(This post continues a series exploring the Elliot Rodger shootings near Santa Barbara, CA. You can start at the beginning here.)
“What does it mean when a man falls in love with a radiant face across the room?
It may mean that he has some soul work to do. His soul is the issue. Instead of pursuing the woman and trying to get her alone..he needs to go alone himself, perhaps to a mountain cabin, for THREE MONTHS, write poetry, canoe down a river, and dream. That would save some women a lot of trouble.” – Robert Bly, Iron John
For all of their positive contributions, movements like #YesAllWomen are having a vastly different conversation than the one warranted by Elliot Rodger, his videos, and mass killings. That conversation is NOT less important or valid, as I pointed out in my previous post…but we all risk missing the real issues raised by Rodger if we see his actions as principally motivated by misogyny. His actions, deeply unfortunate though they may be, have given us a window into a rarely held dialogue which I fear will close all too quickly and unresolved.
In a June 4, 2014 opinion piece for the LA Times, (“Misogyny and the co-opting of the Isla Vista tragedy“), Meghan Daum rightly notes, “…his (Rodger’s) desperation to be loved by women suggests that he didn’t even objectify them as much as idealize them to an intolerably painful degree.” She points out that the victims, which included both men and women, have largely been ignored in the press coverage and the conversation at large. (Quick: can you identify even one victim of this tragedy by name?) Though I disagree with Dunn’s statement that, “…the lesson of Isla Vista, at least so far, may be that there’s not all that much to learn, there’s not all that much that could have been done,” I do agree with Daum that Rogers cannot rightly be understood under the umbrella of misogyny. There is a great deal to learn from these events, if we only have eyes to see.
Nor should these deaths be understood as the natural outpouring of patriarchal societal messages. Something else was going on here.
The Wrong Way to View Elliot Rogers
As the conversation played out in the days following these shootings and stabbings, I found myself particularly troubled by the increasing volume of statements such as those of Sasha Weiss in her May 26, 2014 writeup in The New Yorker (“The Power of #YesAllWomen“). In saying, “#YesAllWomen offers a counter-testimony, demonstrating that Rodger’s hate of women grew out of attitudes that are all around us,” Weiss fundamentally misunderstands and misappropriates the primary motivations behind Rodger’s actions.
Weiss continues, “Perhaps more subtly, it suggests that he was influenced by a predominant cultural ethos that rewards sexual aggression, power, and wealth, and that reinforces traditional alpha masculinity and submissive femininitiy.”
She concludes her piece in a most chilling manner: “#YesAllWomen is the vibrant revenge of women who have been gagged and silenced.” Revenge against whom? Elliot Rodger? He’s already dead. Revenge against other men? Which other men? Rapists, scumbags, creepy landlords, or the “bros” yelling from their cars who almost certainly don’t give a rat’s ass what these women are saying about them? How, exactly, is it appropriate to condone a type of revenge upon the remainder of men – those that DO wish to be part of the solution?
What Rodger was being influenced by may never be fully understood, but it is irresponsible and blind to suggest that he had ingested an “anti-feminist” pill given to him by society at large. This theory is academic, incorrect, and in no way helps us get to the basis of Rogers’ motivations. Nor does it give us any useful insights as to how future tragedies such as this might be averted.
It will, put simply, never allow us to reach the next Elliot Rodger in time.
What Motivated Elliot Rodger
“While it is inspiring to see positive conscious-raising tweets about the female experience come out of a national tragedy, there is also something dangerous about taking a deranged 22-year old at his words.” -Emily Shire, “#YesAllWomen Has Jumped the Shark“
Observing Emily Shire’s completely appropriate and insightful caution, let’s look at some statements which Rodger made in his video and manifesto:
-He wanted to punish women
-But also says, “You all deserve it, just for the crime of living a better life than me.” This was directed not just at women, but also men. What he calls “the popular kids.”
-He believed that women thought of him as unworthy. “YOU denied me a happy life.”
-His anger was against all of humanity, not just women. Anger at women for rejecting him; anger at men for having success where he failed.
This was a man-child brimming over with shame-based internal beliefs. As was evidenced by his Facebook page, his videos, and accounts from those that knew him or his family, Rodger was usually socially isolated without any significant friend networks and certainly (as he self-admits) without romantic prospects.
However, he had little to no self-awareness as to why he was being continually rejected socially.
A tremendous amount of research and counseling technique has been amassed regarding shame-based personality traits (see, for example, John Bradshaw’s extensive work). Lurking behind Rodger’s words and attitudes are the specters of a man deeply tortured by feelings of profound inadequacy, which lay entrenched in the most primal animalistic parts of the brain.
Imagine, for a moment, the added internal torture which Elliot must have experienced upon seeing OTHER men his age, or younger, successfully interacting with females and having fulfilling social experiences. In more than one of his videos, Rodger refers explicitly to this pain, pointing out a happy couple in a park and ruminating on why such simple joys of life have been denied him.
Of all the online sources which I referenced for this post, the source that seemed to understand Elliot Rodger and his motivations the best was authored by the staff at AlterNet (“8 Things You May Not Know About Elliot Rodger’s Killing Spree“).
“The killings and coverage have launched a number of viral Twitter hash tag campaigns demanding an end to the horrors that this ‘women hating’ attitude has manifested in society with stalking and violence. But very little attention has been given to the overwhelming message of society that for heterosexual men – if you are not attracting women, if you are not getting laid – you are an utter failure.”
I wish to include one final quote from the AlterNet staff before wrapping up with my own comments:
“…telling traumatized men that they shouldn’t do something, or expressing in hash tags, speeches and books that men just have to get with society’s program, is rarely effective. It may make us feel good, but such false moralizing doesn’t move us an inch closer to addressing the major problem of male violence and gun violence.”
If Elliot Rodger was a product of our society, then he was a product of a shame-inducing male culture that has completely lost its way in terms of helping its members into sexual maturity. Let’s be clear: Rodger should be held absolutely responsible for his actions. There are many, many men out there despairing at their social prospects and lack of dating acumen that are not going around stabbing and shooting and generally just freaking the world out with their ruminations.
But, let’s also be clear that these horrific events are trying to point something out to us in neon flashing noise: we have failed our men. We have failed to give them the tools needed to succeed in relationships, and to succeed with other men as men. Say what you will about writers such as Gordon Dalbey, John Eldredge, or Robert Bly (Christian and secular voices of men’s issues) – but I truly believe that in Rodger, we are seeing the natural consequences of allowing many of our boys to languish without guidance and direction into what being a man means.
I can speak from first-hand experience, that even through high school and entering college, I was clueless with women. Which meant I was scared and ashamed. I felt inadequate and profoundly alone in that struggle. The journey out of that confusion and into a greater self-awareness and confidence literally saved my sanity. Finally being able to date and feel some sense of validation was impossibly important to me during the years following, and I am forever thankful for how far I was able to grow. I certainly never considered shooting up a school or stabbing my roommates as Elliot did, even during my darkest years. But that pit was truly horrific, in a way that I’m not sure a female could ever truly comprehend. So, while I condemn Rodger and what he did…I think I can understand something of the despair and hopelessness that he lived in day to day by pulling from my past and remembering what it was like.
For some men, that shame, internalized disgrace, and unanswered confusion will turn to hate and violence.