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OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

Young: Discussion of Calif. killings descends into stereotypes

Students gather on the UC Santa Barbara campus

Students gather on the UC Santa Barbara campus on May 24, 2014, for a candlelight vigil for those affected by the tragedy in Isla Vista in Santa Barbara, Calif. Credit: Getty Images / Spencer Weiner

The horrific killing spree in Santa Barbara, California, and the almost immediate revelation that the killer was driven by rage at perceived rejection by women, generated an intense discussion of misogyny and gender violence -- first in the social media, then in editorial commentary. The passion is understandable and commendable. But the tenor of this discussion can only lead to a more toxic climate between the sexes.

Elliot Rodger, the 22-year-old whose murderous rampage on May 24 left six people dead and more than a dozen injured before it ended in suicide, has been made into a symbol not only for male violence toward women, but also for other problems large and small -- from sexual harassment to workplace discrimination and sexist depictions of women in popular culture.

Indeed, Rodger's YouTube videos and his lengthy manifesto/life story are rife with misogyny, culminating in the conclusion that women are "beasts" with inferior minds who cannot be allowed to make their own sexual choices. But woman-hating was only a part of his twisted worldview, which included a general hatred of humanity and particularly of romantically and sexually successful men. His sick Internet fantasies included the invention of a virus that would eliminate all males except for himself so that he would have his pick of beautiful women and enjoy vengeance on his male rivals.

In reality, four of the six people Rodger killed were male: his three housemates and a random shooting victim in a deli. His manifesto reveals that he also planned to kill his younger brother, whom he could not forgive for losing his virginity.

Using a mentally ill misfit as representative of larger social and cultural problems is a dubious proposition. Misogyny-motivated mass murder is, after all, a vanishingly rare phenomenon. While many feminists argue that more common varieties of male-on-female violence, from rape to partner violence, are also manifestations of anti-women terrorism, the actual dynamics of such violence are far more complex. Sexual and domestic abuse can involve perpetrators and victims of the same sex, as well as female offenders and male victims. (Nearly a third of intimate homicide victims are male, not counting cases in which women kill in self-defense.)

Do sexist biases against women still exist in our culture? Yes; but so, in different form, do sexist biases against men. Among these biases is a tendency to take violence against men less seriously and to stereotype men as violent. Arguably, the response to the Santa Barbara massacre has often lapsed into precisely this kind of sexism, with an almost exclusive focus on Rodger's killings of women and with claims that all men are implicated in violence against women.

A tweet asserting that it's as reasonable for women to fear men as it is for people to fear sharks (if not more so) was retweeted about 1,000 times. A popular social media graphic noted that you wouldn't eat candy if it has a 1 in 10 chance of being poisoned, and suggested applying the same logic to men. This kind of rhetoric dehumanizes half the human race. It also demeans Rodger's male victims by placing them on the same moral plane as the killer.

We desperately need better conversation on gender issues. But such conversation cannot be built around the horrible acts of a psychopathic killer. To be effective, it needs to focus on the problems of both sexes, not paint all women as victims and saddle all men with guilt by association. Using the killings to advance a divisive ideology only compounds the human tragedy with cultural damage.