Last weekend's horror in Santa Barbara, California, where 22-year-old Elliot Rodger killed six people and wounded more than a dozen before shooting himself, unexpectedly sparked a feminist moment. With revelations that Rodger's killing spree was fueled by anger over rejection by women and that he had posted on what some described as a "men's rights" forum (actually, a forum for bitter "involuntarily celibate" men), many rushed to frame the shooting as a stark example of the violent misogyny said to be pervasive in our culture. The Twitter hashtag #YesAllWomen sprung up as an expression of solidarity and a reminder of the ubiquity of male terrorism and abuse in women's lives. Most of the posters in the hashtag were certainly motivated by the best of intentions. But in the end, this response not only appropriated a human tragedy for an ideological agenda but turned it into toxic gender warfare.
For one thing, "misogyny" is a very incomplete explanation of Rodger's mindset, perhaps best described as malignant narcissism with a psychopathic dimension. His "manifesto" makes it clear that his hatred of women (the obverse side of his craving for validation by female attention, which he describes as so intense that a hug from a girl was infinitely more thrilling than an expression of friendship from a boy) was only a subset of a general hatred of humanity, and was matched by hatred of men who had better romantic and sexual success. At the end of the document, he chillingly envisions an ideal society in which women will be exterminated except for a small number of artificial-insemination breeders and sexuality will be abolished. But in an Internet posting a year ago, he also fantasized about inventing a virus that would wipe out all males except for himself: "You would be able to have your pick of any beautiful woman you want, as well as having dealt vengeance on the men who took them from you. Imagine how satisfying that would be." His original plans for his grand exit included not only a sorority massacre he explicitly called his "War on Women," but luring victims whom he repeatedly mentions in gender-neutral terms to his apartment for extended torture and murder (and killing his own younger brother, whom he hated for managing to lose his virginity).
Some have argued that hating other men because they get to have sex with women and you don't is still a form of misogyny; but that seems like a good example of stretching the concept into meaninglessness—or turning it into unfalsifiable quasi-religious dogma.
Of course, four of the six people Rodger actually killed were men: his three housemates, whom he stabbed to death in their beds before embarking on his fatal journey, and a randomly chosen young man in a deli. Assertions that all men share responsibility for the misogyny and male violence toward women that Rodger's actions are said to represent essentially place his male victims on the same moral level as the murderer—which, if you think about it, is rather obscene. And the deaths of all the victims, female and male, are trivialized when they are commemorated with a catalogue of often petty sexist or sexual slights, from the assertion that every single woman in the world has been sexually harassed to the complaint that a woman's "no" is often met with an attempt to negotiate a "yes."
A common theme of #YesAllWomen is that our culture promotes the notion that women owe men sex and encourages male violence in response to female rejection. (It does? One could much more plausibly argue that our culture promotes the notion that men must "earn" sex from women and treats the rejected male as a pathetic figure of fun.) Comic-book writer Gail Simone tweeted that she doesn't know "a single woman who has never encountered with that rejection rage the killer shows in the video," though of course to a lesser degree.
Actually, I do know women who have never encountered it. I also know men who have, and a couple of women who have encountered it from other women. I myself have experienced it twice: once from an ex-boyfriend, and once from a gay woman on an Internet forum who misinterpreted friendliness on my part as romantic interest. There was a common thread in both these cases: mental illness aggravated by substance abuse.
Yes, virtually all spree killers are male, though there are notable exceptions, such as Illinois mass shooter Laurie Dann and Alabama biology professor Amy Bishop; but the number of such killers is so vanishingly small that a man's chance of being one is only slightly higher than a woman's. As for the more frequent kind of homicide feminists often describe as expressions of murderous misogyny—such as killings of women by intimate partners or ex-partners—the gender dynamics of such violence are far more complex. If patriarchal rage and misogynist hatred are the underlying cause, how does one explain intimate homicide in same-sex relationships without resorting to tortuous, ideology-driven pseudo-logic? How does one explain the fact that some 30 percent of victims in such slayings are men (excluding cases in which a woman kills in clear self-defense)? What feminist paradigm explains the actions of Clara Harris, the Houston dentist who repeatedly ran over her unfaithful husband with a car (and got a good deal of public sympathy)? Or the actions of Susan Eubanks, the California woman who shot and killed her four sons to punish their fathers, apparently because she was angry about being "screwed by men" after her latest boyfriend walked out?
Defenders of #YesAllWomen say that the posts in the hashtag do not target all men. Maybe not; but they push the idea that all women—including women in advanced liberal democracies in the 21st century—are victims of pervasive and relentless male terrorism, and that any man who does not denounce it on feminist terms is complicit. They wrongly frame virtually all interpersonal violence (and lesser injuries) as male-on-female, ignoring both male victims and female perpetrators, and express sympathy for boys only insofar as boys are supposedly "raised around the drumbeat mantra that women are not human beings." And sometimes, they almost literally dehumanize men. A tweet observing that "the odds of being attacked by a shark are 1 in 3,748,067, while a woman's odds of being raped are 1 in 6…yet fear of sharks is seen as rational while being cautious of men is seen as misandry" was retweeted almost 1,000 times.
One can argue endlessly about the real lessons of the Elliot Rodger shooting, including the complex dilemma of responding to danger signs from mentally ill people without trampling on civil liberties. Perhaps, as Canadian columnist Matt Gurney writes, the most painful lesson is that no matter what we do, we cannot always prevent "a deranged individual … determined to do harm to others" from wreaking such harm—if not with guns, then with knives or with a car. But the worst possible answer is a toxic version of feminism that encourages women to see themselves as victims while imposing collective guilt on men.
A version of this article originally appeared at Real Clear Politics.