The Misogyny Debate

Frank Bruni is really, really brilliant today. 
WE no longer have news. We have springboards for commentary. We have cues for Tweets.
Something happens, and before the facts are even settled, the morals are deduced and the lessons drawn. The story is absorbed into agendas. Everyone has a preferred take on it, a particular use for it. And as one person after another posits its real significance, the discussion travels so far from what set it in motion that the truth — the knowable, verifiable truth — is left in the dust.
I hope I am not guilty as charged.  I don't have an agenda or a use for the Santa Barbara tragedy ... as far as I know. I wrote the post below yesterday. Maybe, after reading Bruni, I would have thought "enough already" and dropped the subject. Maybe I'm thinking about the feminist debate about Rodger so much because it's just too painful to think about the parents mourning their children.  That's too close to home for someone soon to send children off to college.  So--mea culpa, but I hate to throw out this post after putting together all the data.


Salon editor Joan Walsh observes, "The widespread recognition that Elliot Rodger’s killing spree was the tragic result of misogyny and male entitlement has been a little bit surprising, and encouraging."  So now it's all settled--the guy was a misogynist pig, done!

And here's a line of argument I've seen over and over again, in various quarters.  When racists attack people, we blame racism.  When homophobes attack people we blame homophobia.  Why is it that we can't just go ahead and blame misogyny, in this case?  We must be willing to give a free pass to misogynists!  The horror!

But no.  I'm reluctant to accept Walsh's diagnosis because misogyny comes into the picture very late in Rodger's manifesto, when all the antecedents of his rampage have already been festering for 10 years.  The antecedents are hatred, resentment, misery, loneliness, a sense of unfairness, rage (what you might call being "emotionally disturbed" as opposed to "mentally ill"--we don't know yet about the latter).  Until late in his short life, his hatred doesn't take a specifically misogynistic form.

Of course, not every feeling of hatred for girls or women is misogyny, if you use the term correctly.  Misogyny is not just hatred of women.  If you hate popular boys and attractive girls, the second half of your hatred doesn't add up to misogyny; the first half isn't misandry.  Misogynists both hate girls or women and hate them for particular sorts of biased, gender-related reasons.  They hate then because of actual or perceived feminine traits toward which they feel antipathy.  For example, a misogynist might hate women for being dirty (menstruation!) or for perceived inferiority (dumb, emotional!).  If you hate girls for not liking you, that's not misogyny any more than hating boys for not liking you is misandry.

What I'm going to show is that misogyny makes a very late appearance in the manifesto, after dozens of expressions of revolting but non-misogynistic hatred.

Age 11 (p. 28) - hatred toward other boys

Age 11 (p. 31) - hatred toward cool kids

Age 11 (p. 32) - hatred toward girls

Age 12 (p. 38) - hatred toward boys

Age 13 (p. 42) - hatred toward girls

 Age 14 (p. 45) - hatred toward peers who bully him

 Age 14 (p. 46) - hatred toward peers who bully him


Age 14 (p. 47) - hatred toward boys

Age 15 (p. 48) - hatred toward boys and girls

Age 16 (p. 53) - hatred toward boys

Age 17 (p. 56) - hatred toward boys; hatred toward people who have sex
 Age 17 (p. 57) - hatred toward couples
Age 18 (p. 65) - hatred toward couples
Age 18 (p. 65) - hatred toward couples
Age 18 (p. 70) - hatred toward couples

 Age 19 (p. 72) - hatred toward boys
 Age 19 (p. 75) - hatred toward boys
 Age 19 (p. 80) - hatred toward boys
 Age 19 (p. 81) - hatred toward boys
 Age 19 (p. 82) - hatred toward boys and women
 Age 19 (p. 83) - hatred toward everyone
 Age 19 (p. 84) - hatred toward boys, couples, girls

Now we come to misogyny. He starts expressing antipathy toward women for perceived traits. 
Age 19 (p. 84) - misogynistic hatred toward women

But mostly the rest of the manifesto contains the same sorts of thoughts and feelings as before.

Age 19 (p. 87) - hatred toward couples
Now the first acts of violence take place. They are directed at a couple, not only at a woman. 

Age 19 (p. 87) - hatred toward couples

The rest of the manifesto mostly contains the sort of hateful talk that's predominated so far, not the explicit misogyny on p. 84.  He starts to plan for the "Day of Retribution" and buys himself guns.  Close to the end, there are a few more misogynistic fulminations, alongside plans to flay people, chop their heads off, and so on.

Age 21 (p. 111) - misogynistic hatred of women

 Age 22 (p. 136) - misogynistic hatred of women


Even though the misogynistic passages are a small minority of the hateful passages, you could say they are critical. You could say that if it weren't for Rodger's theories about female inferiority, he wouldn't have come up with his plan for the Day of Retribution.  Or he wouldn't have carried them out. That's not out of the question, I guess.

But if you read this manifesto, what seems much more overwhelming is the overall pattern of hate, envy, loneliness, resentment, sadness, hopelessness, craving for status, humiliation, despair, etc.  So it is baffling to me that we've settled on misogyny as key to understanding why this happened.

Maybe the focus on misogyny is helpful, in so far as there are other misogynists out there rallying at websites.  We ought to be on the alert for them.  We should be concerned about what they have done or may do to women. Obviously we should condemn misogyny and recognize it's not such a rare thing. But the one who went on the rampage is this one man, who left a very extensive record of his state of mind. What's in that record is mostly other things, not misogyny.  Shouldn't we pay attention?


But then what Bruni said. I think he's right and so I'm going to stop writing about this subject! 


Faust said...

I’m glad to see your take on this Jean, it’s good to read a response on that is careful, judicious and actually responds to the evidence.

I personally find most of the discussion on this event weirdly straight jacketed, and hopelessly ideological.

It seems clear that a certain kind of misogyny played a role in what occurred here, but it seems equally clear that Elliot’s misogyny was merely one thread among many in what essentially amounts to one man’s catastrophic failure to develop even a basic sense of self. Did he hate women? Clearly. Did he hate any man who had the affection of women? Clearly. Did he hate HIMSELF, despite his desperate, methinks-he-doth-protest too much proclamation of superiority? Clearly. Did he also desperately, desperately, DESPERATELY desire the attention/affection/affirmation of himself BY women? Also clear.

As an alternative to the current orthodox analysis I suggest a Sartrian reading of Rodger Elliot’s case, as his “manifesto” (a depressing autobiography really) reads like textbook Sartrian psychology – a particularly extreme case, wherein Elliot Roger succumbs completely to the Other, and enacts revenge for his failure to develop even a rudimentary sense of independent self.

My point here is not to say “this is the actual meaning of Roger Elliot,” but rather to show that this alternative framework works just as well as “misogyny” to explain Rodger Elliot’s actions.
Begin with Sartre’s basic assertion that an individual human consciousness exists “for-itself,”

“The being of consciousness qua consciousness is to exist at a distance from itself as a presence to itself and this empty distance which being carries in its being is Nothingness.”

Each conscious being complicates this basic picture for every other conscious being as each “for-itself” becomes a transcendence-transcending that surpasses every other being. In the eyes of the Other *I* am the Other. Here we find that:

“I do not grasp the [Other’s] actual surpassing: I grasp simply the death of my possibility…The Other is the hidden death of my possibilities.”

For Sartre, the death of my possibilities is triggered by “the gaze,” a force so powerful it becomes the central metaphor for hell in the play No Exit.

Roger Elliot’s twisted autobiography is a decent into a Sartrian hell, saturated by references to “seeing,” to “looking,” to “being viewed."

“Cruel treatment from women is ten times worse than from men. It made me feel like an insignificant, unworthy little mouse. I felt so small and vulnerable. I couldn’t believe that this girl was so horrible to me, and I thought that it was because she viewed me as a loser.” [Emphasis Elliot]

The look takes, but the look also gives:

“I was scared that she might view me as nothing but an inferior insect who’s presence ruins her atmosphere. Her beauty was intoxicating! And then, just as we passed each other, she actually looked at me. She looked at me and smiled. Most girls never even deigned to look at me, and this one actually looked at me and smiled. I had never felt so euphoric in my life.”

One solution to this state of affairs is to attempt to overcome the other. One can “strive to determine as object the subject who denies my character as subject and who himself determines me as object.” Or more forcefully, “I am – at the very root of my being—the project of assimilating and making an object of the Other.”

Rhys said...

Bruni's screed against armchair interpretation is just as typical as the screeds he is critiquing. After a tragedy, there are always people interpreting it, and then there are always people saying that we shouldn't interpret it. I like your posts on this, and I don't think you should listen to Bruni if you have more to say about it. It's arrogant and naive to insist that people should restrain themselves to focusing only on "the knowable, verifiable truth." Does anyone do that? Does Bruni? Is it even possible?

Faust said...

Part 2:

One solution to this state of affairs is to attempt to overcome the other. One can “strive to determine as object the subject who denies my character as subject and who himself determines me as object.” Or more forcefully, “I am – at the very root of my being—the project of assimilating and making an object of the Other.”

But such a project is complicated by fact that just as we succeed in the project of objectifying the Other, we simultaneously fail to achieve our objective. If the Other is merely an object, then the Other looses all the vital subjectivity that makes it possible for the Other to subjectively affirm me. What is truly desired then, is that the Other freely affirm my being. Or as Sartre puts it, a man

“does not desire the enslavement of the beloved. He is not bent on becoming the object of passion which flows forth mechanically. He does not want to possess an automaton, and if we want to humiliate him, we need only try to persuade him that the beloved’s passion is the result of a psychological determinism….If the beloved is transformed into and automaton, the lover finds himself alone. Thus the lover does not desire to possess a thing; he demands a special type of appropriation. He wants to possess a freedom as freedom…. He wishes that the Other’s freedom should determine itself to become love…he wants this freedom to be captured by itself.”

In a desperate attempt to capture this freedom, Elliot tries all sorts of strategies to become “cool,” wealthy and powerful, all in order to attract the gaze of women, arbiters of value. But seduction has its risks. As Sartre puts it:

“To seduce is to risk assuming my object-state completely for the Other: it is to put myself beneath this look and to make him look at me; it is to risk being-seen in order to effect a new departure and to appropriate the Other in and by the means of my object-ness….I wish to engage in battle by making myself a fascinating object…I propose myself as unsurpassable.”

All of Elliot’s seduction gambits fail, and fail badly. The more Elliot tries to become the unsurpassable object he believes himself to be, the more keenly he feels his failure.

Eventually in desperation he decides that women are automatons, and badly programmed ones at that:

“There is something very twisted and wrong with the way their brains are wired. They think like beasts, and in truth, they are beasts. Women are incapable of having morals or thinking rationally. They are completely controlled by their depraved emotions and vile sexual impulses.”

Elliot’s rationalization is this: women haven’t freely chosen me despite all my efforts to capture their authentic attention because they can’t choose me. They could never choose me, because they are determined by biology to affirm corruption. I am not broken, they are.

In the end, I’m not sure Elliot actually believed this (as his final actions show). I think for him women remained unattainable goddesses, arbiters of his value. And here Elliot takes a Nietzschean turn:

“Thou couldst not endure him who beheld thee,--who ever beheld thee through and through, thou ugliest man. Thou tookest revenge on this witness!

But he---had to die: he looked with eyes which beheld everything—he beheld men’s depths and dregs, all his hidden ignominy and ugliness.

The God who beheld everything, and also man: that God had to die! Man cannot endure it that such a witness should live.”

Disturbing? Yes. But mostly just sad that humans can break this badly.

s. wallerstein said...

Actually, I think that you've been one of the most insightful commenters on this tragedy event.

This whole thing reminds me of Michel Houellebecq's novel, translated "Whatever" for some reason, but originally titled
"Extension of the realm of struggle".

It's about young males who were left out of the so-called sexual revolution. According to the narrator, we live in a society not only with an unequal wealth distribution, but also with an unequal distribution of sexual contacts.

That is, just as some people get richer and richer (more so than 40 or 50 years ago) due to the liberalization of capital markets, so too some people get more and more sexual partners due to the liberalization of mating costumes, while, say, 40 or 50 years ago most people were monogamous.

Houellebecq's characters do not turn to homicide, but as I recall one of the two principle characters end up killing himself in despair.

The book is well-written and Houellebecq won a Prix Goncourt, the French prize for the best novel, several years later for another equally pessimistic work.

Houellebecq, by the way, has been branded a "misogynist".


Jean Kazez said...

Thanks for the comments, all. Yeah, I'm rebelling against the ideological quality of most responses. Too much forcing the guy into familiar categories. It bothers me for that to become orthodoxy.

Faust--Makes sense. He doesn't seem to have any sense of himself whatever, except as either favored or not favored by others. I feel bad for not having read more Sartre.... (a problem easily rectified!) It would be good for his psychiatrist to comment, though he is probably busy consulting with lawyers at this point. Perhaps there's a pathology that explains the inability to form an identity of your own, apart from how others value you (or don't).

Amos, That sounds exactly right--he is raging against the unfair distribution of sex, as opposed to the unfair distribution of money. It doesn't seem to occur to him that sex is usually the outgrowth of people LIKING each other!

s. wallerstein said...

I guess that the skills needed for forming friendships and for meeting people whom you like and who like you are not equally distributed in the population.

In traditional societies people were "friends" with the children of their parents' "friends" or with neighbors, but in a very diverse contemporary society that is no longer the case, and people are on their own in the process of forming friendships and of finding others whom you like and who like you in turn.

Some people, sadly, do not seem up to that challenge.