I like Michael Moore. Despite his occasional tonal missteps and not particularly sophisticated brand of filmmaking, he still strikes me as a person whose heart is in the right place, and as someone who genuinely wishes to make a difference. By and large, he’s definitely one of the good guys. And Roger & Me is one hell of a movie.
But, yeah—speaking of those tonal missteps, I stumbled upon this tweet of his from a little while back:
No women ever invented an atomic bomb, built a smoke stack, initiated a Holocaust, melted the polar ice caps or organized a school shooting.— Michael Moore (@MMFlint) October 29, 2016
I don’t mean to knock Moore. As I say I think he is emphatically one of the good guys. But there are a few things to unpack about a statement like that. His tweet is a variation on a recurring type of comment, one which has noble goals but which nevertheless ends up being unhelpful, as well as revealing of a certain type of shallow thinking. It aims to highlight the crimes of humanity and to serve as a reminder that though we as a species commit these crimes en masse, there are still names, individuals, that can be held accountable. Which is absolutely a vitally important thing to remember, as there are countless people who have walked away from the scene of their crime without a punishment—bankers that crashed the world economy, politicians that destroyed countries on false pretences—just because they were deemed important by the system. But where it goes off the rails is by suggesting that atrocities are only committed by men.
The crimes of the patriarchy are uncountable, and continuing. The crimes suffered by women, individually and as a group, similarly so. But to flatly deny that women, as individuals, have done bad things, is to take a leaf out of the patriarchy’s Handbook of Oppression and to use one of its most common tactics: a denial of agency. By doing so you reduce an entire gender to a monolithic, two-dimensional cartoon, with pre-determined character traits, all its members sculpted from virginal snow, and with no choice but to be a bastions of goodness on this Earth.
Writer and filmmaker Jessica Ellis had a pretty great series of responses to Moore’s tweet:
This is Ilse Koch, a commandant of Buchenwald. pic.twitter.com/JJFHAa7eR5— Jessica Ellis (@baddestmamajama) October 30, 2016
You're right, I totally misread a sentence about her and got it wrong. Ah well.— Jessica Ellis (@baddestmamajama) October 30, 2016
As for melting the polar ice caps, meet Ceri Powell, head of global exploration for Shell. pic.twitter.com/8kHTqTpS54— Jessica Ellis (@baddestmamajama) October 30, 2016
And the first modern school shooter was Brenda Spencer, a teenage girl.— Jessica Ellis (@baddestmamajama) October 30, 2016
Women have faced a boatload of opression at the hands of the patriarchy, but you do not get to erase us. We are not ivory monuments.— Jessica Ellis (@baddestmamajama) October 30, 2016
And telling women that there is no dark side to them, that they are pure as cream, is detrimental to their mental health. We are not better.— Jessica Ellis (@baddestmamajama) October 30, 2016
To suggest so, you not only remove our agency and erase us from history, you cauterize our ability to make choices.— Jessica Ellis (@baddestmamajama) October 30, 2016
Being ethically good is no easier for us than it is for men. It's time you stopped acting like goodness comes out of our vaginas. We choose.— Jessica Ellis (@baddestmamajama) October 30, 2016
The point is: You can critique the crimes of men without pretending that women have done no wrong. In the polarised world of online debate we are often too quick to paint things in black and white. We rally around our tribe and trade barbs with the ‘other side’. When they sling at us, we sling back. It can feel good. But as the old saying goes, ‘The first casualty of war is truth.’ The online equivalent is the infantilisation of debate that comes about as a result of cheap rhetoric and shallow point scoring. Crucially it is also important to remember that though a system is made up of individuals, it often ends up being more than the sum of its parts, and when we critique the crimes of men we are also critiquing (or always should be, anyway) the power structures that facilitated those crimes.
You can bring a school shooter to justice without addressing what led him to think that shedding the blood of children was an appropriate course of action, without questioning the system that allowed him to buy an automatic weapon with alarming ease. You can fine a company for spilling millions of tonnes of crude oil into the ocean without ever considering the madness that allows the ongoing mass extraction of fossil fuels on a planet rushing headlong into climate catastrophe. You can bring war criminals to justice without ever examining why they could climb their way to power in the first place. You can do all those things, but by ignoring the crucial context in each case all you are really doing is ensuring that those things will happen again.