One of the most positive and uplifting characteristics of humans is our ability to take an unspeakable tragedy and not wallow in the despair that it creates, but channel that anger and sadness into something positive that benefits all of us, going forward.
For example, it happened in America in 1963. For years, the moral arc of the struggle for civil rights across the Deep South was bending toward justice...in slow motion. Anger over the Emmett Till case, the resilience of Dr. Martin Luther King and the Montgomery bus boycott, the courage of the Freedom Riders and marchers who faced fire hoses in Birmingham did put government-sanctioned racism on the front burner, and there were some impressive wins. But America -- especially on the federal level -- was still falling woefully short in ending segregation and other forms of sanctioned discrimination.
On September 15, 1963, in Birmingham, Ala., four monsters associated with the racist Ku Klux Klan placed a dynamite bomb against the 16th Street Baptist Church -- a staging area for civil rights protests. Four adolescent girls -- Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley -- were murdered in the bomb blast. The shock of losing four innocent young girls to adult hatred caused many Americans to see the civil rights struggle in a new light, to truly focus on the broader injustice perpetrated against citizens because of the color of their skin. Within two years, Congress moved swiftly to pass both the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, ending an ugly chapter in our history.
I thought about Birmingham this weekend as I heard the grim, sickening news out of Southern California, about how a young man filled with misogynistic rage and inhuman hatred went on a murder spree that claimed six lives...and also as I watched the remarkable reaction that unfolded over the next four days. The news that the killer had posted anti-women rants on YouTube and in a lengthy manifesto, that he'd sworn to slaughter women for spurning his sexual advances and that he subscribed to something called the Men's Rights Movement caused thousands of women to come out in the open and declare to anyone who will listen that enough is enough.
The discussion quickly transcended both the increasing frustration, even apathy, over America's broader inability to curb mass killings and the usual politics of too-many-guns-vs.-this-was-one-uniquely-deranged-individual. That's because while we'll never know the exact mental state of the killer (who died of a gunshot wound, believed to be self-inflicted), the sad thing is that the misogyny and sexual objectification of women that motivated him was just extreme manifestation of something far too common. The uncomfortable truth is that we live In a nation where one out of five women are raped or sexually assaulted, millions more are beaten or roughed up by a man, and ALL WOMEN experience various forms of sexual harassment, frequently to the point of fearing for their own safety.
Yes, all women.
On Twitter, the hashtag #YesAllWomen was born as a response to some who were eager to point that the killer (I try to not to glorify mass murderers here by mentioning their names, if possible) does not represent all men (in Twitterese, #NotAllMen.) Of course, not all men are killers, not all men are chauvinist pigs...but that's not the point. All women in America experience misogyny, harassment, sexual objectification, or forms of abuse that are far worse.
Yes, all women. Say what you will about "hashtag activism" -- I understand the quibbles -- but you can't start a national conversation without the first 140 characters. The truths that flew across cyberspace this weekend were both revealing and profoundly depressing. Women openly sharing their breakups in a public coffee shop because of fears over violence, the times they were threatened with physical assault, the non-stop harassment from men who were drunk, or worse.
There were more than 1 million postings on the topic over a couple of days, a few from celebrities but most from regular folks, such as the unmarried women who said they sometimes ventured out with a ring anyway, in the hopes of avoiding the banal everyday harassment. That is easier said than done -- in fact the woman who started the #yesallwomen hashtag reportedly shut down her Twitter account because of online harassment. That's typical for women who speak up for their human rights, only to be shouted down as a "slut," or worse. It is beyond shameful.
The bottom line is there a lot of things that many of us (including #YesMostMen) have shrugged off for too long as normal occurances, as all part of "the Great Game' of male-female relations that are actually immoral, dehumanizing, and flat-out wrong. Not just violence but the intimidating unspoken threat of violence against women have no place in a supposedly civilized society -- it's sad that that has to even be written in 2014. But it's time for all of us to look even more deeply into our souls about the routine sexual objectification of women, something that is much more ingrained.
Clearly feminism is having a moment this year -- and it's about damn time. It was just a couple of weeks ago that we were talking about the firing of Jill Abramson, the first female editor of the New York Times -- about how ridiculous it was that she was given the job at lower pay than her male predecessor and how a woman boss is assailed as "pushy" in a way that never happened with, say, Steve Jobs. Of course, just a few days before that people were asking whether becoming a grandmother would affect Hillary Clinton's presumed White House bid.
You've come a long way, baby?
But Friday's senselessness in Santa Barbara took things to a a new level. It was -- sadly, yet of necessity -- a "Birmingham moment" for female empowerment in America. What's less clear, though, is what comes next, of how to translate anger and emotion into social change. The strong chance of electing a female president in 2016 is a positive -- but remember that electing a black president in 2008 seems to have done more to provoke racism than to end it.
There are certainly areas -- equal pay, sick leave -- where government can play a greater role, but the deeper issues cut not just across the media -- yes, the media -- business and universities, but also the human spirit. Ending hate against women will require real work from all of us.