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Elliot Rodger and the web of misogyny

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"Girls have never been attracted to me," said Elliott Rodger before he killed and wounded some of them for it, and men as well, whom he saw as more successful rivals. The events in Isla Vista, California, produced a tidal wave of commentators, a shocking number of whom denied that misogyny had anything to do with his killing spree. Given the abundant documentation to the contrary -- his selfie videos and a 141-page "manifesto" -- this capacity for denial is in some ways even more shocking than the act itself.

The moral and intellectual purblindness on display in Barbara Kay's screed on the Rodger massacre is a case in point. Even for her it’s remarkable -- more so, perhaps, than the decision of her son and editor to run it in the National Post. But for all that, she manages to raise an interesting question, almost buried in her one-trick-pony anti-feminist vituperation.

Let's shovel the dreck out of the way first, though. Kay claims that pervasive societal misogyny had nothing to do with Rodger's shootings and stabbings. Those who claim otherwise, she says, are just feminists out on a tear. It’s that old "lone armed crazy" theory once again, invariably trotted out to explain away the acts of white mass-murderers, like Anders Breivik. It conveniently exculpates everybody else, and relieves them of any and all responsibility: "He was nuts. We had nothing to do with it."

But when mass killers are brown, or Muslim, or both, it's always "terrorism" and/or "Islamism." Mental health isn't even raised. Their homogenized "communities" are excoriated by commentators who demand that they police themselves better, claiming that they lack moral leadership, or are even covering for the criminals. There is something wrong with their religion, they suggest, or their culture—or both.

Here's a thought-experiment. Had someone left a seething anti-Semitic document behind, and similar videos, and then gone out and shot a number of Jews, would we be invited by Kay and others of her stripe to ignore anti-Semitism as a social fact? Would they accuse concerned Jews of exploiting a tragedy for (to use Kay’s words) "political gain?" Would they ask us to look at all the mass murders of non-Jews, and to explain why we're ignoring them?

Yet Kay does all this in the case of a misogynistic mass-murder. To show that our concern is all one-sided, she triumphantly brings forward the killings of 7,000 boys and men in Srebrenica in 1995, and more recently the slaughter by Boko Haram of 50 children in a male Nigerian boarding school, as though she is scoring a point. "No cause for alarm, though. They were only boys," she sneers, deliberately missing the glaring distinction—in neither case was active misandry at work. On the contrary, one can easily see in the killing of "enemy" males and the sexual enslavement of girls and women in both Srebrenica and Nigeria the presence of the self-same masculism and misogyny that were expressed by Elliot Rodger.

But here is where we need to be careful:

"It's a strange thing. If a black man or a gay man or a Muslim were implicated in this very same scenario, and a video and writings had been found afterward ranting about whites, heterosexuals or Jews -- even though the killer had taken out a mixed bag of victims -- what would be the very first hashtag we'd see? It would be #Don’tBlameAll[insert minority here]. We're all manic on the crime of negative stereotyping when it comes to every single identity group other than heterosexual males."

Setting aside the inflammatory phrasing, does Kay have a real point here? We are at pains, after all, to distance the acts of terrorists from the "communities" they hail from. We defend Muslims against the mass-panic suspicion that they are all 9/11-type murderers, at least potentially. We abhor racial profiling at airports. We opposed the organized spying by the New York police department on peaceful Muslims, an effort that over many years never netted a single terrorist.

Are we treating the "male community" differently, homogenizing men, placing them all under suspicion? Well, yes and no.

As in the case of the Montreal Massacre, no one (despite Kay’s claim) is arguing that we men are all potential misogynist killers. I’ve seen none of that, at least, under the #YesAllWomen hashtag that seems to have prompted her outburst. We, and by "we" I mean here those taking the social implications of the Rodger massacre seriously, aren't promoting the notion of shared murderous male impulses occasionally managing to burst forth. We're talking about a spectrum of misogyny that ranges from blonde jokes and daily microaggressions (see Twitter's #everydaysexism) to bullying and slut-shaming, to domestic violence, to rape and to murder. This misogyny is all-pervasive and, in its less malignant forms, normal, even banal. It's fair, I think, to regard misogyny per se as a subset of the social values that are currently dominant.

As such, it can and it has clearly shaped the rage and defined the targets of the crazy and the non-crazy alike. Extreme acts of misogyny -- domestic battery, rape, murder -- don't take place in a vacuum, any more than their less-extreme variants do. Misogyny is an axis of power that cuts across all "racial," class and "cultural" divides in North America. It is socially constructed and socially validated. Its poison is absorbed and expressed by its victims as well. And, like racism, misogyny is both personal and systemic.

Heterosexual males should certainly be called upon to pause and reflect when extreme events such as those in California occur. But Barbara Kay is here to show us that this group is far from alone. All of us, in fact, are implicated in one way or another in a social web of sexism, reinforced in large and small ways every day. The good news is that we aren't helpless pawns in the grip of vast social forces: we can question, we can swim against the current of power and privilege, we can say "no." Many of us do, or try to. But many more do not, and some, like Kay, hateful Twitter trolls and Rodger himself, of course, never will. The problem is that, so long as misogyny is left unrecognized and unchallenged, its malignant forms can be predictably expected to recur. And in that respect, Isla Vista could be just about anywhere we happen to live.

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