A bit like the rubella jab

Many important things happened this week. Two of them were as follows: Dr. Maya Angelou died, and a mentally unstable racist and misogynist shot some women.

Straight away, I’ve reduced both those things in terms of detail, impact and nuance: I haven’t explained who Maya Angelou was, how she died or why it’s important. Similarly, ‘shot some women’ ignores the numbers involved (could be four; could be forty), ignores the men who died (there were actually more male victims than female) and didn’t name any of the people involved. It’s that tendency to reduce complex stories to a few words, how that causes us to lose accuracy and detail, and how that in turn compromises our ability to have a sensible debate prompted by events, that I want to talk about here.

First of all, let’s un-collapse the two statements above, starting with Dr. Maya Angelou, who died this week aged eighty-six. As one might expect from someone with many talents and a long life, she made substantial contributions to many fields in many different ways. She was a dancer and actor, but also a director, playwright, scriptwriter and composer. She wrote the script and composed the score for the 1972 film Georgia. Her script was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and Georgia was the first film ever made with a script by an African-American woman. She was a political activist: she knew both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, was consulted by several presidents, and believed in (and campaigned for) marital equality. She was a journalist, writing for The African Review and the Ghanaian Times and editing The Arab Observer (living and teaching in Africa while she did so). She was professor of American Studies at Wake Forest. She won three Grammy awards. She spoke six languages. I’m also making sure to use the prefix ‘Dr.’ lots of times because I have read that she placed a great premium on politeness and formality. Dr. Angelou was best known as a writer and poet, of course, and in particular for her first and best-known collection I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The first poem of hers I ever encountered was ‘And Still I Rise’, which was part of my GCSE anthology. Modern technology allows us to hear her reciting her own work, and it’s a rather more compelling experience than reading it aloud line by line in a classroom. She recites from memory, as if the words have just come to her as she is sitting there (with the possible exception of the late Clive Merrison[1], she also has the best laugh I’ve ever heard). Dr. Angelou died quietly in her sleep, and her death is important because it causes us to reflect upon her life, and why that is important.

The ‘mentally unstable racist and misogynist’ I referred to above is Elliot Rodger. His online rants make it clear that he hated women for rejecting him sexually, and that he hated other men for having access to sex that he didn’t. He killed four men and two women. Their names are as follows: Cheng Yuan Hong, George Chen, Weihan Wang and Christopher Martinez. The women were Katherine Cooper and Veronika Weiss. You will notice that the first three men I named have Asian names (they were Rodger’s two roommates and a friend of theirs), and hence my use of the word ‘racist’ because in this case the two different prejudices are intertwined: Rodger described Asians as ‘repulsive’ and attributed some of his own failure with women to his racial background (he was half-Asian), before then stabbing three Asian men for being more sexually successful than he was. No, that doesn’t make any sense, but see above where I said he was ‘mentally unstable’. I don’t think I need to prove that Rodger was mentally unstable, because that’s at a tangent to what I want to say, and also because it seems clear from what has come from Rodger himself that some of the cogs were rattling around in the box. I also don’t think I need to justify my use of the word ‘misogynist’, because he just killed six people to make himself feel better about his lack of sexual success. However, if proof were needed, here is a sentence from his ‘manifesto’:

Women should not have the right to choose who to mate with. That choice should be made for them by civilised men of intelligence.[2]

I’ve read some comments online from people proud of their own ability to do maths, who say that a man who kills four men because they can get sex and he can’t isn’t a misogynist if he only kills two women. That’s nonsense. First of all, these are clearly primarily opportunistic, symbolic killings, since he didn’t actually know either of the women and only two of the men. Neither of the women had rejected him and it seems that none of the men ‘stole’ women from him. Secondly, a person who thinks men are entitled to sex is a misogynist, regardless of who they then choose to take their ensuing rage out on. Plenty of good men are caught in the crossfire of domestic violence and misogyny, sometimes literally. The boyfriends, husbands and friends of women who are the intended targets are also at risk, and it doesn’t make sense to say that only women who are hurt by men who want to treat women as possessions are the victims of misogyny. These four men were killed because of the racist and misogynist beliefs of Elliot Rodger, and his mental fragility, and how easy it is to get hold of weapons in the US. In the wake of these murders (and Elliot Rodger’s suicide), there has been a lot of discussion, online and elsewhere, about violence towards women (#Yesallwomen; #Notallmen and so forth). What I want to think about here is why we can’t seem to have more nuanced, grown-up discussions.

Dr. Maya Angelou’s death has lead to a proliferation of inspirational quotes (some taken from her work, some not). She was unquestionably an inspiring woman and her work is eminently quotable, but I find this reductionist. It’s straight out of the Oprah Winfrey school of therapy, where the things that help you deal with your problems are not reflection, talking, drawing on the time and compassion of your friends, and getting professional help, but pithy sentences printed on the sleeves of coffee cups (I know Maya Angelou was Oprah Winfrey’s friend and mentor, but I think the point still stands). Try Googling ‘Maya Angelou’ and you will find that ‘Maya Angelou quotes’ appears above ‘Maya Angelou poems’, for example. I don’t think this is an adequate way to mark the life of such a person.

I think that in this tendency to reduce complex things to simple labels, we can also see some of the reasons that misogyny continues to exist. There is no simple answer or single change that will prevent violence against women (and men), because the people that commit these crimes, large and small, do so for their own particular reasons. Each case needs to be examined carefully, not lumped together with others that seem similar so that we can declare that violent films (or heavy metal, or poor parenting, or Rush Limbaugh)[3] are the sole cause of everything we’ve chosen to put in that category. One of the reasons that misogyny continues to exist, for example, is that even good, decent men and good, decent women struggle to eradicate it from their own thoughts and behaviour, and one of the reasons they struggle to do so is that we have such bland, broad labels to work with: OK and Not OK.

For example, I read a post from a confused man this morning saying that he always asks him wife’s permission before they have sex, and was this OK? Responses (all from women) ranged from ‘of course. It’s called consent’ to ‘of course not. Sex is something you do together.’ I honestly can’t provide a yes/no answer to this question, and I think that’s part of the problem: not every question has (or should have) a yes/no answer. If that particular man and his wife think it’s important that he asks permission, and if that is part of how he shows that he respects her, good for them. It could also so easily be part of a commodification of sex, in which the man is only allowed to ‘purchase’ a certain amount of sex from the woman when she says it’s in stock (and after he’s ‘paid’ for it in some way, perhaps). We also don’t know whether the consent she’s giving is meaningful (we don’t know if she’s allowed to change her mind, or whether he pesters or coerces her). I don’t like the idea that I’m doing my husband a favour by having sex with him, or that he needs to ask my permission (but I don’t need to ask his?). Here’s a simpler, more everyday example: a man opening a door for a woman can be a kind, polite and respectful act or it can be patronising, mocking and old-fashioned. You have to be there in order to see how it was done, what the context was and who the people involved were, so that you could judge for yourself.

What I’m driving at here is that of course there are some behaviours that go straight in the ‘don’t ever do that’ pile, but I think there is also a huge grey area, in which men and women blunder about, trying to figure out if they’re being offensive/offended or not. The fact that the grey area exists, and that both men and women seem confused about what is OK and what is not, gives misogynists a place to hide. It allows them to say ‘feminists can’t make up their minds’ and to complain about how difficult it is to be a modern man. When they are told off for doing/saying something unacceptable, they get to say that they don’t know what the rules are and so can’t be blamed for breaking them. That’s not good enough. We need to be able to have a more nuanced (and more balanced) discussion of these issues so that people can’t make that excuse. Yes, all women know real misogyny when we experience it. We need to learn to identify it when we are told about it, too. We need to educate men and women to understand that the context, nuance and the intention of what was done or said is what makes it acceptable or not. Nothing else (nothing) is relevant: not clothing, not drunkenness, not marriage, not age, not culture, not previous behaviour.

This morning, I have read an enormous number of stories from women talking about their own experiences of rape, sexual assault and misogyny, and they’re all appalling, as is the sheer number of them, and how many of these women received further abuse from people they confided in, including from other women. The lack of nuance in some of the responses to these stories is deeply depressing, lumping them all together so that a bland, broad statement can be made, about how men or women (or parents, or schools, or universities, or the police) should change their behaviour to make things better. That isn’t going to work, not because the changes being suggested are facile (although a lot of them are. 8pm curfew in university towns, anyone?), but because the nuances of the different stories have been lost. You would not lump together all the sick people in a hospital and give them all the same advice (‘eat more fruit’, say). Similarly, the celebrities who have been in the news recently (Jimmy Saville, Stuart Hall, DLT, Max Clifford and so forth) and their systematic abuse of vulnerable girls and women are just as appalling as (but also very different from) family members that abuse younger relatives, or vicars/teachers/scout masters who take advantage of the children in their care, or husbands that beat their wives and children, or burglars that rape frightened old women, or creepy colleagues that feel entitled to touch you up whenever you are unwise enough to make yourself a cup of tea. I’ve just grouped four male celebrities of similar age and habits together for the purposes of making a point, but if you examine those cases individually, even these differ from each other in non-trivial ways. Just as you need different methods and tools to clean crap off different surfaces, we need different methods to tackle these different manifestations of the same thing. Just as we can do better than to reduce Maya Angelou to a single sound-bite, we can do better than to simply advise women to dress conservatively and carry pepper spray. So many of the stories I have read in which women did report what had happened to them described being met with ‘slut-shaming’ i.e. questions about their clothing and behaviour. This isn’t just misogyny reflecting back on itself, but part of the search for a quick, simple fix that will make everything better without anybody having to do any proper thinking. As long as there are men (and women) who think that women owe men sex, and that they signal this through the way in which they walk, dress, flirt or stand (rather than what they say and do), the sense of entitlement and confusion that Elliot Rodger felt will continue.

Alan Alda likens misogyny to a disease (specifically polio), and asks why we can eradicate one but not the other, and it’s a compelling analogy. Misogyny is like an infection that some people have chronically and cripplingly, but that makes almost everyone cough or sneeze from time to time. Feminism needs to be something that men buy into, and that they feel included in. Feminism doesn’t say that men are animals that need to get themselves under control. Feminism says that men are people, and women are people, and everyone deserves respect. Feminism actually does men the courtesy of expecting them to be civilised. If I may over-stretch the medical analogy, it feels to me sometimes that feminism is a bit like the rubella jab: only women are entitled to it, and only the ones that were at school that day.


[1] Merrison is my favourite Sherlock Holmes in sound only (although of course I also love Benedict Cumberbatch, Jeremy Brett and the rather wonderful Richard Roxborough, who played Holmes in an adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles that I don’t think has been bettered). Clive Merrison’s diction and tone are perfection, with the (surprisingly dirty) laugh the cherry on the cake.

[2] If only this was taken from an essay entitled ‘Some Things Aristotle Was Wrong About’.

[3] Rush Limbaugh thinks the Hunger Games are to blame for these murders, because Rodger’s father works on the series and the series involves people killing other people. If I kill some people this afternoon and leave a YouTube video saying that my reasons for doing so are important, nuanced and relevant to any subsequent discussion, is my father’s tendency to bark ‘that’s irrelevant’ at people relevant?


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