This post reproduces my contributions to a lengthy Facebook discussion of the role misogyny played in the 2014 Isla Vista killings. It began as a response to this article by Australian writer Clementine Ford.
Only my comments appear here, because they’re all that really belongs to me: I moved here at number 5 as it was too long to post on Facebook.
I’m not sure which of the comments belong to the “nutters”, but there’s a point raised in some of them that’s worthy of consideration: that it might not be justified to so neatly roll up the event as part of an overarching “structure of misogyny”.
Is there, really, such a thing as the “crime of being a woman”, which Ford refers to in her usual polemic mode? Is there a monolithic culture inside “MRA websites” and “pick-up artist communities”? (There isn’t.) Do these movements’ most objectionable elements represent the American or Australian mainstream?
Is raising these questions really “misogyny and male entitlement” at (reading back) “its most benign”? Is it male entitlement if the commenter Belle raises them, and is really as female as her name suggests?
Ford constructs an unfalsifiable argument that there’s no way out of. Mad gunman makes misogynistic rant and then kills 4 men and 2 women? Evidence of structural misogyny. Some commentators question role of structural misogyny, laying heavier weight on the gunman’s mental illness? Further evidence of structural misogyny.
Even if the structural misogyny thesis were true (and even its subscribers would be well-advised to read something like Christina Hoff Sommers Who Stole Feminism? for the sake of balance), Ford could certainly do a better job of setting up the argument for it.
“Why are MRA websites and PUA communities grouped?” In part because they are beginning to group themselves, perhaps. I recently read The Manosphere! by Ian Ironwood, which links the two. It’s deliberately inflammatory, but makes a number of interesting cases. Key here: MRA and PUA subcultures both belong to “the manosphere” because elements of them they are involved in the assertion of specifically masculine interests, and a reaffirmation of the value of “masculinity” (however constructed), as a response to aspects of the feminist subculture, which specifically affirms and pursues feminine or female interests as distinct from those of men and humanity as a whole. Sometimes they do link up in lamentably misogynistic ways—go and have a look at Return of Kings for some genuine examples of misogyny.
But there remains a hypocrisy in the way they’re described. Along with other good leftists, at university I was taught that “totalizing discourse” (i.e. “women are bad at math” or “MRAs and PUAs are misogynists”) is a means of oppression and it is politically necessary and intellectually rigorous to fight against it. If Ford ever was taught that lesson, and I imagine she was, I wish she would remember it when she writes her columns.
You’re absolutely right—Return of Kings is depressing. What’s also depressing is the way that sexual politics is so often discussed in a way that’s so unsatisfying to people who’d rather think about it than feel about it.
I can’t recommend enough that everyone read Who Stole Feminism?, which tells of the activist tactics feminist academics used to take control of institutions and public discourse on sexual politics in the 1990s and earlier. As Christina Hoff Sommers tells it, the situation we’ve arrived at, where Ford’s reading of Isla Vista can be accepted as dogma, wasn’t established by rational debate, but by bureaucratic maneuvering and intimidation. Again, as Sommers tells it, the idea of “systematic misogyny” that Ford can refer to is built on the foundation of dodgy research now years old and forgotten, supported by institutions primed to ostracize those who question it.
Without intellectualizing things, the debate (wherever it can be opened) devolves into a conflict of “lived experience”—women’s lived experiences of fear, abuse, and perceptions of misogyny in popular culture, countered by men’s lived experiences of discrimination in the courts, hypergamous divorce, incomprehension of the dating game, and perceptions of misandry in popular culture. Many people have stories to tell, about all sorts of things.
When you pit these experiences against each other, you end up in an unresolvable stand-off, and one in which it’s often not even clear what the goal is. Is the goal, where Isla Vista is concerned, to eradicate mass murder? If so, there’s a question here that’s more than academic: what were the genuine root causes of the killer’s actions, and what strategies can be empirically tested and verified as effective in reducing the frequency of such incidents? If “structural misogyny”, MRAs and PUAs have nothing to do with it, articles like Ford’s on Daily Life, and those of others on Daily Kos, Slate, and Jezebel are just pissing in the wind, and inflammatory to boot.
Perhaps if there’s anything feminists and masculinists have in common, it’s that extremists (and others) on both sides sling a distressing amount of hate and ridicule around.
Let’s say there’s a war to be waged on misogyny: there’s a war to be lost. What’s to be done about it? The current average counterattack seems to be something in the order of “you are a buffoon and henceforth a social pariah for airing your heterodox opinions,” and I don’t see it winning any converts. In fact, it drives some away from the cause.
So while I’m sitting here on Facebook just arguing that we could hold ourselves to a higher intellectual standard, others who got tired of the ridicule dropped the standard altogether and checked out of the whole scenario. They took the “red pill” and now they don’t give a shit about feminism or women’s interests. Instead they promote the idea that men have to fight for their turf. Let’s not forget men are roughly 50% of the population, too. They, too, hold up “half the sky”.
Where to from there? I guess thinking’s out of the question.
Did I say I took a red pill?
I’ve got time for both sides. I’m reminded right now of a winter afternoon where I sat in a Postcolonial Literature class at Melbourne Uni and Prof. Ken Gelder told the class that being an undergraduate could be an unsettling, confusing time, where you’d have your beliefs challenged and change your mind about things. I actually found those much more certain days—I arrived with prejudices that put me onside with faculty, and only later realized that I didn’t actually know what, if anything, to believe.
I don’t consider that hard, cold rational things like statistics are inadmissible or represent a devolution. I wish we talked about them more in these kinds of contexts: that I had more of a head for them (time to study stats?) and also that I didn’t find myself doubting a lot of the stories they’re used to tell.
I suppose what I’m talking about is that these debates often get down to what you might call “phenomenology,” where you’re just looking at what’s right in front of you, because that’s what you know. Also—we love that shit. I love it; it’s why I love Bukowski and Oe (and no doubt others, but those are the two authors I think of immediately). The bit above where you talked about your personal history is one of the few shining moments in this thread. It’s a mode that’s comfortable, and entertaining, and engaging … but it’s also one that’s often totally unconvincing to someone who had a different experience or who, for reasons ideological or otherwise, chooses not to take a sympathetic walk inside your headspace.
Phenomenology somehow ends up with us talking past each other, particularly when the rhetoric of “you couldn’t possibly understand unless you [experienced/are] X.” I’m personally ticked off by aspects of this debate because of things that I saw or that happened to me; others are personally ticked off by my being ticked off, or by other aspects of the debate, etc.
Numbers are way better than that, but I don’t always know what to do with them. I keep looking through my Evernote for some calculations that I did (from statistics I found at the ABS or an Australian women’s advocacy group) about what proportion of males is responsible for sexual assaults, and I can’t find it. I reconstructed it quickly from some stats I could find (link) and some stats from a Facebook discussion years ago (link). This might look like a digression, but it comes back to the point, so bear with me.
I admit my methodology is haphazard, and this ABS document doesn’t give the precise figure for what proportion of offenses were sexual, but just quickly…
Let’s assume 19% of women are sexually assaulted or threatened in their lifetime (the second document). Let’s also assum that sexual offences accounted for as great a proportion of offenders as illicit drug offences, recorded as the third most common principal offense, involving 17% (51,812) of 304,777 total male offenders “proceeded against” in 2013. It doesn’t, so this estimate will be on the high side. Let’s say the Australian population is 23.5 million (Wikipedia), and that exactly 50% is male (11.75 million). We then have 0.4% of Australian men being proceeded against for sexual offences every year. I’m going to assume for the sake of argument that all sexual offenses are against women, which isn’t true, but I just want to keep things simple and be generous to people who will disagree with me.
I was ready for that to be a shockingly high percentage, but it’s not. 0.4% is four in a thousand, so (again not being totally rigorous about it, as I’m not sure how these yearly incidences compound over lifetimes) if you went to a smaller co-ed school that had less than 250 boys, there might not have been a single boy there who will ever commit a sexual offense.
What is gobsmacking and shocking about this is that 0.4% of the male population is sexually victimizing 19% of women, and we are apparently powerless to stop them. It’s terrifying, actually: the stuff of cop shows and serial killer movies. I hate the idea that women have to worry about these guys, and I hate that I worry about the safety of friends, family, and girlfriends when they walk alone at night, swim at the beach by themselves, etc.
But it’s also the case, if you think about it a little more, that what 0.4% of men (0.2% of the general population) do doesn’t immediately suggest some kind of mainstream cultural phenomenon. It’s a mainstream experience, if 19% of women (that’s on average one in five women you know) are being assaulted and everyone is hearing about it, but it looks like a leap to say it’s a “rape culture” or to use Ford’s words “structural misogyny” or widespread “male entitlement” that is to blame. What it looks more like is that there’s a dangerous minority out there, doing awful things, and we are doing an appallingly bad job of stopping it. Our inefficacy might be, in part, because we’re caught up in all sorts of bullshit arguments, not clearly identifying our goals, and talking past each other all the time, all the while misidentifying the actual causes of the terrible problem.
These are the kinds of heretical things I think.
I didn’t always allow myself to, or bother, to think them. In my teens and early twenties I was as orthodox a leftist as they come, and I still find time now and then to chide my former fellow-travellers of forgetting the legacy of Marxism or criticisms of heterosexual marriage as propertarian.
I didn’t take the “red pill”, but I had a kind of “Emperor’s New Clothes” moment towards the end of my aborted PhD candidature, once I began to see how determinedly some of my teachers would close down debate or exploration of heterodox viewpoints that I had to investigate as part of my research into the political content of Japanese videogames. Oftentimes, these closures would involve personal ridicule or vilification of the viewpoints and their advocates. At the very least, you might see a bemused disbelief that you could entertain such a notion or thinker, often without the orthodox academic displaying any familiarity with, or intent to achieve familiarity with, relevant texts.
Once I find out that I have to believe something I instinctively react against it and want to tease it apart: this is perhaps my cross to bear. When I allowed myself to investigate them, I found that a lot of my old philosophical or political opinions weren’t well-informed or justified. I almost want to be convinced: a lot of things would have been nicer for me in past years if I could throw in my need to feel personally satisfied, on an intellectual level, by the things I say, support, and believe in, and just have toed the party line. But I can’t, or rather, I insist that it is right for me not to do that.
This is where one tells me, “It’s not all about you,” because as a straight white man I don’t get to have a problem. But it’s my head, and I happen to know my particular friends, and be interested in intellectual matters having grown up in a city where there is a very definitely approved set of opinions. So I end up confronting this kind of stuff and having to put my foot down in a sort of tantrum, and say, “nobody gets to tell me my experience isn’t worth anything, or say that I have to put my interests aside because I’m an X.”
When I read or read about an older generation of feminists I’m really with them on that: the insistence on carving out your own independence and space in the world, your own home, and your own head. My mother and her mother and most of the women of their generations and before had to work really hard at that if they ever got it at all. I don’t get the impression that writers in the style of Ford will have a bar of it when I suggest it might relate to men or anyone who disagrees with them in the slightest. And I don’t mind calling that sexism.
I know that invocation of an earlier spirit of feminism on my own behalf will look terribly high-handed. So be it.
I’ll say one more time—I’d love to be convinced. But for a long time the usual arguments and stories just haven’t done it for me. I think we don’t often do our opinions a great service, talking about them in what can be a careless and overemotive fashion peppered with personal attacks and veiled threats to place others in the outgroup. I’m not swayed by it, and I don’t think we should insist that anyone else be.
G (and A), when responding to you I read “the medias rendition of these tragedies and the reactions of the public” and “it’s fucking real whether you want to say it’s in our heads or not we still fucking feel it” as saying something like “it’s real if I feel it’s real,” attributing that to the media, and being upset that you have to feel this way. From subsequent comments of G’s, I can see I clearly got the media part of that wrong.
This does speak to the conversation about reason and emotion that’s now being had here, though. Just because we feel something is real doesn’t mean it is, particularly when we are generalizing or describing trends. That’s why we look at things like evidence, particularly statistics, and why even in an anecdotal sense we look for patterns rather than extrapolating from single incidents. What happens in your social circle may not happen in mine, so we have to look at a wider sample when making statements about society as a whole.
This brings us back to “structural misogyny,” where we started. The central question here, for me, was whether Ford’s thesis that “structural misogyny” was behind the Isla Vista killings is true. I don’t think it is. In section 5 of the blog post I wrote yesterday (this post) because a comment was too big to post on FB, I calculated that in Australia, no more than 0.4% of men are responsible for sexually assaulting 19% of women.
A, your “wait until you have a daughter” line of questioning seems to rather insultingly assume I’ve never genuinely loved or cared for the welfare of my mother, any of my female relatives, or my friends and girlfriends. For the record, for the past fourteen years I’ve walked girlfriends to their cars in the middle of the night (or watched them walk), taken calls from friends who want to be seen talking to someone because they think they’re being followed, and worried that when girls didn’t come home it was because they’d been attacked. Probably the highlight was a girlfriend and I being stalked and blackmailed by her sociopathic ex.
I feel scared and concerned by all these things, but the difference is, I’m not convinced that the things that *actually* happen (as opposed to things I may only be afraid of) are driven by an overall culture of misogyny. The stalker ex is threatening and misogynistic because he’s substantially driven by irrational anger and hatreds. He hates women, but he also hates everyone outside his narrowly defined ingroup, and has a history of assaulting complete strangers. Paul Denyer, whose Frankston killings made my mother scared while she was walking to her car from Chisolm TAFE at night, hated women … and it looks like he was insane, too.
I have 740 Facebook friends. Let’s say half of them are men (370). I consider just two of them genuine misogynists, in a Return of Kings kind of way. That’s 0.5%. Funnily enough, it’s about what I calculated as the maximum percentage of sexual assault perpetrators in the population. I hope those guys don’t turn out to be part of that statistic.
I’m not saying sexual violence and victimization isn’t distressingly common. I’m not saying misogyny isn’t real. I’m saying the idea of “structural misogyny,” especially as an explanation for mass murder and serial killings, is bogus, that some pro-feminist commentators on Isla Vista are falsely representing the MRA and PUA subcultures as monolithic, and that the arguments mobilized in favor of these positions are poor.