Violence Against Women? Or Not?

My friend Chad Hermann finally finished and posted his commentary on the George Sodini/Collier Township/LA Fitness murders, and I feel obliged to respond -- briefly -- because Chad points out my earlier, brief post on the subject as Exhibit A in the gallery of how smart commentary missed the boat on the meanings of the shootings.

I wrote that the Sodini murders were (are) illustrations and evidence of the problem of violence against women.

Chad takes issue with the proposition that separately identifying "women" as victims of the attack helps anyone understand how to fix the underlying problem.

Chad's bottom line:
The problem with the George Sodinis and the Ronald Taylors of the world isn’t who they’re killing; it’s that they’re killing at all. And, while I wish I knew where the best solutions can be found, I’m fairly certain they will not come from overstating the threat, nor from sensationalizing the impact, of violence against one particular group. And I'm damned sure they will never come from responding to one man’s insanity with a well-meaning, but ultimately misguided, assault on reality.
Ronald Taylor was the black perpetrator of mass killings of white men in Wilkinsburg nearly 10 years ago. Chad wonders about the absence of commentary at the time about violence against white men. Speaking only for myself, I have to say that I wasn't blogging then. More important, there is no evidence in Chad's post that the Taylor murders were motivated by animosity towards white men. Where Chad sees two nearly identical events -- but for gender -- I see two very different things.

I wrote:
The shootings in Collier represent a horrific act of violence against women. Violence against the three women who were killed. Violence against the nine women who were wounded. Violence against all of the women who happened to be at the gym at LA Fitness on Tuesday evening. And indirectly but distinctly, violence against all women everyone [sic -should be "everywhere"]. Wives and girlfriends and partners, mothers and sisters, daughters and nieces, friends and neighbors and colleagues. The shootings in Collier meet my definition of terrorism: acts of violence against unarmed individuals who are accused of representing an entire community. In his mind, the gunman was attacking all women.
Chad writes that I "who damned well ought to know better, could not resist the contention that there are larger, and more ominous, macro lessons to be learned from this most micro of examples." He's done some good homework, picking out statistics -- that I don't quarrel with -- showing the number of men who are victims of violent crime ("homicide, rape, robbery, and both simple and aggravated assault") exceeds the number of women who are victims of violent crime. But micro examples often do supply more ominous, macro lessons, and if we ignore that possibility, then we may miss all the macro lessons and lose ourselves in the micro. Not will, but may.

Curiously but importantly, Chad doesn't actually disagree with anything that I wrote. He doesn't really respond to what I wrote. I don't want to go on at the length that he does, but I do want to emphasize two points that are lost in the defense of gender equity:

First, to take my post apart sentence by sentence (as in other cases Chad is expert at doing):

"The shootings in Collier represent a horrific act of violence against women." No argument there; Sodini didn't target any human beings; he targeted women because they were women. I'm happy to join Chad in condemning violence and violence crime against humans (and animals, too; we're looking at you, Mike Vick), but nothing that happened at LA Fitness gave me any personal pause about my safety or security.

"Violence against the three women who were killed." No disagreement there.

"Violence against the nine women who were wounded. " Or there.

"Violence against all of the women who happened to be at the gym at LA Fitness on Tuesday evening." I don't see a disagreement on this point, but perhaps we're disagreeing about the semantics of "violence." When it comes to "violence," and "violence against women," my definition is broader than the definition used by the Justice Department in compiling the statistics that Chad cites. Were the LA Fitness patrons who were not murdered or injured that night the victims of a violent attack? I believe so. And I'm sure that the women themselves believe so.

"And indirectly but distinctly, violence against all women everyone [sic -should be "everywhere"]. Wives and girlfriends and partners, mothers and sisters, daughters and nieces, friends and neighbors and colleagues." I'm trying to be careful here, avoiding a glib equation of what happened to the three murdered women with what happened to those who survived or with what was felt by women who felt personal revulsion when they heard the news -- "there but for the grace of God," etc. No disagreement in Chad's post.

Second, it's wrong to promote the cause of ending murder, rape, and assault against all people -- again, a cause that no reasonable person can disagree with -- at the expense of dismissing the real harm suffered by members of groups who are targeted for violence solely on account of their gender -- or race, or other characteristic. We don't dismiss anti-Semitism and violence against Jews just because the numbers of victims relative to the overall population is relatively small; we don't say "anti-Semitism isn't the problem; violence against all people is the problem." We don't do that when the Ku Klux Klan targets African Americans. The examples are unfair in a sense, because I'm hoping that Chad doesn't disagree on this point. But I'm hoping that he sees that my parallels are closer to the Sodini murders -- in the sense that the victims were targeted for their gender and for no other reason -- than the Taylor murders are.

And I am counting violence here in the sense not only of the pain suffered directly by the murder victims and the wounded, but also in the sense of the empathic pain and anxiety suffered by the other women at LA Fitness that evening and women elsewhere and the actual violence of women injured every day -- physically -- in ways that do not show up in crime statistics. Whether or not you wish to call it an "epidemic," there is a massive amount of it in this country (around the world, in fact) directed at women because they are women, and a great deal of that violence does not show up in Justice Department statistics on murder, rape, and so on. is speculation on my part to say that there is no comparable massive amount of violence in this country or anywhere else directed at men because they are men, but I'll say it anyway, because I believe, and I've never seen a credible account that offers data to the contrary.

Even if there were not a massive amount of violence against women because they are women, even a small amount of violence on that score is cause for serious concern. (Likewise, violence against men because they are men, which does exist, is also cause for serious concern.) It is a cause for speaking out against it and for conducting prayer vigils in its wake. Its presence in our society scares all women, just as violence against Jews in the Middle East today scares Jews in the United States and violence against African Americans in the South today scared African Americans in the North. It reminds them of the precariousness of their positions in this world. Violence against women because they are women scares me on behalf of the women I love.

And saying that does not lessen the seriousness of the cause of reducing violence overall. Violence of any sort, against any person or animal, denies the humanity (in people) and individuality (in animals) of the victims. Violence treats victims as objects. Things. I'm pretty sure that Chad and I agree on that point, and I'm pretty sure that we agree that this is what happened at LA Fitness in Collier. But things aren't things aren't things; they are not all the same. Not at all.


5 Responses to "Violence Against Women? Or Not?"

Jim Russell said... 8/31/2009 9:12 PM

A good friend of mine, who is a geographer, offered his own definition of terrorism. It puts place at the heart of the act. Violence to the body isn't terrorism. Violence to a space is terrorism. It is to say that "you people" are not safe here.

Brad Fisher said... 8/31/2009 9:43 PM

Well said, Mike. I ran into this dilemma myself when the LA /Fitness shooting happened. I wondered aloud on my facebook page what kind of issue it was … gun control, maybe? The women I know set me straight immediately and convincingly. What happened there happens in less lethal forms in homes every night, in high schools and colleges, wherever men are able to objectify, bully, terrorize and abuse women, and it is different than other crimes, because it's not always seen as a crime. This hit home as I was reading about the DeAngelo/DeIulius attack. I had thought that maybe this was a misunderstanding, that the boy's a mixed-up kid, lots of pressure, confusion, etc. and maybe he should be given a break. But no, I'm afraid not. To the extent that justice can correct a mind like that, justice should do it. And to the extent that public discourse should call it what it is, abuse, that should happen too. My personal feelings are that our wildly successful, gangster-loving pop culture is going to make correcting this a tough battle -- it makes such great video games and movies. At the same time, this shooting falls into another category, one that's almost uniquely American: suicide by mass murder. It seems to be an equal opportunity crime; its victims can be women, a random handful of minorities, Amish schoolgirls, three Pittsburgh cops, or a cafeteria full of random high school or college students. The shooters are all men. Why are they so sick? Why do they want to die this way? Why do they want to take others with them? I don't even know where to begin.

Chad said... 8/31/2009 9:47 PM


A couple of things:

1) Your post was technically Exhibit B. (!)

2) Follow the link on the Taylor shooting, or go back and look at any of the original coverage; Taylor, like Sodini, left behind a whole library of rage-fueled writings. He railed against "white trash" and white "racist pigs." He had a history of racially-motivated fights and assaults. He threatened to kill white men. He cherry-picked his white male victims, quite clearly and deliberately, during his walking reign of terror. It's all a matter of public record.

Thus, I do not see your point that the Sodini murders are closer to racist or ethnic violence than are the Taylor murders, because they're not. The evidence, and the public record, are clear.

3) I appreciate your care "not to be glib" about the distinction between being physically and psychologically wounded. And you're right, I don't disagree with your willingness to extend the impact of that "violence" beyond the people who were actually shot. Of course, I would argue that the impact is shared much more by the men who were in the LA Fitness center at the time -- they heard the gunshots, they knew what was going on, and they likely had no idea that the shooter was targeting only women -- than, say, by women in the East End who watched the news reports on their televisions.

And I would also suggest that you don't have to be a woman, with this or any other shooting, to have a "there but for the grace of God go I" moment. I have those moments often, and I do not reserve them for victims who are 40-year-old white males.

4) I think you are, however, being glib with the "violence directed at women just because they're women argument." There's no doubt that such violence occurs, in alarming abundance, in many other countries in the world. But is it really that prevalent in the U.S.? Where are the hard, objective stats that prove the claim?

And please note this is not the same as asking whether men inflict violence on women. Of course they do. But we would be hard-pressed to know, without raging misogynist manifestos to promise the violence to come, that they've done it solely, or even partly, because they're women. Sodini's attack certainly qualifies; after all, he left behind a rather clear and unimpeachable record of his intention to hurt women because they were women. Have I missed the reams and blogs and diaries of others who've done the same?

5) And, yes, of course we agree that it does not take a massive amount of violence against anyone to warrant a response or "serious concern." But my point was that in this case, as in many others when women are victimized, there is a leap to make the case a symbol, or a standard-bearer, for the suffering of the gender, rather than the individual victims. And in this case, we're not talking about Jews versus every other ethnoreligious group, or blacks and every other race. We're talking about men and women. And it seems, to me at least, worth keeping perspective that we can't lament this scary violence against women without at least acknowledging that there's a hell of a lot more of it inflicted upon men.

6) Finally: I expected a response from you, if not quite something this long or detailed. It's a pleasure, as always, to exchange ideas with you.

Anonymous said... 8/31/2009 10:57 PM

"Whether or not you wish to call it an 'epidemic,' there is a massive amount of it in this country (around the world, in fact) directed at women because they are women . . . ."

What exactly does this mean in the context of 21st Century America? That gunmen are going around picking off women because they are women?

That we have hordes of people like Sodini in the shadows just itching to take out women?

That we have the gender equivalent of the KKK roaming around, and that the men who love and honor the "victims" aren't doing anything about it?

Come again?

Or, are you really equating any and all violence against any woman by any man for any reason as violence against her because she is a woman?

Then any crime by any man against any woman for any reason is a hate crime in your world?


Mike Madison said... 8/31/2009 11:21 PM

Chad: Civil discourse and debate is a great thing. Only one point in reply, because there are other issues and other blogs: It sets the bar pretty high to be skeptical of the causes of violence against women on the ground that the record is insufficiently explicit on the accused's intent. Sodini exposed himself online and committed his crimes in a public place. My assumption, however, is that a great deal of violence against women takes place in private places and without the aid of a recording secretary -- in other words, with little way for the rest of us to determine to a certainty what happened and more important, why. The real challenge is what to do in these cases *in the absence of hard data.* Do we (i) assume the absence of misogynist motivations or (ii) assume the possibility that these played a role? The choice is partly a question of political philosophy, but it's also a question of impact: Which choice is more likely to lead to strategies that reduce violence -- of all kinds?

Anon 10:57: No to all of your questions. Wow. For a thoughtful response to my post, read Chad's comment.

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