Rob posted this on Facebook, following up on a comment he made on a Facebook thread of mine about Elliot Rodger and misogyny (one of many this past week). I and others suggested he expand on the comment and this is that expansion. He gave me permission to publish it.
On 6 December 1989, a 25 year old failing Engineering student in Montreal roamed the corridors of the Ecole Polytechnique. He separated the male from the female students, screamed “I hate feminists!” and in 20 minutes, 27 women were shot or stabbed. 14 died. He then killed himself. His suicide note revealed he blamed women for his failures. He had also intended to target a Quebec female union leader, firefighter, and police captain.
I don’t remember how I got that news. As it spread, deathly silence was everywhere on my undergrad campus. What few conversations occurred were whispered. The atmosphere around the campus Women’s Centre was thick and tense.
Up to this point, I had viewed the Centre with disdain. What do women need a centre for? Why aren’t men permitted inside? Why am I forced to subsidize a facility with my own student fees to which I have no access? Of course, never once did it occur to me that I also did not have access to most science labs, engineering labs, faculty offices, janitorial closets, etcetera. Even if it had, I’d have quickly rationalized that limited access as quite reasonable: “I don’t know what I’m doing in there, and I could easily damage something.” If you take that exact rationale and replace “something” with “someone,” it’s immediately clear why I didn’t belong in the Women’s Centre. It’s also immediately clear I had more respect for glassware and microchips than for human beings.
That disdain was, furthermore, buttressed by fundamentalist Christian ideology. I nodded along sagely when a woman in my church said, “See what happens when just one man turns on women? Feminists have brought this upon themselves. God has given women a place subordinate to men. Feminists have moved outside the will of God, and this is his punishment.” Somehow that never quite sat right with me. Unfortunately, I never examined that inner discomfort and solved my own cognitive dissonance by simply pursuing my degree and preparing to head off to the Air Force.
At the same time, because of the 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a number of test cases established that women could not be denied access to combat roles. Again, I justified my disapproval of this decision with thoughts like, “Who on earth would go to the Supreme Court to gain the right to fight in war? Why renounce the ultimate get out of jail free card?” The irony that I myself was preparing for a combat role in antisubmarine warfare, proudly and voluntarily, was completely lost on me. Hypocrisy compartmentalizes the soul in fascinating ways.
The next disconfirmation of my self-satisfied sexism occurred during my operational tour. By coincidence, a woman I had graduated from SFU with went through basic officer training at the same time I did, then air navigation school and operational training within a few months of one another, ultimately being posted to the same maritime patrol squadron, pursuing our craft essentially simultaneously. On squadron, LCol (then Capt) Joy Klammer progressed much faster than me, and because of those Charter test cases, she became the first female TacNav (Tactical Navigator – the quarterback of the antisubmarine warfare mission, ultimately responsible for detecting, localizing, tracking and attacking an enemy submarine) in Canadian history. And she was good – really good. Of course, I’d only have grudgingly admitted that at the time: vanity and sexism are highly assholeogenic. Although Joy and I lost touch many years ago, I never once heard her brag about that achievement, and she even neglects to mention it in her military CV.
Luckily, reality is a relentless foe, and it became undeniable when I hit medical school. Female extended family members reached out to me saying they’d been raped, asking how to get help. I’d never have guessed. One didn’t even have the language to articulate it: “I don’t know. Was it rape? We were making out, which I liked, but it went too far. I asked him to stop. He apologized after, but every day I want to kill myself. I think I need help, but then I think about how many people in the world have real problems.”
How do you not have the language to articulate when you’ve been raped? How do you end up not being able to understand if your problem is a real problem? It happens when you are inside a culture, one you are prevented from seeing, that equates your worth with your sex appeal yet simultaneously equates your worthlessness with actually having had sex, whether you wanted it or not. It is a culture where young men genuinely feel ripped off when merely being a decent human being to a woman only results in gratitude, not sex. When this, and a thousand other small and large systematic attitudes are pervasive, then everywhere you turn, the world looks the same, and that world is implicitly accepted as the norm.
So, of course, when an Elliot Rodger states that he killed because he did not get the sex he deserved, few notice or question his notion of “deserving” sex. Few wonder how such a notion could arise, because so very many do not find the notion problematic. Thus, if his stated rationale is not problematic, then his actions must surely have been driven by madness.
I agree, his actions were driven by madness. But it is a madness in our culture, not a disease uniquely in Rodger’s mind. It is a disease in you and in me, one which is stubborn and pernicious. Getting rid of it is like scraping barnacles off a dock. However, as long as you view those barnacles as just the nature of the world, then why would you ever start scraping?
Nathalie Provost, one of the Montreal survivors, in a bid to prevent violence, said to Lepine, “We are not feminists.” He fired 3 rounds at her. Two hit. The third grazed her temple. She said, from her hospital bed, “I ask every woman in the world who wants to be an engineer to keep this idea in their mind.“
She is now a senior engineer in the Quebec civil service: “I realized many years later that in my life and actions, of course I was a feminist. I was a woman studying engineering and I held my head up.”
One day, I’d like to think I might earn the privilege of being able to look her in the eye.