December usually marks a time of frivolity and cheer, but like November before it, the month also brings with it a time of solemn and painful remembrance. Each year, December 6 marks the anniversary of the mass shooting at Montreal’s École Polytechnique in 1989. 14 women were murdered during the shooting, which was carried out by a radicalized anti-feminist Quebecois man who died by suicide at the scene. A note from the shooter identified feminism as the source of the shooter’s rage.
Two years later, in 1991, Member of Parliament Dawn Black introduced a bill to dub December 6 ‘National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women.’ The bill passed, and for the past 27 years, the date has marked a solemn, traumatic, and critical recognition of violence against women in Canada.
With the violence at the Polytechnique mass shooting, as with most attacks that target women (like the murders carried out by Elliot Rodger in California in 2014, or Alek Minassian’s van attack in Toronto earlier this year), it is important to recognize that the violence is rooted in a belief system that subjugates women. These attacks, and their perpetrators, have been steeped in misogyny at its most violent and grotesque forms.
But of course, misogyny in any form is violent and grotesque, and the ideas that lead to these attacks are present more often than we might think. Perhaps they’re whispered or veiled, or presented as a joke. Whatever the case, if we are to remember and respect the violence of December 6, 1989, we have to confront these attitudes wherever they appear.
This includes in the office, and offices—spaces historically dominated by men and masculinity—are a place where power structures can make it difficult to effectively challenge and uproot misogyny. For example, if a boss uses misogynistic language or jokes, it creates an accepted dynamic that employees are less inclined to confront (lest they suffer professional repercussions).
Effective eradication of misogyny in the workplace begins from the top-down, an essential framework for creating an office culture that is respectful, inclusive, and non-violent. A common and frequently-heard counter to this is when individuals lament the rise of an ‘ultra-politically-correct’ culture in the office. But it’s typically a lament for a time when one could crack jokes at the expense of others, or make belittling comments to coax a chuckle out of a deskmate. Expressing dismay over attitudes becoming too ‘politically-correct’ is, in those cases, equal to mourning one’s inability to be openly sexist. A coworker’s personal comfort and dignity is more important than a joke or a word. If these need to be erased, it’s a small price to pay.
Even this might seem trivial: surely a joke here and there has nothing to do with the sort of extremist violence that played out at Polytechnique. But the two are inextricably linked. Language shapes attitudes and views, so when we employ words—even in jest—that degrade women, the idea behind it trickles through. Diligence and respect with words is the first step towards diligence and respect in all aspects.
At the heart of sexism and misogyny is an utter lack of respect that hurtles towards increasingly toxic rhetoric. The only way to erase these attitudes is to stop them where they start.