Friday, August 14, 2009


Women at Risk

Bob Herbert’s op-ed pieces in the New York Times are often good ones, and last week’s is particularly so. Written in the days after the attack on a gym, which resulted in the death of three women, Mr Herbert notes that such attacks are far too common:

We’ve seen this tragic ritual so often that it has the feel of a formula. A guy is filled with a seething rage toward women and has easy access to guns. The result: mass slaughter.

Back in the fall of 2006, a fiend invaded an Amish schoolhouse in rural Pennsylvania, separated the girls from the boys, and then shot 10 of the girls, killing five.

I wrote, at the time, that there would have been thunderous outrage if someone had separated potential victims by race or religion and then shot, say, only the blacks, or only the whites, or only the Jews. But if you shoot only the girls or only the women — not so much of an uproar.

That, as he says, “[w]e have become so accustomed to living in a society saturated with misogyny that the barbaric treatment of women and girls has come to be more or less expected,” could even be seen in the presidential campaign, when candidate Hillary Clinton was belittled with sexist comments of the sort that we’d never see for a serious male candidate — and they were excused by press and public alike, putting us in collective denial of the obvious bias.

I’ve spent no small amount of outrage about bias and violence  against  women in these pages before, and this is another case of the pervasive misogyny in our society. This time, though, I want to have a word about the motivation, the male side of it. Again, Bob Herbert:

One of the striking things about mass killings in the U.S. is how consistently we find that the killers were riddled with shame and sexual humiliation, which they inevitably blamed on women and girls. The answer to their feelings of inadequacy was to get their hands on a gun (or guns) and begin blowing people away.
And he quotes Dr. James Gilligan:
What I’ve concluded from decades of working with murderers and rapists and every kind of violent criminal, is that an underlying factor that is virtually always present to one degree or another is a feeling that one has to prove one’s manhood, and that the way to do that, to gain the respect that has been lost, is to commit a violent act.

That last point really connected, and reminded me of male coming-of-age rituals in societies from African and American tribes to criminal groups and street gangs. Tolerate pain. Show how tough you are. Assert dominance. Fight, and win. Kill, and be proud of it. And, whatever you do, be strong, and don’t let any woman get the better of you.

Our legends and fiction, too, are full of that last message. Beware the femme fatale, the woman who will undo you if you aren’t wary enough. The Sirens. Delilah. Their power comes from what they can get men to do. And the message is clear: avoid them... or kill them.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Physical strength no longer has the importance it once did. In our modern society, balance is more important. That we have an anthropological basis for these sort of demonstrations of power and dominance doesn’t mean we have to keep them. They do not serve us well now, if they ever did.

Some will write all these attacks off as perpetrated by unstable individuals, and deny that it’s supported by our mainstream society. And, to be sure, these people are unstable, nuts, very far from the norm, and there will always be such people. We can’t change that.

But the point is that, while their behaviour is extreme, its direction is set by what we see all around us, every day.

We can change that. We have to.


ClumberKim said...

Hear, hear. Thanks for this.

Cartoon from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette covers a lot of the issue.

It leaves out the problem of access to guns.

Anonymous said...

The acts of violence perpetrated against women is an element of male control and domination. If we keep women fearful, we can control them. If we can dismantle the systems of control and power, we may see such acts of violence diminish. While I don't agree with the access to guns issue, for me, this is not the source of the problem, or the way to solve it.