When Do We Talk About “Unpleasant” Truths In the Wake of Elliot Rodger's Destruction?

If I point out that 40 percent of mass shootings begin with incidents of domestic violence -- will it matter?

May 27, 2014 at 12:00pm | Leave a comment

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Soraya Chemaly

When I woke up Saturday morning I had every intention of not working, but instead, spending the day away from grim information about rape or gender-based violence, outside, with a large group of friends and family. I'd deliberately delayed until Tuesday writing about a physical attack on a woman and her lawyer, in a courtroom, by other lawyers, for having had the audacity to bring charges of sexual molestation against ... a lawyer. 

However, early in the morning I was sent a story about Elliot Rodger’s killing spree. The article, from the UK press, clearly described his explicit misogyny. I always compare multiple news sources and, in the earliest hours of coverage, many major US sources did not. So, while we had breakfast, I left the information to sit in my brain, determined not to brood on hatred. This a usual splitting of the feminist self for my many friends. 

But the coverage difference was a blunt and angering difference, and did not take place in a vacuum. By then I'd already gotten two messages related to how Rodger's actions derived their impetus from a culture bathed in denigrating, scaring, shaming and sexually violating girls and women. It was 9 am. This is not uncommon.

Also in the early hours of the day, two people sent me messages that were heartbreaking and chilling. Because of the work I do as a feminist writer and activist, I frequently get similar messages, but Saturday was different in the context of the Elliot Rodger horror.

The first message I received was from the mother of a teenage girl who’d committed suicide after being slut-shamed for years, online and off. I frankly have no idea how this mother makes it though her days because she deals with a constant onslaught of imagery involving her child. The second message, from a distressed individual, included a jarring, graphic photograph of a woman, bound, lying on her stomach, being violently raped by multiple men.

Just because I’ve seen thousands of images like it doesn’t make it less shocking.

This is the context in which I watched the media's erasure of Rodger’s hatred of women and the depressingly predictable narrative of the lone, mentally ill mass shooter disconnected from it. Computer-less, I occasionally checked news on my phone and, not wanting to derail the morning, I tweeted.

 

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I spent the morning driving happy girls around and sang as we tried to find our way around a sunny, green countryside and trying not to think of Isla Vista and mourning parents.

However, by late morning, despite my best intentions, I was quietly seething that the media was still not connecting the dots about male sexual entitlement, the hatred of women that men’s rights and PUA groups cultivate, the hegemonic masculinity that fuels a cruel, dangerous and corrupt gun culture. As women began to flood Twitter with this information the depressingly familiar #NotAllMen responses began. A woman on Twitter, in an effort to provide a space for women to describe what we live with, created #YesAllWomen. So I said very little and instead tweeted. 

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Meanwhile, when a buggy full of Mennonites went by, we talked about modernity and tradition. I did not say anything about my friend, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse who grew up in a Mennonite community and understood that the veneer of justice, peace and non-violence did not apply to her or her mother, who’d been raped by her father. She has built a community for herself and many others previously smothered in damaging silence. None of this was evident in the buggy or its occupants, out for a lovely ride on a lovely day. It was not part of people’s consciousness as they tried to peek through the windows from afar or guess the vintage of the vehicle.

By noon I was having a loud and busy lunch with many relaxed people whose company I enjoy, who were saying the words "mass shooting," but had never heard the term "aggrieved entitlement." I could not explain that Rodger's language and sentiments, while extreme, rippled through out media and women's lives every single day. That women recognized in them and his actions the logical, sick efflorescence of the everyday culture Decoupling the actions of an isolated "madman" from this helps no one.

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Not one of these people who'd seen the news had heard about Rodger’s vow to kill “blonde sorority sluts.” It was neither the time or the place to talk about how his ideas about women are inseparable from his ideas about race. About how they were related to Missing White Woman Syndrome and media's sexist collusion.

He was simply a “mass shooter.” Someone said something about Rogers and mental illness; I said something about misogyny and how our culture modifies the expression of mental illness. Then I stopped myself again. This information seemed so out of place. No one wants it.

Why would anyone want to know that there are 12 murder-suicides a week? That women are 85% of those killed, and men 95% of those killing? That there are at least three women who die violent deaths every day because men are angry and “possessive”? That there are 66,000 calls a day to domestic shelters from people, most women, asking for help escaping daily terrorism. I don’t want this information. But this is information no one wants, and everyone needs.

I wanted to yell, this is a man who said he wanted to put women in concentration camps and starve them. Why is the news media not saying that? He was sick, yes, but there are men who are effectively doing this to children and women in their homes, here and elsewhere, as we go about our lives. They exist on a continuum not separate from us, but alongside us.

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Later, I sat waiting for others in the mid-afternoon shade, watching on my phone, and a thoughtful man online engaged me in a conversation. He told me that he thinks that talking about misogyny distracts from the “real” problem of all violence and that gun control is what we should be talking about.

If I point out that 40% of mass shootings (all but one of which have been perpetrated by men in the past 30 years) begin with incidents of domestic violence -- will it matter?

Or is it salient that most people killing other people with guns are men -- men who are probably grappling with an illusive ideal of masculinity rooted in dominating and controlling others as a birthright? 

Betraying what I can only think of as an even greater illustration of how little he understands about me or feminism or gender, he then tells me that I’m using the shooting as a sex war wedge.

I try to explain that it’s not that men are violent, but that violence and domination are masculinized. When I say that it’s impossible to tackle violence without incorporating the fact that the earliest, most pervasive and consequential violence occurs in homes, where the fundamental and often violent dominance over others, a patriarchal mandate, is based on gender, there is silence.

Meanwhile, around me in physical space, the topic of school safety comes up.

I don’t say that 55 colleges are being investigated for institutional tolerance for rape. But I do mention that acknowledged campus rapists are often not expelled. This is surprising information. Someone says the words “boy crisis” which strikes me, somewhat cynically, as perfect because schools are often thought of as feminized spaces, bad for young “fidgety” boys, until, of course, we talk about crime.

Rodger’s attack was immediately identified with the University of California at Santa Barbara. Again, no one had heard about Rodger’s focused stalking of the sorority or explicitly targeting the girls there.

They were horrified, but what I saw in some eyes was doubt. How could that be right? That's when thoughts turn to daughters and become something you can touch.

When someone bemoaned the unique horror that was Rodger’s legacy, I doubted they wanted to hear about how it was far from unique. Take Maren Sanchez, the high school student stabbed to death when she turned down a boy for prom a few months ago -- or that “we” have far too many men who actually don’t want women who owe nothing to anyone and are self-possessed, educated and powerful in their own right. Only hours after Rodger killed these people, another man shot at a woman just miles away.

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After lunch, I put away my phone, and talk turned to the Amish.

Like a stone, my brain unwillingly skipped from images of Charles Cart Roberts IV entering a one-room schoolhouse only a few miles away from where we sat, sending out the boys, tying the girls up and shooting them, one at a time, in the back of the head. The youngest was six and the eldest 13. I didn’t want to visit that place with my daughters.

When is a good time to talk about what it means that mass shooters who often kill in schools have, consciously or not, selected gendered targets of opportunity?

Or that these tragedies occur at institutions where many more girls and women have died, at the hands of boys and men, than boys or men have?

Never. Never is a good time.

My brain by then had made its way to Montreal Polytechnique, where Marc Lepine, “fighting feminism” hunted and killed female students, and some men who got in his way, and then seamlessly it flitted to Anders Breivik, the Norway mass killer, and his similar beliefs. Boko Haram is only a more recent, bolder actor in a global system of anti-modern sentiment, always misogynistic, racist, trans and homophobic, that violently suppresses girls who want to be educated.

Men were killed, as though this denies misogyny. I've never understood this response. Of course men are killed, especially, as in the cases above, when they intervene to help women. I tried to explain, online and off, that of course I realize that men die because of misogyny and mental illness.

Complexity sucks for some people. I am frustrated with people willfully and destructively portraying mental illness and the hatred of women as mutually exclusive, binary, polarized and ranked. No one seems to care that a huge part of our issues treating mental illness is that it is feminized and that men, laboring with rigid gender norms, see admitting to this particular sickness as a sign of “female weakness.” These are marginalized issues, like women's experiences.

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By dinner, I think, if Rodger was “just mentally ill,” what about all of the men who are using his language, trading in his fundamental ideas about deserving sex from women, and quietly believing that sexism and misogyny aren’t really all that bad? When someone suggests gender symmetry in violence I don’t have the energy to explain that there are 160 million missing women on the planet out loud.

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I reminded myself that it was a weekend off and I had no time, space or way to write and no real desire to speak as The Serious Feminist. So I effectively tweeted an article (and my rage) using #YesAllWomen, because I thought that at least if so much of the world is going to engage in a cultural "shrug" and scold women for not understanding what’s “really” important, it might help to have a smattering of facts. Rachel Sklar put it best when she described the #YesAllWomen hashtag as “a collective trigger.” Sharing ideas online enabled me to deconstruct the cognitive dissonance of the day.

In truth however, facts were not the point, but raw emotion was. It's why #YesAllWomen is still trending days after it was started. We could populate it 24/7 until the next mass shooting in which a young, sick white man kills people with a gun he legally acquired in a culture that seems -- quite literally -- constitutionally incapable of letting go of a putrefying violent, masculine ideal. Talking about misogyny, looking the ugliness in that lives directly adjacent to the beauty of life in the face has nothing to do with being a man or a woman. It has to do with a sense of justice.   

My husband, who patiently and kindly left my tweeting unremarked upon, says this work of daily pessimism requires cosmic optimism and I know he is right.