We love the narrative that blames a current cultural ill (loose morals, video games, a controversial book, misogyny) for random acts of inexplicable horror. But this narrative is completely wrong.
When Mark David Chapman shot John Lennon at point-blank range, he was carrying a copy of Catcher in the Rye. This was also among a very few volumes found in the apartment of John Hinckley Jr. — although, of course, the infamous stalker attributed his attempt on the life of Ronald Reagan much more to the work of Martin Scorsese. Nonetheless, it’s important that after we blame Taxi Driver for that attempted homicide, we note the fatal shooting of 21-year-old actress Rebecca Schaeffer was effected by an assailant carrying J.D. Salinger in his jacket.
Talk about murder by the book. After all, everybody is these past few days. Since the fatal shooting of four men and two women in Santa Barbara, California, apparently by a man named Elliot Rodger, who also committed suicide, the role of cultural influence is again under scrutiny.
According to commentators, this 22-year-old read some misogynistic pamphlets and websites. It is held by many commentators that his alleged actions were not, in fact, the result of the same ultra-individualised extremism that has driven white Americans to kill each other since one who signed the Mayflower compact took out a blunderbuss in the middle of an argument. This violence, it is said, is not part of the occasional American tradition of believing aberrant shit and shooting guns at people in its name. This violence is the work of misogynistic websites.
Here is a post at The American Prospect describing how “pick up artist” writing shaped the mind of a killer. Here is a post at The Daily Kos asserting that Rodger was influenced by the Men’s Rights Movement. Here is a crayon drawing at the New Statesman by someone who should probably have taken a break rather than deciding to “make no apologies for the fact this piece is full of rage” and go on to describe the “ideology” that fuelled this crime. Society, say the writers, endorses this kind of hate-crime.
In short, and in the fast habit of the morally panicked, the internet and what remains of news media “know” why this crime was committed. On ABC1’s Q&A last night, author Tara Moss summed broad feeling up when she noted that the alleged assailant had told us that misogyny was his motive in his last video.
This view requires that we accept not only that the act of violence was the logical end to a normative hatred of women but that Rodger is a reliable narrator. This is bit like according Holden Caulfield the same status. If this were high school English, we’d all get an F.
We’d fail, and we’d end the fictional lives of Salinger’s Holden and Scorsese’s Travis and, while we were at it, we’d take back the Beatles White Album from iPhones everywhere because, as you know, this was the trigger for the Manson Family’s murder of Sharon Tate and eight other souls. Probably the Bible, too, given that Jim Jones’ fondness for it led to what would be the single largest loss of American civilian life by human design until September 11, 2001, which, as everybody knows, was the work of the Koran. Also, as it happens, the reading material for the Boston bombers.
Are we up to speed, yet? In summary: The Bible kills. The Beatles kill. Columbine was the work of Marilyn Manson. Aurora was down to Batman. Sandy Hook was only made possible by video games.
When Sandy Hook gunman Adam Lanza, an ardent player of Dance Dance Revolution, did his worst to the babies of Connecticut, President Barack Obama responded by proposing measures that would prevent raving loonies previously charged with bloody murder from buying semi-automatics. These controls were defeated in the US Senate. Perhaps the US Violent Content Research Act, which proposes proving a link between novelty dance games and mass shootings, has a better chance of passing.
It must do, because we have begun to believe so ardently that madmen have a violent genealogy that has less to do with owning a gun in what has long been the world’s most violent liberal democracy than it does with vice. We have begun to seek comfort so ardently in the simplest accounts of history’s most complex age. Who knows why people without any obvious reason to do so kill? Who knows why rampage killers affix their unstuck sickness to a particular cultural peg?
The Guardian knows. Here it is offering “further proof that misogyny kills”, that the unwholesome literature of an unwholesome time is responsible for something that has been happening since the birth of criminal records. As Jessica Valenti has it (and she is careful not to call the alleged assailant mad for fear that it will “stigmatise the mentally ill”; she’s not so worried about stigmatising an entire nation), guns don’t kill people. Misogyny does. Stop the “victim-blaming”. Start the victim-claiming.
Way to change the public conversation. Way to hinder much-needed support for those gun control measures well-regarded studies tell us save lives. Way to kickstart that kind of feminist Godwin-ing that begins in the gut and ends in social scientism.Whenever we hear about bloodshed in the cult-and-gun-happy United States, we are absolutely confused and absolutely sure in succession. First, there is the instant in which we know this horror is beyond the reach of our understanding. Then, we acquire instant expertise in forensic and social psychology and begin to explain exactly why it happened. And then, actual grown-ups start writing oblivious and frantic things like PolicyMic’s” What Elliot Rodger Said About Women Reveals Why We Need to Stamp Out Misogyny”.
What Eliot Rodger Said About Women reveals that the guy was a nutter-butter created by goodness-knows-what fusion of chemicals with numb hate, and that a person with a long history of psychiatric therapy was able to access a gun. These are not the actions of a person, despite the author’s desperation to locate him in an evil-guy continuum, which form the endpoint of patriarchy. These are the actions of a person only a very few experts are qualified to assess within a broader social and psychological context. But the internet knows what he was doing because, of course, “The gunman knew exactly what he was doing”; there’s Moss’s reliable narrator again.
On this widely read assessment goes: the media should not dismiss such people as madmen but acknowledge that their actions are an “extension of toxic masculinity ideals that are institutionally reinforced”. The media should do this quickly and often. The media should not deny that “many school shootings could qualify as hate crimes against women and girls”. The author goes on to cite one example of such a crime, bringing her misogyny total to two. Which is still one fewer than Catcher in the Rye. Or, you know, two if we count the fact that Lee Harvey Oswald also liked a bit of Salinger.
But no matter. According to “research” (aka a blogger who used a Wikipedia entry as the basis for some Excel pie charts), school shootings claim a greater number of female student victims than male student victims. And the media do not report this (mild, improperly sourced) statistic because of misogyny. The same misogyny that links all acts of disdain or harm directed at women — soon to include, I imagine, this article — and that pulled the trigger on four men and two women last Friday in California (five men when you include the gunman).
The DIY sociology continues apace. We can’t be sure what to make of the figure in an amateur data set that tells us that more male teachers than female teachers are slain in this, the 180th anniversary year of US school shootings by students. (The first was male on male, if you’re interested.) But it probably has something to do with misogyny. Because this week, all murders are the product of misogyny. All murderers know exactly what they’re doing. All murders have their roots in misogyny, because men mostly do murder. And men know what they’re doing. And we know what men are doing. Misogyny.
The tone of this analysis might be novel; the shape of it is familiar.
Charlie Manson and his girls were spurred on by The White Album, an artefact of a permissive era. Lanza was moved to kill by the video games of a violent era. Some 900 people in the People’s Agricultural Temple died by the perversion of Christian tenets in a godless era. Here’s the formula: the social ill that currently preoccupies me is the basis for that horrible thing. We know what they are doing. And so do they.
Rodger “knew exactly what he was doing”. Just like Charles Manson did, presumably, when he attempted to spark a race war by instructing his “family” to go to a house in a tony white suburb and “totally destroy everyone … as gruesome as you can”.
We can say that Manson was probably a racist. What we cannot say is that his crimes were the “extension of toxic ideals” that are institutionally reinforced. If you want to look for evidence of just what horror racism in America can achieve, you don’t need to go to Benedict Canyon. Go a few kilometres away to South Central Los Angeles or Google the US Census Bureau. And it is there where you might find the evidence for sexism, too.
That’s the thing about the everyday horror of social inequality. It’s boring, and it never makes headlines. Most of the violence it produces is niggling and slow and diffuse, not hard and fast and centralised. And it doesn’t manifest, as much as we might will it to, in the bloodthirsty actions of people who are the product of influences too various and convoluted to be easily explained or understood.
Make no mistake, this PUA stuff is icky. Sexism is real. But to say that these things led to these particular deaths is radically myopic. To say that all aggression enacted toward a woman is misogynist is just plain wrong. Not only does this latest giddy hypothesising fail to (a) buoy a pending bill for gun control and (b) acknowledge that white US citizens have been in the habit of bizarrely killing each other in small numbers and for peculiar reasons shortly after stepping off the cult-ship Mayflower. It actually makes feminists looks as stupid as the people who want to see Dance Dance Revolution banned in connection with massacre. And, to borrow the rage of all the commentators previously quoted, that makes me Unapologetically Angry and Full of Grief. As a feminist and as a critic of cultural goods.
This is not an attempt to minimise the extraordinary tragedy in Santa Barbara wrought by inexplicable horror or the ordinary tragedies wrought by the fictions of gender and race. Rather, it is an urging not to blame cultural goods for social ill. It is a plea not to see books, pamphlets, websites, records or sensationalised report of murder as anything but a possible illustration of ill, not its origin.
And it is a reminder that the First Amendment is the good one. It’s the Second we have to worry about.