A public memorial service on the Day of Mourning and Reflection for the victims of a killing spree at the University of California, Santa Barbara, May 27, 2014, in Isla Vista, Calif.
David McNew/Getty Images

A gentleman. 

A mass murderer. 

Same thing? Now let me explain.

Picture this: A young man parks his car in a mall parking lot. He gets out and heads toward the mall entrance. As he approaches the door, out of the corner of his eye, he sees a young woman walking in the same direction. She’s several steps behind him, but when he gets to the door, instead of heading inside the mall, he holds the door open and waits for her to catch up and enter.

Advertisement

But she doesn’t enter with a nod or a quiet “thank you” or even silently. She doesn’t enter at all.  Instead she berates him. She tells him she can get the door for herself. She doesn’t need a man to hold the door for her and is surprised that men still feel like they should coddle women.

This happened. I was the sexist holding the door.

This could easily be dismissed as an extreme and rare case, but a few months ago, I was labeled a sexist and criticized mightily on Twitter after posting “A Modern Gentleman’s 30 Rules.” The backlash came from people who took issue with the suggestion that a gentleman should open doors, offer his arm to a lady, pay for a meal, etc. As I wrote at the time, my critics said the rules “reek of sexism because they put men and women in traditional societal roles: men as the strong protectors of the weaker, more vulnerable or lesser sex, women.”

Advertisement

I took that criticism to heart and at the time re-examined my attitude toward women. One of the great benefits of the #YesAllWomen Twitter phenomenon is that it gives men who are willing a chance to sit back, listen and do some introspection. Most men don’t aim to be sexist in their thinking or behavior, but sometimes we don’t recognize it when it’s happening. Sometimes we ignore it.   

Granted, the women speaking out on Twitter are overwhelmingly referring to sexism that results in daily harassment, threats and disrespect. They’re not complaining about the guy whose sexism leads him to open a door for them. In the current debate, however, there’s sometimes no distinction made between the sexism inherent in some common behavior and the sexism and hatred that led to mass murder in Isla Vista, Calif.  “Every guy looking away is letting them [violent men] get away with it. By virtue of existence, you’re in on it,” writes Denise Balkissoon of the Globe and Mail.

Lauren McEwen of the Washington Post says, “It might be troubling to think that everyday occurrences have anything in common with a mass shooting, but that doesn’t make it untrue.”

Yet there is a huge gap between the man who catcalls a woman walking down the street and the man who opens fire on her. This is probably where #YesAllWomen has done a disservice. It makes no distinction. While it has allowed women to share their experiences and legitimate fears and concerns about how society views women, it gives the sense that all sexism is created equal.

It also focuses on a culture that creates the misogyny instead of placing blame squarely on the perpetrators of violence. Also, mental illness, the victims and guns haven’t been central to that Twitter conversation.

Many men are taking the lack of distinction personally, and many are taking it quietly. I was warned not to touch this subject; warned by women who know me well, and by men who share my views.  “Wouldn’t go near it,” one male family member told me via text. “It’s a lose-lose without question … dangerous territory, my man.” 

Advertisement

Their concern is that a man’s voice isn’t necessary or even welcomed in the #YesAllWomen conversation, unless his opinion is unequivocal support of the “movement” and women everywhere. Nothing more, nothing less.

Fear of being shamed might cause men to retreat, even with resentment, as they rush to the “not all men” defense or post a CYA tweet they think will spare them. Defending and denying are tried-and-failed methods for making progress. In order to take #YesAllWomen from something that makes people feel better to something that actually makes people better, men must be engaged in a way that is brutally honest and at times uncomfortable.

T.J. Holmes is a journalist and TV personality. Formerly of CNN, he can currently be found at MSNBC, and his commentary can be found online. Follow him on Twitter.