Monthly Archives: May 2014

Sexism, Entitlement and Santa Barbara

I live in Australia, almost as far from Santa Barbara as it’s possible to get, and tonight I felt my heart race as I walked from the house to my car in the dark. I felt as if someone was about to leap at me from the shadows, and I checked the back seat of my car for attackers before I got in.

If it seems weird or over the top to you that I felt triggered by the mass shooting in Santa Barbara yesterday, in which gunman Elliot Rodger killed six people and injured seven more before killing himself, you might be right. I certainly felt silly about it once I was in the locked car with the radio on. But on the other hand, when you think about the fact that Rodger appears to have committed this horrifying crime because he was angry that women wouldn’t pay attention to him, it’s not so weird. Men with a sense of entitlement to female attention aren’t that uncommon, after all.

If you think Rodger is an outlier, a fringe wacko or a “madman,” then you are over simplifying the matter. More to the point, if you think this sort of violence has nothing in common with everyday sexism, with rape jokes, with theendemic online harassment of women that we’ve seen getting media attention lately, you are not paying enough attention. Elliot Rodger’s views about women, expressed in videos and writings that are disturbing to read, are extreme in the sense of being awful but not in the sense of being unusual. Men say things like that to and about women on the internet all the time. Most of them don’t act on their threats – or at least not on a scale that gets them on the news, though I have no doubt plenty of them are real life rapists and abusers – but whether or notevery creepy guy ranting about how much he hates women really is a bonafide mass murderer, there are many more men expressing similar views out there. Since the shooting, comments have appeared on Rodger’s videos (Trigger Warning: violent misogyny) that call him a “hero,” express sympathy for his pain at being rejected, and gloat that women could have prevented his crimes by sleeping with him, as if it is women and not this entitled and deeply misogynist man who are to blame for his actions.

This is the extreme end of the Nice Guy phenomenon and the so called “friend zone”, the sense of entitlement to women’s attention and affection held by men like Rodger and a whole lot of other men who don’t think of themselves as scary or extreme, but justified in their anger. And as I saw someone else say on Facebook, every man who has blamed women for not being attracted to him has contributed to the culture that made this happen. If you’ve ever complained about women dating “brutes” instead of dating a “gentleman” like you, take a long hard look at yourself, because the proliferation of objectifying, entitled beliefs about women and who they “should” show affection to is where mindsets like Elliot Rodger‘s come from. Women do not owe you sex or romance, even if you’re nice to them, even if they’re attractive, even if you really really want them. Believing that they do or should is wrong and dangerous even if you don’t go out and murder anyone.

When men make threats like these and women express their fear and alarm, we’re usually told not to take it so seriously, that they’re just empty threats from internet trolls and if you ignore them they’ll go away.Obviously that’s not always true. Rodger had been seriously planning this killing spree for months, and he posted disturbing videos weeks ago in which he talked about suicide and killing people, and which concerned his family so much they called the police. But when police interviewed him and found him to be a “perfectly polite, kind and wonderful human” (in the words of his father’s lawyer) they pursued it no further. Rodger’s own writings tell that at the time of this interview he had already collected weapons and ammunition and had written extensively of his plans to murder large numbers of people. If the police had taken his family’s concerns and the threats he had already made on YouTube more seriously, he could have been stopped.

But the police saw a young, middle class man who was well-spoken and polite and assumed he couldn’t possibly be dangerous, that the threats he had made about killing other people and himself were just letting off steam or a harmless joke or a misunderstanding. It’s not a huge surprise that they came to this conclusion, because people often don’t take misogynist threats seriously and treat them as harmless posturing, but it is awful to think that if they hadn’t been so quick to accept that he was a nice young man this tragedy might never have ocurred. It’s outrageous and tragic that people had to die in order to make this clear, but misogynist beliefs breed hatred and violence, and threats of this kind need to be taken seriously.

Of course, because the “women cruelly overlook nice guys” myth is so ingrained, I expect most people will prefer to stick with the explanation I’ve already seen in several places; that Elliot Rodger was a “madman,” and that his actions were the result not of sexism but of personal defects. Lots of people have been quick to point out that he was being treated for mental illness and that he had been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. To that I will say that I happen to know several men on the autism spectrum, as well as several more who have experienced mental illness, and amazingly enough not a single one of them has ever murdered anyone. It is insulting to autistic people to imply that someone who isn’t neurotypical is capable of going on a killing spree at any moment because of the way their brain works. Autistic people are no more likely than any other group to commit violence, and as the Autistic Self Advocacy Network urged in a statement today, we must “fight against any attempt to exploit such incidents to advance an agenda of bigotry and prejudice.”

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Let Me Communicate Something to You…

A video everyone needs to see. An extremely important life lesson for our youth. One of the most vital messages that everyone needs to hear. We need to spread this message before it’s too late!

It’s total click bait, and the “vital message” could be anything really, from the deadly truth about plastic bottles to the three weird foods that will make you stay young forever. In this case it’s the deadly truth about the internet and an urgent request that you “take in your surroundings and make the most of today” instead of going online. It’s a video of a spoken work piece called “Look Up” by Gary Turk and it is absolutely everywhere along with very serious remarks about how important it is.

Look up what? You mean like on Google? [A screencap of the title screen from Look Up, a white background with the title in black capitals]

Look up what? You mean like on Google?
[A screencap of the title screen from Look Up, a white background with the title in black capitals]

I said on Facebook – where I saw dozens of friends sharing the video – that I wasn’t going to watch it, but I figured if I was going to write a blog post about it I probably should. Maybe it would contain something surprising that I hadn’t heard before and completely change my perspective.

Guess what? It didn’t.

I found the emotional appeals very heavy handed (and I enjoy sentiment; I regularly cry at baby shampoo commercials and episodes of Grey’s Anatomy) and the overall message pretty boring and unoriginal. The sheer hilarious irony of a moral panic about social media going viral aside, this stuff is not even a little bit new. We’ve been lamenting the way new technologies will destroy us all since time immemorial, particularly with appeals to romance, nostalgia and fear for The Children™. To highlight the ubiquitousness of such panics, a friend of mine shared this great collection of quotes on Language Log [] from older people lamenting the good old days and the decaying behavioural standards of contemporary youth throughout history. I especially love the last one, a diatribe against obnoxious youths acting up during a lecture in Ancient Rome. Roman kids sound like jerks.

For the most part, the isolation and lack of authentic interaction that Look Up describes isn’t actually happening. Do you know what most of the internet is full of? PEOPLE. COMMUNICATING. People writing blog posts and commenting on blog posts, people posting their thoughts, jokes, photos, experiences on social media of all kinds, people sharing and discussing news, hobbies, craft projects, parenting advice and everything else you can imagine. It’s hugely social. Social interaction with the aid of a computer is still social interaction, and it is perfectly authentic and perfectly capable of moving people and conveying emotion. If Gary Turk really didn’t believe it was possible to convey emotion and meaning through the medium of a computer or phone screen, he would not have made a deliberately emotive youtube video to express his message. Look at that, guy expresses opinion on internet, thousands of people all over the world receive his message and have feelings about it, then express those feelings to others! Just look at all that communication going on!

For some people online communication may be the best interpersonal interaction they have, whether because they’re geographically isolated or have anxieties or other conditions that make it difficult for them to access face-to-face interactions. Or because they’re just extremely shy. For others, it may augment their daily face-to-face socialising and expose them to people and ideas they might not have had a chance to encounter locally.

It’s probably true that there are some people who lose themselves in the internet and find it overwhelming, isolating and a drain on their lives, and that’s unfortunate. But it is not true that everybody who expresses love or caring for each other via a Facebook post or a text message is getting less out of that interaction than they would do in person, nor is it true that nobody expresses authentic emotion online. The outpourings of sympathy and support that come through avenues like Facebook when someone gets fired from their job, has a breakup or loses a parent or a child are proof of that. Nobody ever worries that a handwritten letter is incapable of conveying true feeling. What’s the difference? That letters take longer to arrive?

It’s reductive and plain silly to presume that because somebody talks about something online they never talk about it in person, or in more depth than the brevity of a tweet.  Supposedly Gary Turk has 422 friends, yet none of them really know him, which is baffling because you’d think someone who feels so passionately about communication would talk to his friends offline as well.  I’m pretty sure at least half of my modest 282 Facebook friends really know me, because I tell them about myself all the time, and I even see some of them face to face!  It’s very romantic to think that people who didn’t have the internet were more emotional and connected than people are now, but it’s just not true. If anything they might have been less connected, because it took more effort to talk or write to someone. Today if I am feeling depressed and spend the day in bed I will probably talk to a dozen people across the course of the day and some of them will respond immediately. Twenty years ago it might have been nobody, and I would have ended the day feeling worse than I started.

This is me right now, but I'm fatter and the room is much messier. [A screencap from Look Up in which a slim white woman sits on a bed staring blankly at the screen of her macbook]

This is me right now, but I’m fatter and the room is much messier.
[A screencap from Look Up in which a slim white woman sits on a bed staring blankly at the screen of her macbook]

And honestly the idea that you might miss meeting the love of your life because you’re texting and don’t bump into them on the street is idiotic. Most people do not meet the love(s) of their life in some romcom meet cute, they get to know each other through a shared interest or job or mutual friend. As a matter of fact, I know far more people who met their beloved partners on the internet than met them by knocking them down in the street.

Don’t you dare tell me socialising online doesn’t count, or dismiss the additional access it gives people to all kinds of information – including non-mainstream ideas – that they would never have encountered otherwise. The internet gave me the Fat Acceptance movement (which saved my life), taught me to be a better anti-racist ally, made world news and politics into topics I felt competent discussing and forming opinions on, and made me a better writer and communicator, two skills for which other people often praise me. The internet has given me many new friends – whose friendship is extremely real and important, even if I have never seen them in person – and made some of my face-to-face friendships deeper by facilitating more frequent and in depth conversations.

The internet is not evil any more than it is without flaws. It’s a tool, and an extremely effective one for a lot of things.

I’ve been commuting on public transport since before smartphones and Facebook existed, and people didn’t talk to each other then, either. If anything, commuters were less social when their travel entertainments were music, books and newspapers, because smartphone users are probably communicating with someone somewhere, just not the complete stranger sitting next to them. I don’t want to talk to strangers on the train. I want to talk to people I know, or meet new people in contexts like special interest groups (both off- and online) where there’s a chance we’ll have something in common.

Children still play outside. They do. My street only has a couple of young families, and their kids are always outside making a racket and dashing out of the way of cars. When I was a kid I didn’t play outside very much myself (although I did sometimes). You know what stopped me going outside when I was a kid, in the nineties, when our house didn’t have an internet connection? Reading books. I spent hours reading. I read at the dinner table. I read while walking around. I read under the desk in boring classes. Can you imagine if the Look Up video were about the evils of reading? Better yet, can you imagine if someone wrote a novel about how reading too much is ruining children’s lives and tried to get it on the bestseller list?

Sounds about as sensible as trying to get a video that says social media stops people from communicating to go viral.

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