A guy named Maddox made an intriguing post on Facebook the other day.
“100% of gun massacres occur by people with mental illness,” he said. “If you disagree with that statement, be prepared to make the case that there are some rational, cool-headed people who, after thinking clearly and weighing the pros and cons, decide to commit mass-killings. There aren’t.”
At first glance, the logic is persuasive. Massacring other human beings is such a profoundly hideous, evil act — an act that runs so contrary to our internal programming even its mere thought provokes instinctive revulsion, misery, and horror— defective brain wiring appears the only plausible motive.
It’s an explanation that offers comforting affirmation of our shared humanity (which is probably why Maddox got 14,000 likes for it). It also has the added benefit of providing intellectual justification for a quick hand wave whenever a killer comes along who believes or likes a lot of the same things you do. Oh, well obviously he wasn’t motivated by any of that, you can say, he was just a nut!
Yet popular though it may be, we all have our exceptions to the lone-crank thesis. Particularly when a killer holds values or interests dramatically contrary to your own, the idea that such things do possess the capacity to corrupt a “rational, cool-headed person” becomes incredibly convincing, and the crazy defence considerably less so.
Most of us accept the idea that the Nazis slaughtered millions of Jews not because they were insane, but because they were otherwise ordinary people ruined by a wicked philosophy that ranked some races genetically less desirable than others, and that the killings of inferiors was morally justifiable. We’re likewise quick to pin other 20th century slaughters on other totalitarian doctrines we don’t care for — fascism, communism, etc. In our modern context, most of us accept that Islamic terrorists kill because they believe a hateful ideology that encourages them to do so.
Whether you’re a bleeding heart leftist who frets about the socioeconomic “root causes” that “drive” indigent Muslims to radicalism, or a hard-hearted neo-con just hostile to Islam, period, you almost certainly believe that the murderous rage of Al Qaeda-types is an explicitly ideological solution to whatever socio-cultural-economic-geopolitical “problem” they believe they’re confronting.
Similar frames of understanding have been used to scrutinize the recent crop of mass-shooters, with — again — our willingness to accept their ideological motives usually a direct outgrowth of pre-existing biases against belief systems we don’t support.
If you hate EU-skeptics and the rising European far-right, chances are you saw the massacre by Anders Behring Breivik as a logical consequence of his anti-immigrant, ultra-traditionalist political views. If you’re a skeptic of violent movies and video games, you probably thought James Holmes’ love of the same are what inspired him to shoot up Aurora. Liberals were quick to blame Tea Party extremism for Jared Lee Loughner’s attempted assassination of Democratic Congresswoman Giffords, and there are still conservatives who blame Lee Harvey Oswald’s socialism for his murder of President Kennedy.
And now we have Elliot Rodger, whose string of murders this week have been widely diagnosed by feminists as having everything to do with his misogyny.
22-year-old Rodger, we now know, was a participant in a certain sort of online subculture devoted to complaining about women. Many have described him as an “MRA” type — which is to say, a proponent of the growing “Men’s Rights” movement that champions “Game”-style aggressive sexual conquest and bemoans the increasing feminization of society. But as is so often the case with solo killers, the man’s personal complexities make it difficult to apply such a neat label with any sort of confidence.
Rodger appears to have been as much a critic of the MRA establishment and its conventional wisdom as an active proponent of it, for instance. He was a member of a forum devoted to hating the so-called “PUA” or “pickup artist” subculture so popular within the net’s broader “manosphere,” and far from being a chronic sexual exploiter of women, he died never having so much as kissed one.
The blogger “Lion of the Blogosphere” has written a powerful, condensed summary of Rodger’s fairly coherent manifesto/autobiography, which paints a disturbing picture of a deeply insecure young man crippled by endless family drama, school troubles, and crushing shyness, insecurity, and social anxiety. Though there seems to be some ambiguity as to whether he was ever formally diagnosed, the adults in Rodger’s life all believed him to have the autism-like disorder known as Asperger’s Syndrome, and certainly some of his most pronounced behavioural tendencies — particularly his inability to socialize with peers and his emotional overreactions to any perceived “rejection” by others, especially women — will be recognizable to anyone who’s spent time with a sufferer of that condition. Growing up in the deranged world of Hollywood, where his father worked as a low-level director, this combination of severe personality disorders and upper-middle class feelings of entitlement for a particular standard of success — including, as he often explicitly stated, sex with a “beautiful girlfriend” — clearly made for a toxic brew.
As he came to embrace his social isolation and retreated further and further into the darkness of his own mind, Rodger became obsessed with a classically lunatic revenge fantasy against a world that denied him what he was convinced he deserved. His enemies were not just the planet’s women, whom he never understood and barely tried to, but its men as well, whose (in his view, inexplicable) social popularity and sexual prowess filled him with seething jealousy.
On May 23 he stabbed his three roommates to death, drove to the University of California Santa Barbara and shot two sorority sisters, and shot a third stranger at a nearby restaurant before ultimately shooting himself. He did not kill his loathed younger brother or his equally-despised stepmother, though he had planned to. He didn’t kill half the people he planned to, in fact.
When we go around blaming this or that ideology for this or that slaughter, it seems the most reasonable standard of judgement is whether or not the ideology in question contains the seeds of murder in its core intellectual premises. This is an important distinction from the conventional way we often talk about ideological extremism and murder, which is merely that believing in something, anything hard enough will eventually make you kill.
The sometimes overlapping, sometimes conflicting subcultures commonly (and lazily) lumped together under the “MRA” banner — pickup artists, anti-pickup artists, fathers’ rights legal activists, anti-feminist trolls, general traditionalist bloggers, etc. — may be gross, insensitive, ignorant, or cruel, but it’s difficult to argue theirs is a community ideologically committed to murder as an acceptable means to their ends. Even this Slate column which appears to have tried mightily to find sympathy for Rodger in the dankest recesses of the MRA underground comes up empty-handed. (And of course, the less dank recesses have written articulate denunciations).
If Rodger was some manner of serial rapist, perhaps his feminist critics would be on firmer ground, given their oft-stated linkage between entitled male chauvinism and the controversial notion of “rape culture,” but we’re not talking about rape. We’re talking about the deliberate, indiscriminate mass slaughter of human beings. Of both genders.
Rodger’s personal ideology, formed as it was in an obviously unhealthy brain, was an ideology of murder — but the murders of esoteric enemies whose death served no larger purpose beyond raising the world’s awareness of the supposed tragic plight of Elliot Rodgers. In that sense Rodger was the moral equivalent of a Nazi or an Al-Qaeda fundamentalist, in that he possessed a worldview that made his enemies less than fully human, and thus worthy of death as a means of fulfilling some larger goal. But he was also quite definitively not like a Nazi or an Al-Qaeda fundamentalist in that no one beyond Rodger himself believed in Rodgerism. Which makes it an act of truly dishonest political opportunism to suggest — as many feminist commentators have — that his view of the world is any way popular or common among the other “privileged white males” who walk amongst us.
Not to pick on feminists, mind you. Had Rodgers been tangentially associated with some other unpopular cause or subculture, one imagines it would be critics of that thing now crying for collective atonement.
We must break the ghoulish cycle of treating every mass murder as an opportunity to stand on a pile of corpses and increase the volume on something we were just going to say anyway.
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