With more than a million tweets since it was created by Twitter user Kaye on May 24, the #YesAllWomen hashtag dominated Twitter last week. The awareness campaign—launched in response to Elliot Rodger’s murderous rampage in Isla Vista, Calif.—inspired what, to many, was a long-needed conversation about violence, sexism and misogyny.
Here’s what everyone understood: Rodger was accused of killing six people before taking his own life. Before carrying out his “day of retribution,” he penned a 141-page manifesto that expressed his frustration with perceived rejection from women and laid out his plan for the killings.
But when it came to the importance of the role that misogyny played in Rodger’s rampage, things got more complicated. Using the #YesAllWomen hashtag, those who believed that deeply troubling attitudes toward women were central to the tragedy took to Twitter to tell their stories of gender-based harassment, assault and violence. The idea was to start a conversation about how insidious sexism in all of its forms is.
But plenty of people—from those claiming that “gentlemen” were being unfairly linked to mass murder, to those focused entirely on defending their individual reputations, insisting that “not all men” are responsible for sexism—completely missed the point. Here what it seems they did not understand:
1. #YesAllWomen Wasn’t Personal
What the people behind the #notallmen responses to #yesallwomen failed to grasp is that discussions of misogyny in American culture, and of personal experiences with sexual harassment and violence, were not designed to be individual insults or attacks. They were simply a critique of how an entire system operates.
Instead of taking the facts about violence against women personally, those who felt proud to be among the men who aim not to harm women could have better used their time to educate other men about sexism.
2. Nobody Wins in the Sexism Olympics
In a recent column for The Root, T.J. Holmes wrote, in response to #YesAllWomen, “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.”
Just as we wouldn’t make the distinction between good racism and bad racism, there’s no such thing as “good sexism” or even “harmless sexism.” It all contributes to a culture that allows women to become the victims of sexual harassment, assault, violence and, yes, murder. To rank these offenses from best to worst in a kind of sexism Olympics does nothing to improve the lives of women (or men, for that matter).
That said, street harassment and violence are even more connected than one might think. There are many examples of women being attacked, and even murdered, for refusing the advances of men who catcalled them. Saying “Hey, sexy” to a woman may seem innocent. But women who don’t respond to these “compliments” often fear that men will be angered by their silence and retaliate against them with verbal assaults or threats to their physical safety. At their core, both harassment and violence against women come from entitlement—men’s entitlement to women’s bodies.
3. Not Everyone Has to Weigh In on Every Conversation
The most powerful part of #YesAllWomen was that it allowed both women and men to speak about their experiences with sexual harassment and assault. The fact that there were more than a million tweets is just the first piece of evidence that these responses were worth considering seriously rather than being brushed over by those quick to take offense.
Conversations about sexism are hard enough without the additional scrutiny of those who say that “not all men” are responsible or who jump in to redirect the conversation to their individual feelings, defenses and priorities. (Again, think about racism here—or any other area in which one group understands what it’s like to be marginalized and others, simply by virtue of their identity, do not.)
If you’re not part of the problem, great. Congratulations. You don’t have to be a part of every conversation. In fact, if you get comfortable with listening instead of constructing your response or defense, you might actually learn something.
Diamond Sharp is an editorial fellow at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.