gun

Q: Why did God create women?

A: So poor men could have slaves.

-A joke I’ve heard told a few times by smart radical feminists

In the wake of a tragedy like the recent Newtown massacre, it’s only natural to try to make sense of what has happened. As humans are social creatures, it’s also natural (and correct, I think), to attempt to look at it in a systemic way, especially considering these kinds of killings have dramatically increased over the past 30 years. Yesterday’s New York Times editorial by our old pal Christy Wampole attempts to do both of those things. Unfortunately, the conclusion she comes to is so off base as to make me question whether she’s just trolling us, or what. In short: she believes that we can (and should) stop young white men from lashing out and killing people by having more empathy for their loss of privilege in modern society. Say what?

She starts out by painting a falsely rosy picture of what “the young [white] man” used to mean to Western society, then describing how he has declined:

They were once our heroes, our young and shining fathers, our sweet brothers, our tireless athletes, our fearless warriors, the brains of our institutions, the makers of our wares, the movers of our world. In the Western imagination, the valiance of symbolically charged figures like Homer’s Ulysses or the Knights of the Round Table remained unquestioned since their conception. However, as centuries progressed and stable categories faltered, the hero figure faces increasing precarity. Even if we consider the 20th century alone, we see this shift from World War II, when the categories of good and evil were firm, to later conflicts like the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, involving a disparity between what the government believed to be right and what much of the civilian population did. Does the heroic young man still make sense today, or has his value already been depleted?

Note what’s being omitted from this apocryphal history: the fact that this ability to shine often came at the expense of women, minorities, queer people, trans people, and anyone else who was not white, male, straight, cisgendered, and able bodied. (Also: I’m calling bullshit. White men still have plenty of positive role models.)

Next, she gives some anecdotal evidence that poor women do better in life than poor men. She also admits she’s talking mainly about young white men and delivers this super-awful pull quote that replaces one stereotype with another:

“The angry white man has usurped the angry black man.”

But while the angry black man was angry about things like, I don’t know, the way white people kidnapped a million of his ancestors from Africa and enslaved them, then freed them but made them live in an environment of widespread racism, poverty and oppression, the angry white man is angry about whatever marginal gains people who are not him have made in the past 50 years or so. (False equivalency alert!) To Wampole, empowerment is a zero sum game:

I would argue that maleness and whiteness are commodities in decline. And while those of us who are not male or white have enjoyed some benefits from their decline, the sort of violence and murder that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary will continue to occur if we do not find a way to carry them along with us in our successes rather than leaving them behind.

For women, things are looking up. We can vote, we can make more choices about our bodies than in decades past, we’ve made significant progress regarding fair pay, and more women are involved in American politics than ever before. The same can be said for minorities. However, because resources are limited, gains for women and minorities necessarily equal losses for white males. Even if this feels intuitively fair to many, including those white males who are happy to share resources for the greater benefit of the nation as a whole, it must feel absolutely distressing for those who are uncomfortable with change and who have a difficult time adjusting to the inevitable reordering of society.

That’s right: shootings like this happen because the young white man is angry his privilege (which did not belong to him in the first place) is being taken away. (And like I’ve said, the degree to which it’s being taken away is debatable.)

If she’d stopped right there, I wouldn’t have as many problems with it as I do. True, it doesn’t account for all the other factors that lead to acts of violence: easy access to firearms, undiagnosed or untreated mental illness, and, I would argue, the systemic and increasing alienation of the American worker. (Plus: not every “senseless” murderer is white and male. And not every young white man is angry.) But the pretend-victim, right populist rage of the white male is a very real phenomenon that we see everywhere from the Tea Party to “men’s rights activists” to (maybe) some of the murders we’ve seen in recent years, and it’s important to understand it in order to defeat it.

But rather than hold this angry white man accountable for his own inappropriate feelings of victimhood, she proposes a ridiculous solution: coddle and validate those unearned feelings of anger with “empathy.”

For those of us who belong to a demographic that is doing increasingly better, a trained empathic reflex toward those we know to be losing for our gains could lead to a more deferential attitude on our part and could constitute an invitation for them to stay with us.

Let me get this straight: because I am not being discriminated against quite as much as I used to be, I need to act “deferential” towards the men who are no longer able to get jobs because they were born the right gender and color? “Poor baby, having to work to achieve your goals, how very unfair!” And by implication, if I don’t do that, it will be my fault when a young white man goes out and kills a bunch of people? Fuck that.

We can argue all day about who is responsible for stopping violence, but the onus is hardly on people who are already marginalized. This makes about as much sense as blaming a rape victim for her own rape because she was wearing a short skirt. If anyone or anything is responsible for this ridiculous white male rage, it is the patriarchy itself, for giving men a false sense of entitlement and falsely superior identities in the first place.

To quote Melissa McEwan:

This article is what happens when you don’t understand (or don’t care about) the difference between “maleness” and “male privilege.” When you treat gender parity like a zero-sum game. When you wax nostalgic for a history that never existed. When you carefully elide how the kyriarchy has robbed privileged men of both a way to define themselves that is neither oppressor nor oppressed and the unquenchable hunger for self-improvement that doesn’t reside in the bellies of the privileged who are assured they are the Norm, the ideal to which marginalized people aspire.

The problem is not that we have failed to empathize with privileged young white (straight, cis, middle class) men. The problem is that have built a culture around not expecting them to empathize with anyone else.

Word.

Like I said before, I’m not convinced that “rage at having one’s privilege taken away” is the primary cause of senseless acts of violence like the one we saw in Newtown. But if it is, it’s sure as hell not up to me to try and soothe it away. Remember how we did that for years, and all it did was make the problem worse? Yeah. It’s time for the small subset of white men experiencing this “white male rage” phenomenon to take collective responsibility for their own odious thoughts and actions. If they are mad about lack of money and opportunities, it’s time for them to look up at the system that’s oppressing them, not down at the easiest targets. Then, and only then, will we move to a less alienated society in which only the most intractable of mental disorders can cause people of any race or sex to harm others.

(Via The New York Times)

Photo: Wikipedia