Collective guilt is en vogue at the moment, the ever-supple concepts of “privilege,” “rape culture,” and “entitlement” having been gradually brought into the mainstream and then ruthlessly applied to anything that moves. At first the tendency was limited to cultural criticism and reserved to practitioners of that peculiar form of word salad that is native to the college campus. Of late, though, it has taken a more sinister turn. In May, a shooting carried out by a California man — and justified by him in disgracefully misogynistic terms — became a rallying point for exponents of the idea that supposed structural inequalities in American life have, literally, turned deadly.
As the details of the killer’s ugly manifesto became public, a Twitter hashtag — “#YesAllWomen” — collected the accusations of the aggrieved. If, as Camille Paglia claims, feminism has indeed “become a catch-all vegetable drawer where bunches of clingy sob sisters can store their moldy neuroses,” then it is apparently in the darker corners of Twitter that the leaders of the traveling sisterhood have found their forever home. There, the killer’s peculiar motivations were grafted onto all men — the extraordinarily complex problems of untreated mental illness, a surfeit of guns, and a culture in which running amok has become the go-to outlet for the deranged being quickly cast aside in favor of buzzy terms with pliable definitions. Few bothered to look into the details of the case. The shooter was white and male, and had written a long manifesto outlining his hatred of women. What else did we need to know?
It wasn’t just “misogyny” and “male entitlement” that got an airing. The trendy concept of “white privilege” — and its more serious brother, “white supremacy” — reared their heads, too. “How many times,” Rutgers’ Brittney Cooper asked at Salon, “must troubled young white men engage in these terroristic acts that make public space unsafe for everyone before we admit that white male privilege kills?”
This approach has two key flaws. First, its advocates conflate individual cases with societal or historical trends — and highly selectively, too. If the statistical link between men and violence serves as sufficient warrant to tar an entire sex with impunity, then one would expect the statistical link between minorities and crime to be similarly treated. It is not. What are the chances, do we think, of seeing a “#YesAllWhitePeople” hashtag? Almost zero. (And thank goodness.)
The second problem is that nothing whatsoever seems to be sufficient to falsify any claims that are being made. Neither that more men than women were killed in Isla Vista nor that the shooter hated men with a passion served to undermine the “rape culture” claim; it just showed that misogyny is a “problem for everyone.” That the killer had been in therapy for years and was refusing to take his medication did not suggest that he was unstable and therefore a poor example of anything; instead, it was deemed to be irrelevant — an excuse leveled by friends of the status quo. That he was half Asian did not undermine the early claim that he was an exponent of “white supremacy”; it reinforced it, Salon’s Joan Walsh self-parodically asserted, claiming that he was both a practitioner and a victim, and coining a new term in the process: “half-white privilege.” Nothing, apparently, can shake the theory’s appeal. Last year the Navy Yard killer, who was black, had his crime attributed to white culture.
It is illogical and insidious to judge individuals based on group means. But it is worse when the beliefs used to inform this confusion are demonstrably false. Contrary to the general public’s conception, white people do not commit more mass shootings than any other race but stay neatly in line with their demographic share. Where, then, is this supposed entitlement culture manifesting itself in the nation’s shootings?
Where, too, one might ask, do we find evidence that the prevailing popular culture of the United States holds that men are “entitled” to women’s bodies and that the shooter was an obvious symptom of a generally sick country? If anything, it seems that the opposite is the case. College campuses, Hollywood, and the new cabal of morally posturing online scolds that has taken to the Internet as Lady Godiva did to her horse have spent the better part of the last 40 years building a case for the existence of what we now refer to as “rape culture.” In doing so, they have defined what constitutes “consensual sex” so narrowly as to make a mockery of the relevant language, and have thereby obscured what is awful in the very real offenses that a small number of men commit against women. Are we honestly to believe that genuine misogyny is anything other than a marginal attitude?
Henry Kissinger supposedly once joked that a full-blown “battle of the sexes” was unlikely because “there’s just too much fraternizing with the enemy.” He was right. It remains the case that men are stronger than women, that in consequence there is violence against women, and that, for as long as we privilege the presumption of innocence, prosecuting such violence will remain tough. Nevertheless, the vast majority of women do not spend their days in constant fear of attack — nor, for that matter, do they feel perpetually put upon. The shooter in Isla Vista was not a more savage version of the average male, but a deeply disturbed exception — a “crazy” person, in the now unfashionable term. Among the beliefs expressed in his manifesto and final video were that if women were not willing to have sex with him, they should not be permitted to have sex with anybody; that if they were not smart enough to want him of their own volition, they should be put into concentration camps and executed under his watchful eye; and that the only circumstance in which men might be free to fulfill their potential would be if sex were all but abolished.
This is a repugnant worldview, to be sure. But, with obsessed murderers, if it is not one thing, it is likely to be another. John Lennon’s killer was obsessed with J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye; Charles Manson with the Beatles. Gabby Giffords’ assailant was fascinated by Marx; the Navy Yard shooter was convinced that the surveillance state was stalking him. In Isla Vista, the shooter believed he was justified in his actions. But, importantly, in this he was pretty much alone. There is no burgeoning anti-woman movement in the United States in whose name rational operatives are staging massacres — nor, in all likelihood, will there ever be one. Violence is a traditionally male trait, and some men can be brutish and unrestrained. But those are separate problems, and ones about which the abomination in California has little of importance to teach us — hashtags and righteous indignation or none.