May 282014

The tragedy at Isla Vista has spawned a great deal of commentary, much about the shooter’s misogynistic motives. My facebook wall has been inundated with claims that this proves how sexist society is, and how there is a culture of sexual entitlement among males, and many related arguments. I’d like to say three things:

1) Sexism and sexual assault/aggression are both real, serious, and non-trivial problems in America
2) The Isla Vista tragedy does not serve as evidence for that fact
3) The commentators using Isla Vista as evidence for a sexist culture are hurting their own cause by creating reactance among moderates and looking like extremists and Chicken Littles.

The shooter had serious mental problems. His beliefs about women are not endorsed by anybody but the most wacko of extremists. People with serious mental problems believe all sorts of things – that aliens are about to destroy earth, that photographs get headaches, that they have a monopoly over the coffee industry, etc. Nobody would argue that because a mentally ill individual thinks that photos get headaches, society has a norm of photographs having headaches. So why would we argue that just because a mentally ill individual believes some pretty nasty things about women, that this is driven by misogynistic norms?

When I read radical feminists telling me that the shooter is evidence of a general societal problem, it discredits the entire feminist movement. The argument is so seriously and obviously wrong, that it makes people think “if they’re using that as evidence for sexism, then they must not have any real evidence for sexism, so it must not really be a problem”. Moreover, it provokes anger and defensiveness: “you’re claiming that my harmless little jokes at work are the same as going on a shooting spree and killing a bunch of college students?!?! What the &$*# is wrong with you? I’m going to ignore everything you say because you’re obviously a nutcase”.

So lets call a spade a spade – the work of a mentally ill individual doesn’t tell us much about how society as a whole thinks. If you want evidence for a systemic problem of sexism, cite evidence about employment practices, linguistic markers on twitter or blog posts, # of rapes on college campuses, or any number of pieces of evidence that actually speak to the issue. One man’s delusions are not the same as a social norm.

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