by Ian Tingen
This piece is reprinted in draft form as found on April 29, 2016. For the companion piece, go here.
I will admit that I have been the captive of a grim fascination with school shootings ever since 1999. On April 20th of that year, two young boys murdered more than a dozen people in a sleepy, well-off town in Colorado. Those boys dressed like people I hung out with, played video games that I liked, and listened to music that I thought was pretty cool. Like them, young Ian felt like an outsider in many ways. The media ‘analysis’ (attacks, really) of those things that Eric, Dylan, and my youthful self identified with was clear: Doom, Marilyn Manson, and goth culture created monsters. It was a scary point in time – a time where you didn’t really want to admit what you liked in public, lest people regard you with more suspicion and fear than your nerdy exterior warranted. Put more bluntly: I entered the world of school shootings identifying culturally with the perpetrators – they had done horrible things, but they were human.
Flash forward fifteen years and Columbine has become but a single point in a whole data set of school-centered shootings / killings. (Some might call me to task for the myopia inherent in saying that school shootings were ‘created’ by Eric and Dylan – I know this isn’t true, but Columbine was a turning point: it elevated school murder into a well-known cultural phenomenon.) The most recent entry in this grim ledger comes from the residential community of Isla Vista, California – an unincorporated residential area serving UC Santa Barbara. As of this writing, the tally of lives lost to Elliot Rodger stands at seven. Seven more have been injured.
This time, when I looked at the shooter, I didn’t see anything that I could identify with. I didn’t see my friends, my hobbies, my life. I saw a monster. With a little more time, I realized I was doing exactly what I was supposed to. I had been presented with an easily-digestible narrative of an almost alien being at a convenient psychological distance – and I was repulsed by him. Rodger was an entitled misogynist, the story goes – and this narrative is hard to dispute given his YouTube videos. In fact, Rodger’s raging woman-hate has gotten the attention of many pundits, social media hubs, and the like. Because of him, important dialogue is happening.
Even so: No matter how worthy the dialogue dissecting misogyny is, it’s not the talk we need to have about the broader context of school shooters.
In the aftermath of UCSB 2 (they suffered another shooting 13 or so years ago), I will admit that my warm-fuzzy-socially-conscious self was happy to see the #yesallwomen hashtag trending on Twitter. It was an outpouring of support for the aggression that women face daily. Take the Margaret Atwood quote that made the rounds: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” Frightening? Yes. True? I don’t doubt it. Grimly appropriate? Absolutely. Something didn’t feel right, though – was the problem with Elliot Rodger and his kind so straightforward that it could be summarized with 144 characters?
Maybe that’s why I started reading Rodger’s biography-manifesto. What I found surprised me. Where I had come to expect a screed against the evils of women, full of words ripe with the frustration and repression associated with wanting to control sexuality, I found so much more. Rodger’s pages contain misogyny, certainly, but only as a fractional part of a world he feels cut off from, ostracized in, and simultaneously afraid and disdainful of. Over and over again, he wonders why he can’t find the happiness, the relationships (sexual and platonic), and the joy that seem to come so easily to others.
He hated everything, because nothing went how he’s been taught to believe it works. He’s a scared, awkward, latchkey kid. He reported the same anxiety and felt the same pressures that other kids his age do. Adults around him valued volume of experience over quality of experience. Yes, he had a number of therapists and diagnoses over the years – but that’s what happens when you come from a social class that has access to healthcare. (This isn’t about mental health, either – rich people don’t look at their children’s problems as socially-determined, when diagnoses of individual brain chemistry and personality can be blamed.)
Fundamentally, Elliot Rodger was a product of his environment – of both the local neglect he suffered at the hands of seemingly distant guardians, and of the broader social delusion that tells us that all we must do to be happy is to want it.
No doubt, some of you are thinking: “Yes! Exactly! Product of his environment! Misogyny and violence against women are cultural problems! Let’s have that worthwhile discussion!” I agree, that discussion is worthwhile. But now’s not the time. Seemingly distasteful as it is to admit, Rodger’s misogyny is a symptom, not the cause. It’s his expression of a pattern of unrealistic hopes and entitlement we’ve seen countless times before.
The social scientist in me cannot ignore that school shooters are always male, often affluent, usually white, and rarely feel as if they belong in any broader social context. The more we try to turn every killer into a unique monster, the harder it is to have discussions about the similar traits they share. The sheer volume of shootings that we have suffered in the US cannot be reduced to the actions of aberrant individual behavior every god-damn time. This is not about uniquely twisted individuals, no matter how media-friendly their immediately-obvious afflictions and interests may be.
In Rodger’s case, if we only focus on misogyny, we ignore the other social, economic, and digital lies we are telling our youth. Hating women doesn’t turn people into killers – unrealistic expectations, broken dreams, and poor social support do – especially if you’re rich, white, and male.
In other words: We cannot comprehensively reflect the burden of identity, especially that of a young man, in a hatred of women. He must be understood as a sum, not as a singularity.