Note: I’m already concerned by the cult of personality growing around Elliot Rodger. While acknowledging that all discussions, including this one, risk adding to that, I’ve opted not to link to any of his YouTube videos, comments or his manifesto. I do not doubt you can find them yourself if you must.
Katherine Cooper, aged 22, and 19-year-old Veronica Weiss were shot dead while standing outside a university sorority. Christopher Michael-Ross, 20, died while shopping in a deli. As I write, the names of three other victims of the murder spree in Santa Barbara, California remain unknown. [See note below] As so often with these cases, it is sickening but unavoidable that while the details of those squandered lives will soon be forgotten by most, the name of Elliot Rodger will forever lurk somewhere in the depths of our memories.
There is so much to this tragedy that we do not yet know, but conversely we already seem to know so much. It is never wise to leap to assumptions about the motivations of violent individuals. In the case of Rodger, this is proving almost impossible. Rarely has a crime of this nature appeared to have such an open and shut motivation.
In the first reports, he was described by witnesses on the scene as ‘a madman’ or ‘crazy.’ This was underlined soon after when it emerged that he had been under some form of psychiatric treatment. This was never an adequate explanation. Mental illness alone very, very rarely drives people to kill. Hate, bitterness and rage, on the other hand, does so daily. Rodger may or may not have been ill, he may or may not had diagnostic label on his personality or neurological function, we do not know. What we do know, without question, is that he was spitting with misogyny.
Shortly before the killings began, Rodger uploaded a series of increasingly horrific YouTube rants, in which he explained that he was going to kill women – specifically blonde, sorority girls – as revenge for their refusal to have sex with him. He had left hints of his plans, alongside overt race hate, on several other forums, under his own name. He had uploaded a 140-page justification for his crime to the internet, providing the world not only what mental health professionals call a ‘complete history’ but also detailed, gruesome details of his planned massacre, giving it the title ‘My Twisted World’. In keeping with the cliches of a cheap movie script, Rodger turned out to be the son of a successful Hollywood director. He was a good-looking, rich kid who drove a BMW and attended film premieres. And from his own words, he was a bitter, angry, hate-filled virgin.
It also emerged that he was an active member of a notoriously misogynistic internet forum for men called ‘PUA Hate.’ Several bloggers and online news sites immediately began describing him as the ‘MRA shooter.’ Strictly speaking, this is probably inaccurate. There is a corner of the internet known disparagingly as ‘the manosphere’ which has several distinct compass points, united only by their shared misogyny. While people and ideas certainly seep between them, in practice they have very distinct interests, and often spend almost as much energy hating each other as they do hating feminists. Among several other manosphere communities, there are men’s rights activists, (MRAs) who mostly deal in political issues and gender relations, and there are pick-up artists (PUAs), who strictly concern themselves with sex, specifically how to manipulate women into bed.
Beyond those groups however, there are strange fringes such as Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW) and those who describe themselves as ‘Incels’ meaning ‘involuntary celibates.’ These are men who are not just angry because women won’t have sex with them, they’re even angry with the PUAs who suggest that women might have sex with them. It was in this last group that Rodgers appeared to have found a community.
In Rodger’s manifesto there is no sign of even a slight interest in gender politics. He does not use the vocabulary or logic of MRAs, there is no ranting at ‘feminazis’ or other tell-tale signs of MRA ideology. Indeed, it is striking that the manifesto, unlike that of Anders Breivik, reveals no kind of political consciousness at all. For Rodgers, this all appears to have been entirely personal.
Was Rodger radicalised by what he read online? It is likely that while his anger and hatred were consuming him, he sought out those he considered like minds, rather than vice versa. We may never know. He says in his manifesto that the PUA Hate site confirmed his thinking:
The Spring of 2013 was also the time when I came across the website PUAHate.com. It is a forum full of men who are starved of sex, just like me. Many of them have their own theories of what women are attracted to, and many of them share my hatred of women, though unlike me they would be too cowardly to act on it. Reading the posts on that website only confirmed many of the theories I had about how wicked and degenerate women really are. Most of the people on that website have extremely stupid opinions that I found very frustrating, but I found a few to be quite insightful.
I sense an inevitability to the debate that will unfold in coming days. Feminists and their allies are already spinning this as the work of an MRA and a consequence of men’s rights ideology. MRAs, I do not doubt, will become defensive and probably find some way to blame feminism – some PUAs are already going down that route. I don’t think any of that is meaningful or helpful, and may provide a convenient moral escape route for some people who should really be looking to their own hearts and consciences.
Rodger does not appear to have identified as an MRA, and a debate as to whether or not he should be so described will be a pedantic distraction. The ugly truth is that, across much of the manosphere, his rantings are not especially unusual. Somewhere on the internet right this very moment – whether on an Insel site or an MRA site or an MGTOW site or Twitter or Facebook or an atheist forum, it really doesn’t matter – an angry young man will be spitting out his hatred of bitches, whores and sluts. Could Rodger have been dissuaded had he been challenged, rather than indulged in his rants? Frankly I doubt it, he would merely have dismissed his detractors as yet more weak cowards, but can we be sure? I would challenge those who laugh along with violent misogynistic fantasies online to imagine looking in the eyes of the families and friends of Rodgers’ victims and declaring their consciences to be clear.
There is another sense in which the easy explanatory narrative may be dangerous and misleading. To blame either mental illness or online misogyny for these crimes is to dodge the question of where those deranged beliefs, the anger, the nihilism, the hatred originated. Spree killers, as Michael Kimmel recently pointed out in Angry White Men, are invariably racked by aggrieved entitlement – they believe they have an inalienable right to status, to success and to sex. When those natural rights fail to materialise, they become angry and violent. But there is another aspect to the profile of a spree killer, which Rodger also describes in detail in his manifesto. Like pretty much all known spree killers, Elliot Rodger was systematically and severely bullied by his peers. The boys beat him while the girls looked on and laughed. When a rampant narcissistic entitlement meets the social humiliation and mockery of the bullying victim, the results can occasionally be deadly.
I say this cautiously as an outside observer, but it seems to me that whenever tragedies like this occur in the USA, the media and political discourses hone in on gun ownership (entirely reasonably, I stress) and on teen culture – whether rock music, video games or violent movies. In this case we can probably add online men’s forums. I”ve yet to see serious attention be devoted to the culture of bullying that would appear to continue unabated, even actively encouraged as hazing rituals, within American schools.
Nothing can be done to bring back the victims of Elliot Rodger, or undo his evil. The best we can do as a society (including the international online community) is to ask ourselves what we might do to prevent another such incident occurring. Answering that question demands that we look far beyond the quick and easy solutions, however tempting they might be.
NOTE: The names of Rodger’s murdered room mates have now also been released. Please spare a thought for the friends and families of Weihan Wang (22), Chen Yuang Hong (20) and George Chen (19)