On Calling It What It Is: Misogyny and the Toronto Van Attack
What happened to Anne Marie D’Amico, Dorothy Sewell, Renuka Amarasingha, Munir Najjar, Chul Min (Eddie) Kang, Mary Elizabeth (Betty) Forsyth, Sohe Chung, Andrea Bradden, Geraldine Brady, Ji Hun Kim is a product of misogyny. Why aren’t more of us speaking up against it?
Content Warning: misogyny, terrorism, death, domestic and gendered violence
Authors’ Note: We refuse to capitalize the name of the accused in the April 23, Toronto van attack; he doesn’t deserve our respect. Neither do any and all perpetrators of violent misogyny.
No one is above this.
We tell ourselves this as we grapple with the year that 2018 has been for women and non-binary people.
We read the names again. Anne Marie D’Amico, 30, Dorothy Sewell, 80, Renuka Amarasingha, 45, Munir Najjar, 85, Chul Min (Eddie) Kang, 45, Mary Elizabeth (Betty) Forsyth, 94, Sohe Chung, 22, Andrea Bradden, 33, Geraldine Brady, 83, Ji Hun Kim, 22.
We have had a lot to think about, as writers, as intersectional feminists, as people who feel the hurt of slain women over this year and beyond. A string of deaths resulting from alleged domestic violence has been championed in sheer horror by another attack on women, this time in a busy Toronto neighbourhood densely populated by newcomer communities of Middle Eastern and East Asian descent. Ten individuals were killed, eight of whom were women, and another sixteen were wounded at the hands of alek minassian on April 23. The accused allegedly rented a cargo van and posted a message on Facebook hinting an attack. The message read:
“Private (Recruit) Minassian Infantry 00010, wishing to speak to Sgt 4chan please. C23249161. The Incel Rebellion has already begun! We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys! All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!”
Shortly after, the accused went on a driving rampage down Yonge Street, viciously attacking pedestrians between Finch and Sheppard Avenue. Ten strangers’ lives were cut short on a busy afternoon by a 25-year-old man who left nothing but a horrifying message and permanent scars on our city.
We felt the pain with the city of Toronto, and we still have so many questions — the main question being, why? Despite the post from minassian, there is little known or confirmed about his motives. His post claims that he wanted to “overthrow all the Chads and Stacys” — Chads being successful and conventionally attractive cishet white men and Stacys being the conventionally attractive cishet white women who have sex with them. Yet the targeted North York stretch isn’t exactly where you would find many that would fit that description. Many of the victims were also of East Asian descent of different ages, genders, and income levels. While race has been a lesser explored area in this attack, it is worth noting how paradoxical minassian’s words are in this aspect compared to his actions.
Given the connotation of van attacks in major European cities, a lot of individuals on different sides of the political spectrum claimed minassian’s actions were terrorism. When no affiliations were announced, journalists, think piece aficionados, and those trying to make sense of it all resorted to ‘mental illness’ as an issue. Former classmates gave opinions on minassian’s loner-ish demeanour, a description often reserved for white or white-passing killers. It’s like there’s a checklist for mass, Western tragedies: terrorism? Nope. Mental illness? Sure.
We want to challenge that checklist mentality, as some already have. Why are we not exploring this crime, and the others related to deaths of women differently?
Why ignore these lives and the intentions that took them away?
While the race element of minassian’s only digital trail have left many questions, there is one aspect of his identity and intentions that is certain. He is a misogynist, like elliot rodger, like men who abuse(d) their partners to death. He intentionally harmed women, and that fact cannot be swept under the rug. It’s time to talk about misogyny, the root of minassian’s crime and others in this year alone. It’s time we recognize that misogyny is terrorism, too.
We already know that minassian has described himself as an “incel” or involuntary celibate. This term reached a certain kind of popularity as it blossomed into a thriving Reddit community, one known for its intense hatred of women and anyone who is sexually active. This is a community that glorifies elliot rodger, a man who murdered six people and injured 15 more as retribution for his lack of sexual experience.
But this violence doesn’t directly stem from a lack of sexual experience; rather it is a flimsy excuse to uphold the patriarchy and perpetuate misogyny. The term involuntary celibate was actually coined by an anonymous Toronto student, Alana. It was a term that was coined to bring together a community that navigated different issues in relationships from gender norms to social awkwardness to mental illness.
While Alana’s original community included people of all genders and ethnicities, the incel community has morphed into a community of predominantly white men who are outraged that women are not ready and available for their sexual use, often with little regard for how their own behaviour might be responsible for that. They make the assumption that everyone is having sex except them.
This ignores the many marginalized groups that become desexualized or are marginalized in dating and relationships in other ways but don’t threaten violence when their needs aren’t met. It ignores disabled bodies, which are infantilized and not even seen as able to participate in sexuality. It ignores racialized bodies, which are often left out while white bodies are prioritized.
Many have tried to rationalize the attack through mental illness. Acquaintances of minassian described him as socially awkward and speculated at the possibility that he might fall somewhere on the autistic spectrum. Some have used this incident to discuss mental health.
By refusing to name misogyny as the cause, we are doing a disservice to the mentally ill, the disabled, and people of colour. We need to see misogyny not as an uncontrollable act, but as a result of conscious and lucid decision-making. But using mental illness as an excuse ignores the ways in which others are criminalized for their mental health.
It also undermines the work that many mentally ill people go through to seek treatment and to learn coping strategies to form healthy relationships with themselves and other people. By using mental illness and every other excuse we have as scapegoats for these atrocious acts, we are causing further harm to marginalized people.
Editorials aside, we have seen few news pieces suggesting what minassian did was a product of misogyny. The same applies for the cases of domestic violence we have seen this year. It’s like writers are afraid to call out misogyny because it means calling out a lot more people who are complicit in it.
While we see dissociation in terrorism and mental illness, we are all components of misogynistic systems. We know only a small group of people belong to conventional, faith-based terrorist groups, so we use that rationale for violent acts when we can. The same applies for mental illness. We see people with mental illness and terrorists as others, but few want to accept how misogynistic our society is.
But, women get hurt, and women lose their lives daily because of misogyny. We should see domestic violence and misogynistic crimes as evil as conventional terrorism. Misogyny is terroristic, too — in the way it promotes its ideology and seeks violence to promote its message, even if it doesn’t fit our legal definitions of terrorism, as problematic and generalized as those are. Yes, the van attack in Toronto is bad, and traumatizing, and close, and scary, but it is not unique in its motives. Men have and continue to harm towards women and nonbinary people. Toxic masculinity promotes the use of violence to demonstrate power, and power is a pillar of patriarchy. The accused is not a lone wolf; there’s a culture of supporters and validators who are supporting him, and have enabled people like him to act violently.
Toronto, and Canada as a whole, can no longer dismiss our complicity in misogyny and the violence it entails.
This isn’t the first act of misogynistic violence that has occurred in Toronto. We can’t ignore that we are the same city, where our provincial court acquitted jian ghomeshi of sexual assault charges. We can no longer see these incidents and these men as separated and isolated incidents. This is the culture that we promote and the values we enforce in our communities. Misogyny isn’t an American thing. It is also ours as well.
In fact, misogyny is a nationwide and worldwide issue. Consider the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s inquiry into the hundreds of unsolved and, frankly, neglected cases of violence against Indigenous women. The vile, inhumane and unjust mistreatment of Indigenous women stems from colonial teachings; indigenous teachings show that patriarchy was the white man’s concept, brought on by European colonizers. Consider too the domestic violence within immigrant families of colour (oft and problematically labelled as ‘honour killings’). In many non-Western and non-Indigenous cultures, patriarchy prevails and violence is an extension of it. Colonialism accentuated pre-existing misogyny in some of these cultures. Misogyny is, thus, everywhere; women of colour, working class women, geography, location — women of various social determinants experience misogyny at varying levels. It is a universal hurt.
This opens a new can of worms. Calling out misogyny is calling out colonizers and settlers — a vast majority of us. That makes us all uncomfortable, but we need to say what it is before taking any action. Misogyny is not a side effect, a byproduct, or an afterthought. Misogyny is the problem, and we need to make it clear that it is wrong by calling it out. Just like we have ‘terrorism.’
We all have to take responsibility for our role in the patriarchy, including how we talk about violence, misogyny, and toxic masculinity. We know that minassian researched and revered elliot rodger, and we can’t ignore the similarities in their choice of victims and their methodology. Mental health professionals and activists released guidelines on how to report on suicide attempts to prevent triggering or guiding further attempts. Similarly, there needs to be guidelines on how we report on violent acts of male dominance to prevent their own copycats.
In order for us to confront this violence and deal with it head on, we need to be able to talk about it. We need to hold our media and ourselves accountable for the misogyny we promote and excuse. It is in our language and in our expectations for each other. The violence will not end until we take responsibility for own participation in the patriarchy and work to change it.
Misogyny: prejudice against women taking subtle, direct and overt forms through actions (or inaction) in social, emotional, professional, personal and physical contexts