Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Reflecting on December 6, 1989

     I confess to having, despite my best efforts, a bit of a chauvinist streak. Perhaps that's putting it too strongly, but it manifests itself this way: my visceral sense of horror at the idea of violence is greater when the victim is female. I don't know why I should feel this way. It could be cultural (the stigma attached to a boy who hits a girl is significant, or at least it was when I was growing up), but I don't think so, because I've been able to consider and reject other such indoctrination. More likely, I'm just hardwired to view the loss of a potential mate as less desirable than the loss of a potential rival for mates.
     Whatever the reason, I recognize that from a philosophical moral perspective, it's an irrelevant consideration, a personal preference that should play no role in reasoned discussion about public policy. So while I may personally feel especially horrified at the Polytechnique massacre (whose 23rd anniversary was this past week), I have to remind myself that it would have been every bit as wrong and horrible if Marc Lepine had singled out and killed just the men in the class instead of just the women. The sex of the victims should make no difference in our evaluation of tragedy, and my gut reaction (that it's somehow worse that women were killed) is actually a part of the patriarchal world view that got us into this mess.

     And so I have always felt very uncomfortable with the way this tragedy has become an emblem for raising awareness of Violence Against Women. One the one hand, I accept that violence against women really is a specific problem we need to raise awareness of. And yes it was violence, yes it was against women, and yes they were specifically targeted as women. Yet something still feels wrong. How can violence against women not be violence against women?

     Let me back up a bit. Why do we need to raise awareness in the first place? What is it about violence against women that differs from violence against men or indeed any hate crime against any identifiable demographic? Why do we not need to raise awareness of violence against mimes or Norwegians or agnostics? Isn't violence against anyone equally bad?
     Of course it is. It's not that violence against women is worse than other kinds of violence, but rather that there's a particular kind of pathology involved that doesn't apply to most other sorts of violence, and doesn't even apply in every case where the victim happens to be female, either. (My fencing coach happens to be a woman, and though I rarely manage to hit her, I do try.)
     Let's start with domestic violence, which is typically (though not exclusively) carried out by men against women. Historically, we've studiously ignored this as a "private matter." It was assumed that a man had a right and obligation to discipline his wife, and how he chose to do it was nobody else's business. Police and the courts were loath to interfere. But to ignore such violence is to tolerate it, to tacitly endorse it.
     To most of us, that rationale sounds kind of old-fashioned, and likely to many abusive men as well. There is another sort of wife-beater, after all, the passionate guy who just loves her so much that he can't help himself when he gets angry baby don't you understand. It's not like these guys think it's okay, exactly, to react violently, but they and the mates who take them back make excuses, treat each incident as an exception rather than part of a pattern, and again, ultimately ignore the pattern, thus permitting it to continue.
     It's not limited to domestic violence, of course. The deep-seated attitude underlying all of this is the presumption that women are, in some sense, property of men, resources to be exploited rather than people to be respected as equals. That attitude leads to rape and related subjugations, and our habit of ignoring or excusing domestic assaults leaks over somewhat when it comes to rape. We're still kind of inclined to blame the woman for leading him on or dressing provocatively or making up the whole thing, perhaps because it's just so much easier to ignore the problem and hope it goes away.
     THAT is why we have to raise awareness. It's our ingrained habit of turning away, of acting like it's no big deal or just a private matter or that it doesn't really happen, that perpetuates the presumption that women aren't fully persons, and the violence it spawns.

     Now, it's probably the case that Marc Lepine had that same insidious attitude about the proper role of women when he blamed feminists for "ruining his life". I remember reading at the time that his application to attend l'Ecole Polytechnique had been rejected, and he most likely thought that he'd have gotten in if only it hadn't been for those darned women taking "his" spot. Why couldn't they stay at home, barefoot and pregnant like they're supposed to? Perhaps that was his rationale, and so it is connected to the very problem of which we need to raise awareness.
     But the connection is long and tangled, and not immediately obvious. It's easy to imagine, after all, some troubled loser blaming immigrants, or natives, or wealthy white guys, or virtually any other demographic, for his problems and carrying out a similar rampage, and in fact that does happens from time to time. So one can look at the Polytechnique massacre as just another hatecrime, where the targeted group happened to be "women taking positions in engineering classes", without recognizing Violence Against Women as being fundamentally different from, say, Violence Against Orthodontists in this context.
     So even if the massacre was a culmination of the problem we're trying to raise awareness of, the people we most need to reach are not going to make the connection. The rapist (or rapist sympathizer) will look at that and not see himself, because he's not taking a gun into a public place and shooting women and then taking his own life; indeed, he may well condemn the crime himself (even if only lamenting it as a waste of young women for whom he has better uses). The man who loses control and beats his girlfriend or wife won't see himself; he'd never hurt a stranger, after all. And the cops and judges who look the other way when a man "disciplines" his wife aren't going to see this shooting as a private matter into which they should not intervene.

     That's why I feel so uncomfortable treating this tragedy as symbolic of violence against women. It troubles me that using it this way tends to emphasize the gender of the victims, rather than the pathology of thought that we need to fix. That pathology is the idea that women aren't fully persons in some sense, that they are valuable property to be cherished and protected, or that it would be a violation of some other man's property rights to damage them. We don't address that pathology by saying that violence against women is wrong, because that's perfectly compatible with the view of women-as-objects. We address it by reinforcing the idea that violence against people is wrong, and raising awareness of the fact that yes, in fact, women are people, dammit!


  1. Tom, Have you ever considered what an excellent product of your education you are? One thinks of Winston really loving Big Brother.

  2. I don't understand. Are you saying that I've been brainwashed into thinking women are people? Or that I've been brainwashed into being more horrified when women are victims of violence than when men are? What would my thinking on these subjects be like if I hadn't been so brainwashed? I'm assuming your intention here is constructive and not just a vain effort to insult me personally, but I really can't make sense of what you're saying in context.

  3. You come across as thinking about the things you are supposed to think about and thinking about them the way you are supposed to think. You come across as entirely controlled by a world and life view that has been given to you by your education. It is not that the things you hate ought not to be hated. It just seems that your joining the battle seems like a lock-step reaction.

  4. It's odd you should choose this particular post to make that claim about the orthodoxy of my view, because I've had considerable trouble in the past getting it a hearing. Every time I express some reservations about the massacre as an example of violence against women, I am met with stunned disbelief, even anger, at what strikes some as heresy. I've struggled for some time to find a way to communicate this idea clearly.

    In any event, I don't get your point. You're criticising me for being insufficiently independent in my thinking, for thinking too much the way I am "supposed to"? Is that supposed to arouse my adolescent non-conformist pride? Maybe I should tell you a little about that pride.

    Years ago, when I was a teenager, I wore my hair in a long ponytail. No one else I knew did, and while I wasn't exactly wearing it just to be different, I did take a certain pride in being my own person. But on a couple of occasions, just as I was thinking maybe I should cut it, my dad happened to tell me that HE thought it was time I cut it. Well, no way was I going to let HIM tell me what to do! And so my hair stayed long, longer than it would have had.... had I made the choice myself. Duh. I realized some time later that by refusing to cut my hair when my dad said I should, I wasn't actually asserting my own will, but making my choice contingent entirely on (the opposite of) someone else's.

    Now, the youthful defiance doesn't drive me so much. I prefer to look at issues on their own merits, consider the arguments, and reach whatever conclusion seems to me to be the most sensible, regardless of whether or not it happens to be the Establishment view. It would be just as silly for me to adopt a contrary view just for the sake of sticking it to The Man as it would be to just go along with it uncritically because that's the common wisdom.

    So, with respect, it doesn't bother me that you think I'm obediently following in lock-step with the indoctrination I've been given. I know my thoughts and how strenuously they are often at odds with the conventional wisdom, and so your charge just doesn't ring true to me. I feel no particular need to refute it; mainly I'm just puzzled as to why you would think me so brainwashed. Also, I wonder what kind of world and life view you think I ought to have, but for this education.

  5. Perhaps one that does not have you so very much at the centre.

  6. Am I at the centre? That's actually kind of reassuring. I don't know if you've read anything about the wisdom of crowds, but it turns out that if you average the estimates of a great many people for the size of an object, for example, the mean is actually very close to the precisely measured size. That's not to say that groups cannot be subject to systemic biases or that they can be collectively mistaken. In particular, the instinct to go along with what everyone else is doing can greatly reinforce this sort of collective error. But if one's independent assessment of something happens to end up fairly near the centre of everyone else's (hopefully) independent assessments, well, that's probably a good sign.

    But if you think I should move away from this centre, presumably you think it is wrong in some way, and presumably you think there's a particular direction I should move. I'm not going to move just because I'm near the centre; I need to know why the centre is a bad place to be, and why it's better where you think I should move.

  7. That your thoughts are very near the centre was exactly my observation in the first place. What is more a concern is that you are so entirely equal to the task of working out the thoughts you have. No sign of grappling with an idea that remains beyond you. It is not that it simply comes across as pride. It does not seem to occur to you that there are ideas we can explore profitably without a slick mastery. Socrates was deeply aware that he knew very little. You seem to make not knowing a philosphical point which you can defend with a wonderful expertise. It puts a veneer of superficiality even on your deeper thoughts. Are you ever humbled by not knowing, or is not knowing simply a philosophical point to be granted and dismissed? I suppose that I am trying to knock at your soul, and should remember that the soul selects her own society and shuts the door. Thanks for answering.

  8. I'm afraid you haven't been paying attention, then. I frequently mention struggling with ideas, even in the original post to this thread. But, to be sure, I won't post about something unless I feel I have something worth saying about it, so naturally you're not going to see as much of the struggling-in-progress.

    I'm not really writing here about me. This is not a personal personal blog. I am not assuming that the people reading this are close personal friends with intimate knowledge of my personal life, who want to know how I'm feeling today or how that job interview went or other such gossip. Sure, I realize many of my readers ARE people who know me personally, but I have other channels to talk to them about such things, and this blog is written with the awareness (and hope) that the audience includes perfect strangers who've found it by chance while googling for some topic or other. I offer these thoughts because I think they're interesting or useful, and hope someone else might agree, or better yet, suggest improvements on them.

    And so when the occasional anonymous commenter shows up, ignoring the content of my posts and focusing on trying to knock at my soul, there is a mismatch. This blog is not about me, it's about the ideas that I happen to think worth sharing. I may not even be an actual person, for all you know; I could simply be a fictional persona created by the actual author for the purpose of giving some narrative context to the ideas presented. Trying to "knock at my soul" or find whatever buttons to push to bring me to an epiphany about Jesus is as silly, here, as writing letters to 221B Baker Street and hoping to convince Sherlock Holmes to meet you for tea. It is to miss the entire point of the text.

  9. Tom, thank you for a well written post about symbolic communication in Canadian society that clearly articulates a point I have struggled to articulate in the past. I, too, feel that the Ecole Polytechnique shooting is an inappropriate symbol in the fight against domestic violence and sexual assault (the two kinds of violence people usually mean when they use the phrase "violence against women").

    It is inappropriate because a symbol used this way can easily become a paradigm, and an unrepresentative paradigm can lead to bad decision-making. If a truly representative symbol were chosen, then it could become useful shorthand in discussions about public policy. We could ask, "Would this proposed change to the legislation help prevent more deaths like the death Jane Smith?" "What resources should have been in place to make Jane safer?"

    Asking this type of question about the Ecole Polytechnique shooting just leads us in the wrong direction.

    (By the way, I am very sorry to see that Anonymous Unexamined Christian seems to have returned to this blog. I am also sorry to see that you have again chosen to engage with him/her. I understand your reasons for doing so, but in my opinion, there is no benefit to anyone when you search for the shape of a meaningful dialogue in the tea leaves of tangential ad-hominem trolling.)

  10. And thank you for your comment, Nikolai. You nicely summarize exactly what I was trying to say. I suppose what made it difficult was that there IS a grain of truth (and perhaps more than just a grain) in the claim that this incident was representative of violence against women generally, not only because the targets happened to be women targeted for being women but because Lepine likely would not have so targeted them had he not believed he had more of a claim to a spot at the school than they did. Similarly, the attempted assassination of Malala Yousufzai was motivated by the same kind of bigotry, though it also falls outside the particular pathology. (The Taliban aren't shy about assassinating men who disagree with them, too, so this was more of a political than purely gender-based act.)

    (You may well be right about trolling. But I do not think I will yet abandon my policy of assuming that trolls do not exist, and engaging whoever gets a reasonable grade on the Turing test. There is at present exactly one comment in my spam folder, which was placed there automatically. Its botness convinced me to leave it there.)