “Not All Men” men, as I have about Elliot Rodger and his murder spree. Of course, that may simply be my personal filter bubble, so don’t take that as proof of anything. Elliot Rodger, being dead, is probably not quite as actively argumentative as the Not All Men. I don’t intend it as a criticism, it’s just my personal view of how it’s unfolded.
Here’s a fine example, by the excellent writer Penny Red – “Let’s call the Isla Vista killings what the were: misogynist extremism”.
You can see how the article is kind of broken up into two halves, the first focusing on Elliot, the second on the Not All Men thing. And that’s not a unique rant. Feminists have been expressing their frustration with this kind of response for a while now, long before Elliot Rodger. So much so that this satirical cartoon was created, quickly spreading across the net.
And here’s a deeper discussion of the thoughts and frustration behind it, why it’s so annoying for feminist bloggers – “Not All Men: A Brief History of Every Dude’s Favorite Argument.”
For the rest of this article, I’m going to talk about this “Not All Men” thing. If you’re wondering why I’m not going to talk about Elliot Rodger more, or the PUA community and how atrocious sites like Return of Kings (I refuse to link to that trash, but you can read about their comments in regard to Elliot here) is, it’s not because I think that those issues aren’t much more important, pressing subjects to focus on.
It’s because I think those topics have already been covered by so many women who deal with this reality, who have put it much better than I ever could. I don’t have anything new to add to that conversation. Please, read the links I’ve posted. These are horrible events, and it’s worth taking the time to examine them, and think about what we can do or how we, especially men, might be contributing to the environment that nurtured Elliot.
Anyway, like I said, I’m going to talk about the “Not All Men” thing for the rest of this blog post. There, I might have something new to offer to the conversation. Because, at one point, I was a Not All Man.
A long time ago, and thankfully not on the internet. I made that particular argument to my mother, in my teens, after I’d brought home some feminist literature I’d found at the library.
I was visiting the library nearly every week at that point, bringing home a satchel full of books at a time, and I’d found the section on gender studies while browsing around the extremely interesting (to a teenage boy) shelves devoted to books on sexual practices.
Ever curious, particularly about the exotic species known as “women”, I checked out these books in the hope of gleaning some insight into how women viewed the world. I was a shy young man attending an all-boys school. Much of my “insight” into the female of the species was second hand knowledge, garnered from books and TV and so forth.
So I went home, and read them. And fairly quickly started feeling angry and defensive. Many of the books seemed to burn with rage at men at the injustices perpetrated against women. All men, it seemed to me.
When my mother came home, I bombarded her first with the ideas that I’d read, then with my feelings of injustice and unfair generalization. It was one thing to say that some men are horrible, and do horrible things, on that point I more than agreed. But I felt I was being tarred and feathered with the monsters. Because I had a penis, I was guilty of the same crime. Not at all fair, I ranted!
My poor mother. She said that, for my own sake, I probably shouldn’t read that kind of book. And for a while, I didn’t, and I didn’t think much of the radical feminists. I had that frequently encountered view amongst both men and women, that feminism has done much good but the “bra-burning radical types” took it too far, into man-hatred, and that in the modern era feminism had become largely irrelevant.
And that was my opinion for a while. It’s not like I spent that much time thinking about it, honestly. It was, at the time, one of those views that, once settled on, didn’t come up very much. I treated women the same as I always had, as equals, but in my mind there was a box to which I’d dismissed “the radical, unreasonable feminists.” Who were not like normal, reasonable women, of course.
Fast forward to today, more than a decade later, and my views on these matters have matured, deepened, become significantly more nuanced. I am aware of more sides to arguments of all sorts, these days, and look back on the shallow opinions of teenage and early-twenties Gareth with much wry bemusement. Kids, man.
Which brings me to why I felt the urge to talk about this subject, even though it’s an emotionally-fraught one liable to blow up in my face. Because that “Not All Men” cartoon…well, it bugs me ever so slightly.
Even though I can see where it’s coming from and fully sympathize with the frustration, I remember teenage Gareth making that argument. And I remember that I wasn’t actually making it in bad faith. I wasn’t playing Devil’s Advocate, I wasn’t trying to derail important discussion about the mistreatment of women. I just didn’t want to be counted with the monsters. I felt targeted by that accusatory anger, and I didn’t feel like I’d done anything to deserve it. I was a nice guy, why take it out on me, protested the voice in my head.
That’s understandable, isn’t it? You can respond with “yes, but why bring it up then, when something more important is being discussed, if not to attempt to derail, to shift focus?” Maybe. But isn’t that also maybe being a bit ungenerous? When someone, never mind a teenager, feels defensive and says “hey, that’s not fair!” they’re not necessarily using that as a gambit, the moving of a chess piece, part of a larger, deceitful stratagem to diffuse and deflect your point. Humans and our emotional responses to things that threaten our sense of self are not necessarily all that rational or well-considered. Sometimes we do dumb things, without malevolent intent, that piss off other people.
And I know, teenage Gareth’s motives aren’t necessarily the same as the commonly-encountered Not All Man, and feminist bloggers will have more direct contact with that breed of animal. Perhaps my empathy is misplaced. But I still do worry about this kind of thing, a little bit. I worry it might be part of a trend in life that I find disagreeable, and see all too frequently. That I do myself, all too frequently. A tendency we all have to be ungenerous about the motives of people who we don’t agree with on some topic.
I’ll give an example I’ve seen, one made by “my” side, the liberal and progressive side. In a pro-life, pro-choice debate on abortion, I’ve seen comments like “the pro-life people don’t want to allow abortions because really, they just don’t want women to have any rights at all.”
That is ungenerous. It’s a complex, difficult issue, abortion. I’m pro-choice, but I don’t believe the majority of pro-life folks have any other motive besides the reasonable viewpoint that recognizable human life starts at point X instead of at point Y, where the pro-choice people put it. And thus terminating even an early pregnancy is seen to be ending a human life without its consent, something most consider murder. But it’s like we can’t stop at simply disagreeing where recognizable human life starts and what exact rights a mother has under those circumstances, we have this urge to take it further, to emphasize the villainy of someone who holds a different viewpoint. It’s easier to hate and dismiss cartoon caricatures, I guess.
Which is not to say that there aren’t real villains out there, that there aren’t atrocious viewpoints floating around that need to be squashed. But I fear this tendency drives us to hate people who aren’t actually that different in viewpoint from us, or who are potentially future allies, with a bit of time and understanding. What might have happened if young Gareth had expressed his opinion on the internet, instead of to his mother. I like to think I’m smart enough to have come right anyway, but I don’t know.
I fear that in the angry momentum built up behind the memes and blog posts about the Not All Men, we may be falling into that trap. Taking someone whose stance merely aggravates and interpreting their motivations in the most villainous light. Saying that not only are they wrong, they’re motivated by a desire to discredit or deceive. Because what could someone who seemingly rushes to the defense of misogyny be, but a sort of arch-misogynist? The devil’s advocate, the guy who knowingly defends the bad guy, that guy’s almost worse than the bad guy himself.
Which brings up the thought – if they’re defending the misogynists, and I’m (as some may interpret it) defending them, am I then the arch-arch-misogynist? Heh.
I worry about the nuance-stripping nature of these kinds of memes. I worry about what it does to how we communicate with each other, and our potential for finding common ground. I worry bout overload, where one person speaks to ten thousand, they directly answer back, overwhelming an individual’s patience and restraint. There’s an xkcd cartoon where he talks about being patient with people asking “dumb” questions, because you have to remember that no matter how tired you may be of certain topics or questions, there is always someone engaging with it for the first time. Some newb for whom this is their first encounter with the subject.
I wonder if something similar may be at play here? If you imagine sub-cultures as large networks of interconnected ideas and people and so on, there are those who sit at the heart of the network, and those along the edge. The people in the center are switched on, deeply engaged, much more aware of nuance and context and history than the outliers.
I worry about when the person in the center has a conversation with the person on the edge, who may be young, inexperienced, or just someone who hasn’t thought through the issue at hand. I worry about the wearing down of patience, and the temptation to lash out.
It’s a hard problem to solve. Because it’s a lot to ask for, that kind of restraint of anger in the middle of a terrible situation.
It’s completely understandable that women who are incandescent with rage and grief and horror at some new atrocity in a long line of atrocity inflicted on their gender, who have found the bravery to stand up and speak out against it in public, knowing the horrible, potentially-dangerous people their words will attract, don’t have it in them to stop and take the time to patiently guide some newbie making a superficial, stupid objection that misses the forest for the trees, or a stupid comment they’ve heard a thousand times. It’s hard to be patient and generous and understanding at the best of times, never mind the worst, and it’d be beyond presumptuous to demand that victimized women must be politely considerate toward men whose attitudes may help deflect blame from the perpetrators, when expressing their thoughts at times like these.
It would be unreasonable to criticize someone for not having the patience of a saint, not unless we ourselves are saintly. And who is? But, at the same time, I know it’s probably also unrealistic to expect the ignorant and inexperienced to have a good grasp on how to navigate these conversations carefully and considerately. So I worry about our ability to have these discussions, in this format. I worry about actively alienating the merely inexperienced and thoughtless, turning them into enemies.
I worry that if we take the people who say things like
“I’m not a feminist, I’m a humanist! If your goal is to treat people equally, why call it feminism? That implies bias toward women’s concerns only!”
“Why call it patriarchy if it’s not all men? How can it be a patriarchy if many men aren’t benefiting it? Isn’t that raging at the wrong target?”
“How can you say I’m part of the patriarchy? I’ve never treated women badly in my life!”
“Men are also assaulted, you know!”
“Why try to make me feel like it’s my responsibility, just because I have a penis? It wasn’t me who did it! Implying I’m guilty because of my genitals is sexism!”
and act like they’re practically MRAs, well, we’ll drive them to the MRA movement and their atrocious “Red Pill” nonsense. I worry about how quickly we divide the world into allies and enemies. I worry what someone who is now where young Gareth once was might become, in the crucible of the internet rage machine. And I worry that someone reading this blog is going to interpret it as me saying these are bigger worries than women being brutalized and murdered.
So, at the end of it all, what’s the answer? What do we do? Who do we assign fault to? I don’t know, and blaming anyone really isn’t the point of this piece, I hope that’s clear. The point was just to share my experience, and say that this is complex, and hard. All I have is a hope that somehow we can get better at understanding each other.
And somehow find a way to create a world that treats women better. Just days after Elliot Rodger went on his rampage, on the other side of the world, a pregnant woman was stoned to death by her family, for marrying for love. There isn’t a country on Earth where women are safe from these kinds of depredations. We’ve made improvements, but it’s not nearly enough.
Whatever our misunderstandings and disagreements, however different our life experiences, we must find a way to fix this. Men, women, all of us.
*And just in case it’s not clear, I really hope no one takes this piece as justification to start sneering at feminists in the comments. I’m a feminist, I believe in feminism. I think it’s important. The fact that there are difficulties with understanding and communicating with each other online, especially in emotionally-fraught situations or via forms of social media that constrain communication, proves nothing besides that this kind of thing is hard, and that we’re all flawed humans. I wrote this not as a critique of feminism, but because I felt the need to put my thoughts and experiences into words. I like almost everyone who comments on my blog, please don’t lead me to making a frowny face.