[Content Notes: murder, suicide, misogyny, MRA/PUA rhetoric, guns]
I’m honestly not sure whether I want to write about this, but I’ve been seeing it discussed almost everywhere I look and I think I need to.
TRIGGER WARNINGS FOR ALL THE THINGS.
It has emerged that Elliot Rodger, the alleged shooter in the Santa Barbara incident last night (to my knowledge counts currently stand at 7 dead and 7 injured, including Rodger himself; there have also been reports that an additional three bodies were found in Rodger’s apartment) was an active participant in the community of internet misogynists known as the “manosphere”. David Futrelle at The Site Formerly Known as Manboobz has made a complete transcript of the youtube video in which Rodger laid out his twisted rationale, and in addition to the comments there there have also been some great discussions at Pharyngula and Skepchick among other places. The posts and comments are well worth reading if you can stomach them.
I’ve only read the transcript – I don’t think I could stand subjecting myself to the video – and he’s hit an alarming number of MRA talking points. Entitlement drips from every word. One thing we must note is that this sense of entitlement is one that our society encourages men, especially affluent white men, to develop, and even specifically with respect to women (see, for example, romantic comedies etc). Elliot Rodger was practically a textbook Nice Guy ™ (if that term is unclear, here is a very good overview of the phenomenon), as far as I can tell. And nowhere are these attitudes more thoroughly reinforced than in the manosphere.
From what I’ve seen, there seem to be two paths a man can take after discovering the Nice Guy ™ phenomenon and his own participation in it . Either he will read feminist criticisms and take them to heart, eventually correcting his behaviour and his thinking, or he will read feminist criticisms and decide that feminists are out to get him and be driven into the arms of the manosphere, where all of his resentments will be further reinforced. Sadly, I think the latter response is probably more common (if nothing else, just because of how much difficulty many people have not considering any criticism a personal attack), though I don’t have any numbers to back this up. Now obviously I am grossly simplifying things here, and some of this is reliant on conjecture (which is based on my personal observations of internet discussions), but I think this model is sufficient to make the point I want to here.
This hinges on both one’s ability to honestly evaluate ideas’ coherence to reality, and on one’s sense of empathy. Without empathy and a willingness to understand women’s perspectives on behaviour like this, these men may never be willing or able to encounter or acknowledge the facts that would change their minds even if they were open to being convinced (this, I think, is one reason so many supposed “skeptics” end up supporting misogyny and/or the MRM).
The “men’s movement”, like many extreme political movements and religious cults, tends to polarise and indoctrinate people. What I think tends to happen is that people who feel hurt or aggrieved go looking for support, find the MRAs, and as they spend more and more time in that movement they are encouraged to generalise a single bad experience into a hatred of all women. It seems that immersing oneself in an ideological echo chamber is a very good way of insulating oneself from reality, and replacing it with a delusional reality constructed by the group; furthermore, this process is self-reinforcing (as people are encouraged to view everything that happens through an ideological lens, they force events to fit their mental model and then take that fitting as confirmation of the model’s accuracy) and tends to only result in further group polarisation in the long run. There is an extent to which all cultural norms behave this way – that’s how the patriarchy/kyriarchy works, after all – but it seems to be much more pronounced, and even more dangerous, in cloistered groups like the MRM.
Ideology is dangerous. Ideas can drive people to kill. (I am tempted to compare people like Rodger to the 9/11 hijackers, but that may be overly provocative; oops, I just did. It seems to me a difference in degree, not in kind.) Steven Weinberg famously said “Religion is an insult to human dignity. Without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” My friend Professor Andy Norman, in a talk promoting secular humanism, suggested that “religion” in that quote would be more accurately replaced by “ideology” (of which religion is a subset), and I agree with him. I do not mean to suggest by this that Elliot Rodger would have been a good person if not for the influence of the MRM – that is a counterfactual we cannot evaluate – only that we must acknowledge those ideas played at least a partially etiological role in the atrocities he committed, and were it not for them, he would have been significantly less likely to commit this particular hate crime.
It may sound like I am advocating against freedom of speech in writing this. That is not my intent, or at least not quite (do note that criticism of an idea, no matter how strong, is not equivalent to silencing). I do think there are ideas that do harm by dint of being believed; we have evidence of that in cases like this recent shooting. The lesson I think we need to take from this is that it is incredibly important to honestly consider evidence and be willing to change one’s mind, and to foster the development of empathy, because failure to do so leads directly into the trap of toxic ideologies such as the MRM. I am not sure how to deal with the immediate problem posed by such hate groups; I think many of them have reached the point where any attempt at education is futile, but they may not all be. And if nothing else, we can make note of the importance of critical thinking education – and teaching empathy, because empathy can be a learned skill – in an attempt to inoculate other young people against ideological viruses (also Andy’s metaphor). Elliot Rodger was 22 years old, literate, and enrolled at a selective university. Whatever else he was, he wasn’t stupid (though he clearly believed some very stupid and vile ideas), and in principle could probably have been educated. This does not make him any less responsible for the crimes he committed, but it does mean that responsibility was not solely limited to him.
Rodger’s victims and their families have all of my sympathies and condolences. What happened last night was a tragedy. But merely being tragic does not mean it happened in a void, nor does it mean we should refrain from discussing things that contributed to it; it is only by doing so that we can begin to work at preventing further atrocities of this kind in future.