Dr. Dawg

Montreal Massacre: a Jonathan Kay moment

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I would encourage people to read Jonathan Kay’s article on the Montreal Massacre today, but in full-on critical mode. It’s called “reading against the grain”: one examines texts for their gaps and elisions, which are oftentimes more significant than what actually appears.

There are plenty of both in the article. Here Kay sets out his premises:

It’s true that all of the dead, and all but four of the wounded, were women. Lépine himself (born as Gamil Rodrigue Liass Gharbi) declared to his victims that he was “fighting feminism,” and prepared a manifesto outlining his misogynistic attitudes. But I think Barbara Frum had it right when a day later, she asked, on CBC’s The Journal: “Why do we diminish [the act] by suggesting that it was an act against just one group?”

Like other school shooters, Lépine presented his motives to the world in a way that he imagined gave them some sort of larger political coherence. But the more obvious explanation is that — like Aurora, Co. movie-theatre shooter James Holmes, and many other mass shooters — Lépine was simply insane. His age, 25, roughly corresponded to that at which schizophrenia and related mental-health conditions typically become acute.

This form of dismissal and diminution is nothing new, of course. It was just an insane act by one person, goes the defensive male narrative: it was fourteen women, but it could have been fourteen of anything.

One might speculate whether Kay would be equally blasé and contemptuous had the shooter been an anti-Semite, his victims Jewish, and the Jewish community aroused enough to discuss in a wide-angle sort of way the lethal effects of anti-Semitism in society.

But it wasn’t. The victims were twelve young women who hoped to become engineers, a female nursing student and a female university employee. The killer might have been, in fact almost certainly was, insane. But what shape did that insanity take? What images and ideas galvanized his murderous impulses, gave form and substance to them? Where did all of that come from?

It is precisely those questions that feminists and pro-feminists address directly in our annual memorials and observances. None of us have ever argued that every man is a potential mass-murderer of women. But all of us have seen in that horrific series of acts one extreme end of a spectrum of misogyny that is deeply embedded in our society.

There is no trace of any of this in Kay’s narrative, which smoothly contrasts the many and varied reactions to the massacre in Canada (compressed into a single malicious caricature) with the Amish response when a similar mass killing, this time of young girls, took place in one of their own community schools.

A deeply religious community dealt with the tragedy in its own way:

The tight-knit Amish community responded quickly with collective action. They tore down the schoolhouse, and built a new one down the street. The parents and neighbours all grieved in the normal, agonized human way. But there was none of the political, tribal fury against men (or anyone else) that erupted after Polytechnique. [emphasis added]

This is especially shocking because not only was Roberts a man targeting girls, he was also a non-Amish outsider who had slaughtered Amish children. Yet, according to a 2007 New York Times report, local Amish and non-Amish alike “have given the widow of the gunman, Charles C. Roberts IV, and the couple’s three children comfort and unconditional support. Neighbors put up a Christmas tree at the local volunteer fire hall and decorated it with toys and gift cards for the family. Soccer players at Solanco High School in nearby Quarryville made it a point to show their encouragement by attending soccer matches played by the Robertses’ young son Brice.”

“I pray for the families of the children,” a local artist told the Times reporter. “And I thought about what a struggle it was for them to live out each day in forgiveness.”

The juxtaposition is shocking, until we remember that there are many ways of healing from such terrible wounds. The Amish live and practise a form of Christianity that shaped their collective response. Across Canada, a much larger community of communities, the aim has generally been reflection, understanding and positive action.

But observe how that painful, complex and difficult process—to learn and to act upon the lessons of the Montreal Massacre—is lampooned by Kay: “political, tribal fury against men (or anyone else) that erupted after Polytechnique.”

We are not Amish, at least for the most part. Anger in the aftermath of the shootings is perfectly natural: it takes discipline that most of us do not possess to transmute it entirely into forgiveness. But our anger has for the most part been focussed, not against people, but against misogyny and the values and acts that it engenders.

Again, all of this is entirely missing from Kay’s account. Instead we are offered dirt-cheap moralizing. Women should stop being so damned angry all the time, and try forgiveness and reconciliation instead. Presumably, however, this would exclude razing the École Polytechnique and building a new one a few blocks away.

Speaking of “political, tribal fury,” what does Kay’s narrative polemically confront besides feminism? Why, Big Government and the gun registry, of course:

But this is not a religious age, and Canada is not a religious country: Government has replaced God as the answer to evil. Thus, the Canadian Firearms Registry, which the Chrétien Liberals introduced, in part, as a response to the Polytechnique massacre….[T]he idea that government can protect us from the next tragedy, that we can control our fate and prevent evil simply by selecting the right policies, is psychologically precious to us.

“Political, tribal fury,” indeed. And one might add to the mix the invariable references on the Right to the killer’s Islamic birth name, despite the fact that he had been raised a Catholic.

Kay’s reactive piece uses the Montreal Massacre to leverage his own anti-feminist, conservative views, while at the same time ironically deploring its politicization. But the discourses following such events inevitably take on a political character, as does his own: for these tragedies are, after all, deeply political acts.

Dare I suggest that Kay’s defiant stance of denial reflects the deep currents of misogyny that remain in our country, even twenty-three years after the slaughter of fourteen women for the crime of being women? Meanwhile, in yet another act of political and tribal fury, the Conservative government has chosen to commemorate the Montreal Massacre by making gun ownership easier and more anonymous. Lessons, rather obviously, are still not being learned.


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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on December 6, 2012 12:49 PM.

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