When I think back 30 years this week, I think about where we were and the casual sexism and misogyny that seemed to be all around us back in December of 1989.
It’s bewildering to think about how men would cat call the women they worked with or even strangers on the street, egging each other on as if it was some sort of game.
What’s even more astonishing, however, is how little has changed, and how in some ways it has gotten worse.
This Friday marks the thirtieth anniversary of the École Polytechnique shooting in Montreal, in which a man – I won’t say his name – separated female engineering students from the male students and shot the women. 14 were killed before he turned the gun on himself.
In his suicide note, he was explicit in his misogyny, blaming women for his lack of success in the world. Throughout the shooting, he told the women he was killing them because he hated feminists.
Despite all this, many tried to find anything to blame for his rampage besides the obvious and explicit misogyny, blaming his unstable mental health, a bad upbringing or an abusive father.
Thirty years later, few dispute that misogyny was at the heart of the killings that day. Our understanding of misogyny has evolved. The cat calls and overt sexism that seemed so entrenched back then are now no longer tolerated in our workplaces.
All that is good, but it would be a mistake to overstate our progress and ignore the many ways in which misogyny has been allowed to flourish in anonymous dark corners of the internet.
Just over a year ago, a 25-year-old man deliberately drove a rented van at pedestrians along a Toronto street, targeting women and killing 10 people, including eight women. Like the École Polytechnique massacre, he explicitly lashed out at women and feminists in his writings before his rampage, as well as in police interviews after.
This is a man who wasn’t even born yet when the École Polytechnique shooting took place. He took his inspiration from the dark and disturbing incel movement, which is an online form of modern misogyny that has too often moved into the real world.
As horrific as such acts of violence are, it would be a mistake to focus just on them. École Polytechnique and the van attack did not happen in isolation. They were extreme reflections of the attitudes we see all around us all.
When Jonathan Wilkinson was named Canada’s Minister of the Environment and Climate Change last month, he acknowledged that the job would be easier for him as a man that it was for his predecessor Catherine McKenna, who was subjected to continuous misogynist attacks throughout her tenure – including the dismissive nickname ‘Climate Barbie’ and the C-word being sprayed on her campaign office window.
The cat calls might be gone, for the most part, but the internet and social media have granted an anonymity that has allowed misogyny to flourish in dark corners.
It is too easy to focus on such high-profile acts and think that the casual sexism and misogyny we continue to see all around us, and maybe even take part in, are not connected.
The fact is that everyday misogyny makes such horrific acts possible. This is not to equate the two, but one feeds the other – and we all have a role to play in fighting it, especially us men.
The sexist taunting of women continues online, where cowards can hide behind fake names and faceless social media accounts, egging each other on and one-upping each other in a dangerous game of hate targeting anyone who identifies as a woman.
It would be a mistake to think that online means out of sight, out of mind. The misogynists online walk among us. They might be our neighbours, our co-workers, our bosses, our landlords. They have real lives as well as online. They vote and may even be in positions to make decisions over women’s lives.
At least in public, most of us have grown to understand the hurt caused by casual sexism and misogyny. We’ve learned about the challenges faced by Indigenous women, workers of colour, trans women and by women with disabilities. We’ve come to understand the barriers they face and the importance of allying with them.
Despite all that, there is much more work to be done. The rise of Trump and his ilk shows the dangers of ignoring those hiding online. Conservative politicians seem all too willing to exploit the hate that flourishes, sowing seeds of division instead of bringing us together.
We can’t let them get away with it.
Thirty years after École Polytechnique, the most dangerous thing we can do now is think of it as a thing of the past.