The fall of Harvey Weinstein should be a moment to challenge extreme masculinity

Illustration by Noma Bar

This article was originally published in The Guardian.

This past week was not a good week for women. In the United States, it was reported that a man who allegedly raped a 12-year-old girl was granted joint custody of the resultant eight-year-old boy being raised by his young mother.

Earlier in the week, the severed head and legs of Swedish journalist Kim Wall, who disappeared after entering inventor Peter Madsen’s submarine, were discovered near Copenhagen. A hard drive belonging to Madsen, Danish police said, was loaded with videos showing women being decapitated alive.

A Swedish model received rape threats for posing in an Adidas advertisement with unshaven legs. The University of Southern California’s dean of medicine was dumped after reports resurfaced that he had sexually harrassed a young medical researcher in 2003. A number of men at liberal publications were revealed to have contacted Milo Yiannopoulos, urging him to attack women – “Please mock this fat feminist,” wrote a senior male staff writer at Vice’s women’s channel, since fired. And, of course, movie mogul Harvey Weinstein was described by the New York Times as a serial sexual harasser; his alleged offences, according to a TV journalist, including trapping her in a hallway, where he masturbated until he ejaculated into a potted plant.

This week, the New Yorker ran a follow-up story by Ronan Farrow (the biological son of Woody Allen, who has repudiated his father for his treatment of his sisters), expanding the charges women have made against Weinstein to include sexual assault. He quotes one young woman who said “he forced me to perform oral sex on him” after she showed up for a meeting. She added, “I have nightmares about him to this day.” Weinstein denies any non-consensual sex.

Saturday 7 October was the first anniversary of the release of the tape in which the United States president boasted about sexually assaulting women; 11 women then came forward to accuse Donald Trump. And last week began with the biggest mass shooting in modern US history, carried out by a man reported to have routinely verbally abused his girlfriend: domestic violence is common in the past of mass shooters.

Underlying all these attacks is a lack of empathy, a will to dominate, and an entitlement to control, harm and even take the lives of others. Though there is a good argument that mental illness is not a sufficient explanation – and most mentally ill people are nonviolent – mass shooters and rapists seem to have a lack of empathy so extreme it constitutes a psychological disorder. At this point in history, it seems to be not just a defect from birth, but a characteristic many men are instilled with by the culture around them. It seems to be the precondition for causing horrific suffering and taking pleasure in it as a sign of one’s own power and superiority, in regarding others as worthless, as yours to harm or eliminate.

Or perhaps it’s an extreme version of masculinity that has always been with us in a culture that gives men more power and privilege than women; perhaps these acts are the result of taking that to its logical conclusion. There must be terrible loneliness in that failure to perceive or value the humanity of others, the failure of empathy and imagination, to consider oneself the only person who matters. Caring about others, empathising, loving them, liberates each of us; these bereft figures seem to be prisoners of their selfishness before they are punishers of others.

Much has also been written to explain why the mass shootings are not terrorism (except when the shooter is, as he is rarely, Muslim), but perhaps terrorism can be imagined as a cultural as well as political phenomenon, a desire to instil fear, assert dominance, devalue the rights and freedoms of others, assert the power of the violent and of violence. There is an ideology behind it, even if not an overtly political ideology, of self-aggrandisement, cruelty, the embrace of violence, and hate.

This is also a week in which white supremacists marched in Charlottesville again, where activist Heather Heyer was mowed down in August, and where black, Jewish, and Asian friends of mine have been menaced by violence and hate. This ideology of dominance and idealisation of violence has its racial dimensions too. And it has its president now, in the racist misogynist in the White House.

It’s the authoritarianism of violence that seems too often overlooked, the acts that are the opposite of the democratic ideal that all people are created equal, with certain inalienable rights. There is no greater authoritarianism than that of someone who violates the will, the body, the wellbeing, or takes the life of another. The crimes in question, from sexual assault to mass killings, seem designed specifically as assertions that the perpetrator has the power of a god, the victims are powerless.

Read more.