The other day, PZ Myers noted in a Blog post the remembrance of the École Polytechnique massacre in which Marc Lépine hunted down and killed 14 women, injured another 10 women and a handful of men, as his way of striking out against feminism. To be clear, he was hunting down and killing feminists because he felt that feminism had caused his application to the school to be rejected.
PZ made the rather bold implication that the MRA’s, anti-feminists and slymepitters of today’s Skeptic and Secular movement were part of the same entity … cultural manifestation, way of thinking, whatever … as Marc Lépine. He is right, of course. Naturally, as Chris Clarke has pointed out, there was push back. Was PZ being fair to misogynysts? Well, no, and why should he be? But that’s not what I really want to talk about here. Here, I want to talk about something closely related, including but not limited to the visceral, limibic gasp a friend of mine let out when realizing for the first time, on reading PZ’s post, that the École Polytechnique massacre had even happened. That horrific event was before her time and she didn’t know.
My friend, Sarah Moglia, is a true and blue feminist, an activist, and actually makes a living as a staffer for an activist organization that addresses secularism. She is the same young woman who once told me, “Yeah, I can’t remember the last time I took the bus and did not receive some kind of unwanted sexual attention.” I remember that comment particularly well because when I related that story later in a group of people talking about sexual harassment on the Internet, a couple of the guys in that group let out their own limbic gasps of incredulity; they did not believe her. Later that very day I checked with a handful of women that I know with whom I have these frank conversations (as opposed to individuals who might not want to make me feel bad as a testosterone poisoned man!) and they confirmed. Yes, this is what happens. It is more complicated than that, of course; What people recognize as attention, what people even notice, and the context in which one travels varies a lot. We’ve talked about this before.
I think there is a problem when people involved in an ongoing debate of social norms and social justice – things like feminism and racism – don’t know about, or in some cases, ignore the past. Too many people easily criticize unions, but they either forgot or did not know the relevant history. When unions started in the US, there was a 7 day work week, a 12 hour work day, no control over conditions; workers routinely died or were maimed on the job, or contracted debilitating life-shortening diseases because of working conditions. When unions started to form, management and other anti-union people didn’t simply complain or whine about it. The acted violently. In once case, the town in which the wives and children of male miners trying to form a union lived was burned to the ground by hired thugs. Many died.
Veterans did did not get benefits at one time, excepting certain officers during certain decades. When they started to ask for fair shake they were ignored, when the protested they were in some cases literally gunned down.
The history of the women’s movement includes violent and organized repression and countless instances of one on one violence as men tried to stifle the voices of the women in their lives. Marc Lépine was extreme but hardly unique. The same goes for civil rights in relation to race as well as sexual orientation. Dogs, fire hoses, lynchings, home and church burnings, beatings in the street. When I was about 18 a guy I know invited me to go “nigger knocking” on halloween, downtown. He worked for the city, and was partly responsible for the safety of a bunch of buildings that were being rehabilitated. Apparently, he had started a tradition a few years earlier of cruising the neighborhood in pickups, with guys in the back carrying long 2X4s with which they would strike African Americans (mostly kids) on the streets, to scare them out of the neighborhood on that night when there might be antics involving breaking windows or lighting fires (which was in fact quite rare if it happened at all). It happened that I knew this guy’s boss rather well, and I happily revealed the plot and he was fired and there was no nigger-knocking that Halloween. The point here, though, is that not long ago this practice was accepted enough that a person would brag about it in a bar and ask a stranger to join in.
I have known over the years many young activists who were very dedicated to their activism, but who did not know of these key moments in the history of their own or related movements. For this, I applaud them; I applaud them not for not knowing something, but for being motivated as activists in the absence of knowledge of prior, highly motivating, events. And, when they learn of such events, their resolve is, of course, strengthened.
Last night I spent a couple of hours, along with colleagues in Minnesota Atheists, with a couple of dozen members of the local University’s secular student group. They seem to be dedicated and motivated individuals and they seemed to be doing good things, and they certainly knew their atheist-related arguments. But I’m not sure if any of them realized that a few hundred years ago they’d be burned as witches, or back in the 50s they might be persecuted as commies.
If you are a young activist, I thank you for your activism, and also, I recommend that you read up a little on the history of the movement you are involved in. Chances are you have already learned about some of this stuff, but a refresher can only help. When you get push back from a friend, co-worker, or relative, you can more easily bring up examples of earlier events that put the current movement in perspective.
And yes, back to feminism again: The response to women demanding equal respect and equal rights, in the past, was often violence. Well, it still is. It was, in the past, bullying. Still is. It was in the past a wide range of punitive measures. That has not changed. What has changed is that the absolute and relative number of people who are going to react very negatively to misogyny has gone way up. Misogyny is responded to now less by silence and more by direct response.
But not enough. We need to work harder on that.
And, if you are a young MRA or slymepitter or misogynist of any sort, please think about the École Polytechnique massacre, and think about the fact that when you run around the internet telling women that you want to kick them in the cunt, this is what some of us see in you. Maybe you are jut Marc Lépine who hasn’t acted out your fantasy yet.