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#YesAllWomen Changes the Story

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Posted on Jun 2, 2014

Photo by Luis Hernandez (CC BY 2.0)

By Rebecca Solnit, TomDispatch

This piece first appeared at TomDispatch. Read Tom Engelhardt’s introduction here.

It was a key match in the World Cup of Ideas. The teams vied furiously for the ball. The all-star feminist team tried repeatedly to kick it through the goalposts marked Widespread Social Problems, while the opposing team, staffed by the mainstream media and mainstream dudes,  was intent on getting it into the usual net called Isolated Event. To keep the ball out of his net, the mainstream’s goalie shouted “mental illness” again and again. That “ball,” of course, was the meaning of the massacre of students in Isla Vista, California, by one of their peers.

All weekend the struggle to define his acts raged. Voices in the mainstream insisted he was mentally ill, as though that settled it, as though the world were divided into two countries called Sane and Crazy that share neither border crossings nor a culture. Mental illness is,  however, more often a matter of degree, not kind, and a great many people who suffer it are gentle and compassionate. And by many measures,  including injustice, insatiable greed, and ecological destruction,  madness, like meanness, is central to our society, not simply at its edges.

In a fascinating op-ed piece last year, T.M. Luhrmann noted that when schizophrenics hear voices in India, they’re more likely to be told to clean the house, while Americans are more likely to be told to become violent. Culture matters. Or as my friend, the criminal-defense investigator who knows insanity and violence intimately, put it, “When one begins to lose touch with reality, the ill brain latches obsessively and delusionally onto whatever it’s immersed in—the surrounding culture’s illness.”

The murderer at Isla Vista was also repeatedly called “aberrant,” as if to emphasize that he was nothing like the rest of us. But other versions of such violence are all around us, most notably in the pandemic of hate toward and violence against women. 

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In the end, this struggle over the meaning of one man’s killing spree may prove to be a watershed moment in the history of feminism, which always has been and still is in a struggle to name and define, to speak and be heard. “The battle of the story” the Center for Story-Based Strategy calls it, because you win or lose your struggle in large part through the language and narrative you use.

As media critic Jennifer Pozner put it in 2010 about another massacre by a woman-hating man,

“I am sick to death that I have to keep writing some version of this same article or blog post on loop. But I have to, because in all of these cases, gender-based violence lies at the heart of these crimes—and leaving this motivating factor uninvestigated not only deprives the public of the full, accurate picture of the events at hand, but leaves us without the analysis and context needed to understand the violence, recognize warning signs, and take steps to prevent similar massacres in the future.”

The Isla Vista murderer took out men as well as women, but blowing away members of a sorority seems to have been the goal of his rampage. He evidently interpreted his lack of sexual access to women as offensive behavior by women who, he imagined in a sad mix of entitlement and self-pity, owed him fulfillment. 

#YesAllWomen

Richard Martinez, the father of one of the young victims, spoke powerfully on national TV about gun control and the spinelessness of the politicians who have caved to the gun lobby, as well as about the broader causes of such devastation. A public defender in Santa Barbara County, he has for decades dealt with violence against women, gun users, and mental illness, as does everyone in his field. He and Christopher Michaels-Martinez’s mother, a deputy district attorney, knew the territory intimately before they lost their only child. The bloodbath was indeed about guns and toxic versions of masculinity and entitlement, and also about misery, cliché, and action-movie solutions to emotional problems. It was, above all, about the hatred of women.

According to one account of the feminist conversation that followed, a young woman with the online name Kaye (who has since been harassed or intimidated into withdrawing from the public conversation) decided to start tweeting with the hashtag #YesAllWomen at some point that Saturday after the massacre. By Sunday night, half a million #yesallwomen tweets had appeared around the world, as though a dam had burst. And perhaps it had. The phrase described the hells and terrors women face and specifically critiqued a stock male response when women talked about their oppression: “Not all men.”

It’s the way some men say, “I’m not the problem” or that they shifted the conversation from actual corpses and victims as well as perpetrators to protecting the comfort level of bystander males. An exasperated woman remarked to me, “What do they want—a cookie for not hitting, raping, or threatening women?” Women are afraid of being raped and murdered all the time and sometimes that’s more important to talk about than protecting male comfort levels. Or as someone named Jenny Chiu tweeted, “Sure #NotAllMen are misogynists and rapists. That’s not the point. The point is that #YesAllWomen live in fear of the ones that are.”


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