In the wake of Elliot Rodger's mass murder on Friday evening, topics such as sexism, feminism, male privilege, reverse sexism, misogyny, mental health, and gun control have dominated America's national discourse. As is all too often the case, a massacre serves as the catalyst for a discussion of topics we frequently avoid. Sadly, the discussions often turn into the sort of heated, vitriol-fueled arguments that flare up, reaffirm peoples' deeply-held beliefs and prejudices, then, often more speedily than one would expect, drift out of our conversations as more pleasant, less meaningful subject matter reassumes its dominance of the news cycle.
But such events do not always culminate in the reapplication of cultural blinders. If there's a silver lining to be found on the darkest of humanity's many storm clouds, it is that the ugly, the uncomfortable, the unconscionable, and the downright horrifying can pierce the fabric of the shroud under which we often place the things we'd rather not discuss, revealing just how much evil we allow ourselves to ignore in our daily pursuits of comfort. The ugly realities we see roiling just below the surface of normalcy, the bullshit we tolerate in the interests of avoiding conflict, the things we'd just rather not think about because they're just too big are precisely the things that we have to discuss before we suture the gash and pretend not to see the scar. This is why I am so troubled by the relative reluctance of men to engage in the conversations surrounding Rodger's slaughter: whether we men like it or not, we cannot sit this one out. I've seen dozens of links on Facebook and Twitter directing me to eloquently-written, intelligently-argued essays written by women reacting both to what transpired on Friday and to the misogynistic comments men have made in response to women's comments about sexism, but I have not seen a single link to a male voice. Unless men loudly and collectively join in the discussion of misogyny in our culture, we are wronging the women we silently support.
Before I continue with my discussion, however, I want to interject a personal anecdote as a way to explain why I feel particularly impelled to write this brief essay. I remember, upon learning that the Minnesota Gay Marriage Amendment was rejected, feeling happy. Then, suddenly, I felt awful. My initial elation that something good had occurred prompted me to realize that I had done nothing to bring it about. From my privileged position as a heterosexual man who could marry a woman with only a handful of minor legal obligations, I silently supported marriage equality for individuals unable to enjoy that same comfort. In other words, while I believed homosexual individuals are equal to heterosexuals such as myself and even expressed that belief in conversations, I did nothing to knock down the wall that I felt was wrongly separating me from my equals. Thus, I was, in a very real sense, complicit in the maintenance of a systematic injustice. Saying I supported gay marriage did nothing to change the fact that I still enjoyed something others could not and I learned that feeling someone is my equal is not the same thing as treating them as my equal. Put differently, I finally realized that if I truly believed someone was as much a human being as myself, their injustice was also necessarily my injustice. To behave in a way that does not recognize this fact is nothing more than another way of perpetuating the injustice and othering I ostensibly reject. My silence, then, was a subtle way of saying their injustice was theirs alone, that their human rights were somehow not the same as mine, that their humanity was relative rather than universal. That was wrong and I don't want to do that again.
Thus, I feel compelled to add my voice to the discussion of misogyny in American culture. I will structure my comments as responses to a number of generalized ideas I have seen expressed about women in a number of blogs, discussion boards, and news articles that have appeared in the days following Friday's massacre:
Not all men are misogynistic! The vast majority of men would never act the way Elliot Rodger did. The "good guys" shouldn't have to suffer because of one or two "bad" guys.
Of course most men aren't extreme misogynists, though there may be a larger percentage of our number that thinks or acts unknowingly in misogynistic ways than we believe. Not realizing that we're contributing to a problem is one of the more sinister effects of growing up in an unjust society.
Furthermore, virtually no women would think that all (or even most) men are misogynists--but that isn't the point. I suspect the problem is less the existence of misogynists than the existence of misogyny. It's not that all men are misogynists (we're not); it's that any man could be one. It's like that scene in The Matrix where Morpheus explains to Neo that "anyone we haven't unplugged...is potentially an Agent. Inside the Matrix...they are everyone...and they are no one." Individual misogynists may be ignorant assholes, but they are also agents of misogyny, the vectors through which injustice poisons the world.
Again, this is not about men feeling bad for being men or about men reassuring the women in their lives that "not all men are bad." This is about combatting a social disease that affects every human being.
The sexism aspect of the event is being blown out of proportion. Elliot Rodger was a sexist, but he was also a mentally disturbed individual. Plenty of people feel negative emotions towards others and do not act out on their anger or frustration. It was his mental illness that led to the shooting.
Yes, if the early reports are accurate, Elliot Rodger was likely suffering from a number of mental illnesses and yes, those disturbances likely contributed to his actions on Friday. Again, this is missing the point. Keep in mind, most mentally ill people do not act violently, either. Attributing Rodger's actions to mental illness is an excuse that is unfair to other mentally ill people who endure enough prejudice as it is. No, we need to look at the anger that may or may not have been enhanced by his mental illness. We need to identify the source of his anger, which must have been planted somehow. I doubt very much that Elliot Rodger's ideology emerged sui generis and I know for a fact that misogynists are not produced parthenogenetically.
Elliot Rodger felt entitled. His video recordings and writings tell us he felt entitled to sex, to romance, to the love of women he desired physically. He felt slighted. He felt slighted by the women he desired, by the genetics that contributed to his diminutive stature, by a society in which women could enjoy pursuing their own sexual desires.
But the real question is where did his sense of entitlement come from?
Like all entitlement, it comes from a sense that one has a right to something. In other words, Elliot Rodger felt that he had the right to the women he desired. He had the right to sex, the right to a girlfriend, the right not to be lonely. In his writing, in his YouTube videos, Rodger talks about "women" as a general concept, like a commodity, like corn. Women may be subdivided into types, just as a grain may be subdivided into strains more suitable for human consumption or animal consumption, but they are never individuals. They may be "sluts," they may be "sorority girls," but they don't have names. Somehow, Elliot Rodger absorbed a set of beliefs and assumptions about life that included the notion that a man has the right to a woman and, especially, to her body. But, again, where does this belief come from? I think the answer, sadly, is everywhere.
After all, we live in a world where wikiHow has a guide called "3 Ways to Be a Player," where the mundanity of sexism is so prevalent that The Onion can make a joke about the "Male Gaze Fall[ing] on Buffalo Chicken Bites" without much fuss, and off-duty police officers are caught laughing about a drunk girl being taken advantage of (and encouraging a would-be rapist) on What Would You Do?
The reason sexism and misogyny have to be a part of the discussion is because sexism and misogyny are the reasons why Elliot Rodger killed and injured so many people. His mental state may not have been stable, he may not have been able to carry our his plan without police oversight, stricter gun laws, or ineffectual medical intervention, but he got the idea to put the bullets in the guns because he believed he had the right to kill women for not finding him attractive.
Feminists are so extreme that they have turned men against them. Men no longer feel they can say or do anything without risking sounding sexist or misogynistic.
Statements like these are usually so vague that they reveal more about the speaker's views than about the targets of their criticism. First of all, what do you mean by "feminist"? What do you mean by "extreme"? A feminist, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, simply means "an advocate or supporter of the rights and equality of women." Unless supporting equal rights is "extreme," the sentiments expressed in the above statement more likely than not refer to a stereotype of a feminist, which is, itself, an expression of prejudice. Furthermore, the idea that men could turn against feminists also implies that no men are feminists and that, accordingly, women have brought negative behavior onto themselves. That latter assumption is, troublingly, a relative of the idea behind statements like "if she didn't dress like that, she wouldn't have been raped."
I'll wrap up this post for now, but I'll close with one final comment related to what I wrote earlier about my own place of privilege. Once I finish this blog post and click "publish," I am going to walk outside to get dinner. I will be a silent supporter again. I could pass someone with views similar to those of Elliot Rodger and I wouldn't even register on his radar. As a man, I should be grateful for this freedom. As a human being, I have to find a way for everyone to feel as safe as I do walking down the street. I think that's about as "extreme" a statement as any feminist has ever made.
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend a good friend's dissertation defense. Despite the tremendous anxiety with which he faced his committee and the barrage of pointed questions directed at him, his defense was successful and was declared a Doctor of Philosophy by his advisor. Following a spirited round of applause and after the attendees stopped inundating my friend with celebratory handshakes and pats on the back, the newly-minted Ph.D. expressed a tremendous sense of relief and the sort of joy one would expect following the culmination of so much hard work and dedication.
A week or so later, during one of our telephone conversations, my friend marveled at how his mood, which had so recently been practically ecstatic, had morphed into something far less pleasant. He was, he admitted, depressed. In fact, he likened his sudden, unexpected emotional turn to the post-partum depression some women experience after giving birth. Although he could not see me do so, I nodded. And, boy, did I nod.
I nodded because my friend's comments reminded me of two unrelated conversations I had had over the past few years. The first conversation I recalled was between a friend of mine and myself, a year or so before I completed my own doctoral dissertation. She was employed by Cornell University and worked in one of the school's most well-funded programs. Not surprisingly, she had, in her decade or so of working at one of the top universities in the world, gotten to know a good many brilliant doctoral students who'd written some truly spectacular dissertations. When I expressed the very typical doctoral student desire to just be done with the damn thing already, she drew upon her years of experience among those bright young men and women and told me, in no uncertain terms, to be careful what I wished for.
The second conversation that immediately popped into my mind while chatting with my melancholic friend took place a couple of years after I had completed my dissertation, as I sat around a dinner table with a few fellow professors and reminisced about graduate school. For whatever reason, the conversation turned to research and, in the course of things, we began discussing our respective experiences writing dissertations. I mentioned my old friend's ominous "be careful what you wish for" comment and admitted to having felt depressed after completing what was, essentially, a very successful part of my academic career. Before I could even finish what I started to say, two of my colleagues, suddenly animated by what can only be described as a mingled sense of relief and recognition, offered that they, too, had experienced exactly the same thing. There were tears where they'd expected smiles, oppressive heavy-heartedness where they'd made room for jubilation. In short, there was the same nasty post-doctoral post-partum depression my friend had described to me over the telephone a couple of weeks ago.
So, why do so many academics experience painful depression and sadness when they should, by almost any reasonable person's estimation, feel happiness and relief? Here are a few factors that may explain the phenomenon:
1. The Post-Partum Analogy Might Not Be That Far Off
In "The Author to Her Book," the American poet Anne Bradstreet famously likens a collection of her verse an "ill-form'd" child and faults her own "feeble brain" for causing what she sees as the book's deformities. Many authors, like Bradstreet, have found the work-as-child metaphor to be a satisfying way to describe the relationship between the writer and his or her writing. Indeed, it is not difficult to see why the connection is so appealing. A book, like a child, undeniably begins deep within an individual as an unformed, nebulous thing and grows, over a period of time, into a fuller and fuller being until it is released into the world as an entity separate from the one that nurtured it. The transition from a life organized around the care and cultivation of something to a life in which the individual can no longer provide that entity with the same sort of intimate care to which he or she has grown accustomed can be jarring. It's not a perfect analogy, to be sure, but it does capture the sense of shock an individual must negotiate upon transitioning from one role to another.
2. Identity Crisis
Most Ph.D.s spend a minimum of six years in graduate school, four years as an undergraduate, and thirteen years in K-12. That's twenty-three years in school. Since many (if not most) Ph.D.s take longer than four years to complete their doctorates, you're looking at spending around a quarter of a century in school, at a minimum. Even taking into account the people who take years off between degrees and obtain their doctorates in their forties or fifties, twenty-five years is still a huge chunk of one's life. For someone who completes their dissertation at fifty, one-half of their life has been spent as a student; for someone who completes their doctorate at, say, thirty, 83% of their life has been spent as a student. Think about that for a second. After spending the majority (if not the overwhelming majority) of one's life as a student, that identity can become a pretty major part of a person's self-image. Then, one day, they're no longer a student. Sure, they're still academics and they still do academic stuff, but they're not what they've always been. They're something else: they've gone from being the apprentice to the master. As I wrote above, transitions can be jarring and the resultant trauma can produce depression.
3. No Excuses
Being a graduate student is often shorthand for living below the poverty line, putting off starting a family, and not having a "real job." Similarly, writing a dissertation can often explain spending a lot of time by oneself, being fascinated with an obscure topic of little interest to others, living a sedentary life, and keeping odd hours. That's all fine and good until you actually finish writing your dissertation and complete your graduate studies. Then you no longer have excuses for being an overweight, poor, lonely, childless person who has never held a real job and eats ramen noodles for dinner at 2:45 in the morning. This is, of course, a caricature, but my point is that many people attribute the aspects of their lives with which they are dissatisfied to their status as underpaid graduate students writing dissertations. The unpleasant realities you could hitherto blame on graduate school emerge as plain old problems you need to address the moment you submit the final draft of your dissertation.
4. The Purposeful Life
Writing a dissertation can give one's life a sense of purpose. You have something you have to do. You have a responsibility, a mission. Then, suddenly, you don't. The sucking void left by your dissertation? Yeah, that's where depression goes until you fill it with something else.