by Ian Tingen
Today, I look back at a piece I wrote in the wake of the Isla Vista Massacre. Plot twist: before this morning, I thought I had deleted the work years ago! In honor of this mystery of digital tenacity, I now share a story about a story, a telling possible only with the biases afforded by time and distance.
Elliot Rodger, or rather the discussion he caused, vexed me. There HAD to be more driving his murder spree than base misogyny. As soon as I found his manifesto on Reddit (maybe it was 4chan?), I devoured it. Across thousands of words, I watched a man buckle under the weight of expectations foisted on him: social, sexual, intellectual, financial. I saw Elliot’s life as an ocean that battered, bloodied, and finally drowned him. Meanwhile, the public narrative was that he had committed suicide in a bathtub full of bright, acidic vitriol custom-made for the women in his life. Apparently, there was no nuance to the Isla Vista killer; he was an entitled child (never a man!) who couldn’t get laid.
As I am often guilty of, I attempted to intellectualize the issues at hand. I saw two factors working against deeper discussion: the human attraction to comfortable explanations, and the necessary ideological purity of oppression rhetoric. The former I knew to be perilous but manageable; the latter caused me immediate, visceral tension.
The first hurdle was easy. The need for comfortable explanations in the face of terror is a feature of the human operating system, not a bug (1). It didn’t bother me; that’s how humans work. TL;DR: Broad explanations are comfortable, and don’t require much mental processing power to accept, allowing us to focus our limited mental resources on feeling better. This cognitive triage keeps us up and running in the face of pain; it’s part of the core of resilience. NBD.
The second hurdle was a goddamned minefield, one that I was afraid to engage because of my privileged identity as a cisgendered heterosexual white male. Let’s be clear: when I say ‘oppression rhetoric’ it is not a pejorative term (2). I support the right of the oppressed to fight back. It’s not my place to dictate the rules of engagement when a heel is at someone else’s throat. Modern civility dictates that privileged perception defer to oppressed experience. Still, this take-no-prisoners approach quiets oppressor, dissenter, and apostate with the same zeal. These machines kill regimes. And everyone else who isn’t part of the machine.
The scope of the challenge defined, I wondered: If the core narrative was that Elliot Rodger did what he did because of misogyny, what right did I have to challenge that claim? Could I claim any legitimacy in understanding? Was Rodger not a man? Wasn’t I?
As I wrestled with how to best express these questions, the reductionism continued unabated in the public discussion. Elliot Rodger was understood as a function of how many times he called women sluts on his YouTube channel. Wasn’t there more? No. Monsters lack nuance. Rodger hated women. Full stop. Even when people ventured beyond misogyny, the ‘beyond’ skipped right back to simple (see above). How could I break this inaccuracy down?
I roiled and toiled two full nights, uttering profanities, re-re-rewriting my article. My disdain of misogyny ground out a grudge match with my disdain for gender reductionism. I thought of the women that I knew that had been catcalled, objectified, raped, and worse. I thought of the men I knew whose health suffered, who withdrew from society, and who committed suicide because they weren’t man enough socially, economically, or otherwise. I listened to Elliot Rodger’s YouTube channel in between eavesdropping on the casual discussions other coffee shop patrons had about him. “Spoiled brat.” “Woman-hating, limp-dicked child.” “Pathetic misogynist.” “Spineless.” “Fucking coward.”
I got sadder. I got more frustrated. I got angrier.
I gave up.
That night, I acted out the script all men learn: enraged, I cursed my inability to shoulder the burden before me. I deleted my article, convinced that the failure of articulation was attributable to my singular inadequacy. Anger convinced me to destroy the monument to failure I had built. I dismissed complex feelings in favor of rationalizing: “Get over it. Other people have it worse. Women need to be heard.” I told myself: “Be a man.” As countless times before, I made note to never fail like this again.
Perhaps, if I had known that what I had identified in Rodger’s life were examples of what would be soon called toxic masculinity, I would have made the decision to keep the piece. If I had known that men’s studies departments would soon start to find an identity as more than a curious and laughable offshoot of women’s studies, I would have been more hopeful. If I had known that there would be soon be space to explore the unique pressures of masculinity, I would have had the gumption to tell that woman that calling Rodger ‘limp-dicked’ was just a callous echo of what he had been told a million times before. Of what created him.
Elliot Rodger was a monster – but before that, he was a man. Just a few short years ago, it feels like that didn’t matter. Now, though – maybe we know a little bit better.
(1) When we are forced to digest undeniable horror, simple explanations allow us to devote more mental and emotional resources to getting over our fear, apprehension, and pain. Watch what happens with the discussion immediately following any school shooting. The debate focuses on broad concepts (mental health! gun control! bad parents!) that have plenty of gray area built in. In turn, this slippery grey allows people to adapt their preferred explanations quickly, tailored to their own world view. In a way, these concepts are “gods of the gaps” – containing just enough explanatory power to comfort us, but not enough specifics to force any reconsideration of the problem at hand.
(2) There is no dogwhistling intended here, even what is inured by the coarse limits of our language. Oppressed people exist, and must employ strong rhetoric to work against this oppression. These words are NECESSARILY uncompromising. When you’re working against systemic oppression and injustice, you need a loud, pure signal. We live in an era where success is measured in page hits, virality and air time before it’s measured in legal or economic terms. The strategy works (e.g. #blacklivesmatter, #freekesha), and there’s little reason to retreat from it in the age of new media.
Rodger’s Manifesto: rodger-manifesto