I don’t know the full story of what happened today in Williamsburg. About 20 minutes into a showing of The Phantom Tollbooth (I know! Brooklyn is magic sometimes), a steadily increasing murmuration in the middle of the theater erupted into a man barking out “you cunts” and storming from the room. Someone said “hey, there are kids here,” and he responded by turning around in the doorway and yelling “fucking cunts!” once again for good measure. I turned around in time to see two girls in their late teens or early 20s shrug and sit down. Though I don’t know the whole story, it very much appeared as if the girls had refused to give up their seats, and the man had flown off the handle. That’s all I know.
I don’t know the full story of what happened last night in Santa Barbara, either. Someone shot six people out of the window of a car, then killed himself; he is believed to have been 22-year-old Elliot Rodger. Rodger left behind a video of a virulent rant against the women who rejected him, complaining that he was a virgin and did not understand why women weren’t interested but that he would have his revenge. (Pro tip, fellas: If women‘s mysterious disinterest drives you to consider murdering them, consider that you may be terrifying. Women are smart enough to notice that you’re the kind of guy who’s driven to blood rage by simple rejection.) Rodger’s family has confirmed that he was seeing several therapists and that there had been concerns about his behavior. That’s all I know. That’s all anyone knows.
Except this: The difference between the movie theater jackass and the murderer is a difference of degree. Oh, there are also discrepancies in circumstances and specifics—including, quite likely, psychological profile. But both incidents crawled from the same stinking pit: a man’s instinct to unleash fury on a woman who doesn’t give him what he wants. And when we excuse or condone or even applaud the everyday offgassings of that gaping hole in our cultural decency, it’s no surprise that it sometimes erupts.
It’s so easy to say that Rodger is something awful and strange, an alien metabolism that somehow processes everyday interactions into poison. It’s so easy that men you know are doing it right now, as you read this—explaining to the women around them that this is about mental illness, not about hate. They’re doing this because they don’t want to admit that the poison is real and they’re drinking it too. They’re doing it because they don’t want to acknowledge that they’re feeding others poison every day. They’re doing it because they don’t want to understand that saying “this crime of anger and hatred against women is not a crime of misogyny” is the same as saying “here’s a shot of the poison that just killed seven people. Drink up.”
Killing women because women reject you is the act of a monster, but that monster isn’t Elliot Rodger. The monster was whispering in his ear that women owe men sex, and that those who don’t comply should be punished (along, let’s be clear here, with those who do). It told him women did not have the right to make choices about their bodies, that for them to withhold access to those bodies is cruel and unjust. It told him that winning, or wresting, attention and service from a woman is the way to prove you are a man. But it told you that too, and your sons and brothers and fathers and teachers.
It told them this in online forums for “incels,” the involuntarily celibate, who sometimes demand government recompense for their loneliness, or in workshops for pickup artists who pride themselves on how many women they can trick into bed. But its voice was also heard—is also heard—in more innocuous places, on and off the internet. It has spoken in Congress, where men tried to stake claims on the nation’s uteruses. It has joined Twitter conversations where some hack comedian or other bristled at being called out on his violent jokes. It has rung out over the music at a bar where a woman’s “no thanks” unleashed a torrent of abuse. It sounds jocular in movie trailers about men winning over reluctant women; it was a bit more threatening on the bus when that man kept saying “what are you reading? Hey, I’m talking to you!” but not so threatening that you said anything, probably. It hissed from your friend’s mouths when one of you punchlined “nothing, you already told her twice!” and the others laughed, or didn’t not laugh. It went to a children’s movie and called two young girls cunts.
Elliot Rodger may or may not have been mentally ill. It is likely he was—it is probably the only reasonable explanation—but hearing this voice was no proof. This voice speaks to everyone. It’s louder some places, it’s more convincing to some people, but it’s always there, a psychic loudspeaker calling out a march cadence. Even choosing not to listen isn’t enough; you have to choose to shout back.
Here’s something I wrote in 2009, after a different rejected man took out his frustrations by opening fire on a different group of women:
In an atmosphere of constant sub rosa misogyny, where that constant misogyny actually forms part of our sense of reality, it’s the people who object that bring us up short, more than the people who participate or even take it to extremes.
Why do feminists “overreact” to the tiniest traces of misogyny in ads and media, things the more enlightened call harmless fun? Because those tiny traces pollute our minds and our environments. Because we struggle each day through a miasma of subtle, insidious particles of information saying that men need to fuck women into submission, that women are inherently lesser beings, that women’s looks are their only worth, that women’s safety and health and comfort are unimportant — and the particles that stick to you don’t wash off easily.
That’s true this time too. And it will be true next time.
The Santa Barbara County sheriff described the shooting as “obviously the work of a madman.” But Elliot Rodger doesn’t need to have been a madman. It’s enough that he was a man.