With regard to the latest US shooting, I suspect we’ve already passed a marker in the road that suggests there is no turning back, and that whatever liberal solutions we have floating round in our heads about gun control are largely irrelevant, no matter how much we might like to think the US is still part of the civilised world. So this post isn’t about Sutherland Springs, nor gun control. It’s about what lies beneath.
I have a friend who lives in a self-sufficient, rural part of the US. She once asked me how women in NZ protect themselves from sexual assault if they don’t carry a gun. Where she lives that kind of protection is necessary and normal and she has a hand gun as well as her hunting rifles. It was a fair question, not easily answered, but most interesting for me is thinking about where my pro gun-control politics would be at if I lived in the part of the world she does.
It leads me pretty quickly to maybe we should be looking at the common denominator problem not as guns but men. Guns don’t shoot people, men do.
The media are reporting that there is no known motive yet for the Sutherland Springs shooting but that the victims included a pregnant woman and her children, and the town was where the man’s wife came from. No idea how much of that is true or relevant, but it led me to thinking again about the Montreal shooting in 1989 where a man went onto a co-ed polytech campus and shot fourteen women engineering students. The media covering that story at the time were complicit in downplaying the gendered nature of the crime.
Then Toronto Star journalist Shelley Page,
Looking back, I fear I sanitized the event of its feminist anger and then infantilized and diminished the victims, turning them from elite engineering students who’d fought for a place among men into teddy-bear loving daughters, sisters and girlfriends.
Twenty-five years later, as I re-evaluate my stories and with the benefit of analysis of the coverage that massacre spawned, I see how journalists— male and female producers, news directors, reporters, anchors — subtly changed the meaning of the tragedy to one that the public would get behind, silencing so-called “angry feminists.” We were “social gatekeeping,” as filmmaker Maureen Bradley later asserted in her 1995 film, Reframing the Montreal Massacre: A media interrogation.
In hindsight, it’s obvious that the Montreal Massacre was too extreme — no one could draw a line between women being gunned down on a university campus and what women, as a rule, were being subjected to.
Unable to look the tragedy in the eye — to this day we have yet to acknowledge that this was not just a crime against women but against feminism, against women who dare go where only men have gone before — we have been paying lip service in the fight against violence against women.
So here we are nearly 30 years later. Maybe we should try and talk about it differently now. For instance there are the known connections between domestic violence and mass shooters, including with the alleged Sutherland Springs shooter (media report he was courtmartialed and convicted for domestic violence in 2012).
— Jenny Kay (@JennyKayNZ) November 6, 2017
— Khary Penebaker (@kharyp) November 5, 2017
That video quotes a study done on 156 mass shootings between 2009 and 2016. Fifty four percent of those shootings were related to domestic or family violence. You can watch the video to see the inadequate legislative response to this despite it being a known issue.
Then there are the problems of talking about whether white loner men are terrorists. We can have another conversation about the definitions of terrorism, but in the context of the media coverage of the Montreal shooting let’s not pretend that the ways we define terrorism are determined by anyone other than the dominant culture.
The Montreal École Polytechnique shooter’s suicide note read,
“Would you note that if I commit suicide today it is not for economic reasons … but for political reasons,” it read. “Because I have decided to send the feminists, who have always ruined my life, to their Maker … I have decided to put an end to those viragos.”
(That note was not released at the time for fear it would spark copy-cat murders, but the non-release played into the ungendering of the crime)
Try arguing that’s not terrorism. Consider why we couldn’t say that it was a terrorist act against feminists thirty years ago and use that to inform our political understanding about gendered violence and mass shootings.
Think about the connections between domestic violence, my friend who carries a gun to protect herself from rape, and the phrase “shot fourteen women engineering students”. Think about what feminists of colour would be writing instead of this Pākehā feminist. Think about how it might appear if you related primarily with the class of people being shot. What if the women being shot were telling the story?
For those of us who followed #gamergate or who read and talk with outspoken and angry feminists online, that phrase about women in engineering carries immediate meaning three decades later. There are men in society who hate women and will kill them, and the ones that don’t kill will still terrorise.
Women by default live in a world where walking down the street at night carries risk of violence from men. They also live in a world where being in various kinds of relationships with men carries risk. Not all women, not all the time, but enough that we can generalise to widely shared experiences ranging from caution to hindering levels of fear.
When women then enter into traditional male territory, like tech, gaming, science, or engineering, the threat of those risks is often made plain. Prominent feminist bloggers routinely get threats of rape, murder, doxing, and attacks on their families including children. These aren’t by lone ‘nutters’, they are men operating intentionally in the context of a wider movement that has a political agenda. That political agenda promotes and sanctions violence against women.
Think I’m over-egging things? Writer Michelle Goldberg on writing as a feminist,
Feminists of the past faced angry critics, letters to the editor and even protests. But the incessant, violent, sneering, sexualized hatred their successors absorb is harder to escape. For women of color, racial abuse comes along with the sexism. “I have received racialized rape threats that I don’t think I would necessarily receive if I were white,” Wilson says. “A lot of things about anatomy — black women’s anatomy.” She talks about the online abuse in therapy. “There is trauma, especially related to the death and rape threats,” she says. Eventually, such sustained abuse ends up changing people — both how they live and how they work.
Read that again in the context of understanding that many women are actual victims of violence, overwhelmingly at the hands of man. This isn’t about getting one’s feelings hurt.
If the purpose of terrorism is in a dictionary definition – “the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims”, how is what I am describing not terrorism? Maybe it’s not unlawful enough. Maybe not enough women have been killed or raped. Maybe too many of the perpetrators don’t have a paid up membership to the club. Or maybe it’s just too common and widespread to be called terrorising. Perhaps it’s just that women don’t get to decide.
But consider this. The kind of ongoing, background fear that some in the US are now starting to experience because of mass shootings is not new to women. And feminists have been talking about this for a long time.
To be clear, I’m not commenting on the motivations of the shooter yesterday. I have no idea what that was about. But we do know he was a man out of control. This is an opportunity to rethink what terrorism is, and to move the conversation beyond the rather futile gun control debate. I still believe gun control is essential, I just think it’s a symptom and I’d rather we also look at the cause. Until we address much more fundamental issues of power, who has it and why they have it, and how it gets used, the gun debate will continue to circle impotently above people of all genders.
Because many people aren’t used to these conversations, I also need to point out that naming men as a common denominator doesn’t mean that men are inherently bad. It means that men as a class have a problem that needs to be sorted. There are whole political analyses about in what way it’s a male problem, and how men are also damaged by this, and what the solutions might be, but to have useful conversations about that we first need to learn how to talk about the gendered nature of violence.
This conversation isn’t primarily one of women against men either. Feminists have brothers, sons, fathers and male friends they love and care about, and thus most feminists have a vested interest in the wellbeing of men.
Here’s a radical thought to end on. When women have a free voice, when we not only let them talk about their experiences and politics in ways that are meaningful to them, but actively create space for them to do so, they tend to find solutions that work for all people. What would happen if we stopped and listened to women now?