In the wake of the recent killings in California that have grabbed the public’s attention, there has been an odd trend in the debate over the motives of the killer. Was it misogyny? Or was it some other cause such a mental illness or video games or films or even homosexuality? For some reason, there has been a reluctance in some circles (especially Fox News) to blame the killer’s actions on his attitudes towards women and shift the focus to these other factors.
It should be fairly obvious that human behaviors of any kind can rarely be traced to a single cause. But it is possible to identify the various possible causes and place them on some continuum ranging from proximate causes (the ones that manifestly caused the action) to ultimate causes (the ones that lie buried deeper in the killer’s psyche). There seems to be little mystery in this case as to what the proximate cause was. The killer’s manifesto and actions directly implicate a sense of raging anger against women whom he felt were not appreciative of what he had to offer them, were denying him his ‘right’ to have sex with them, and were instead bestowing their sexual favors on (in his eyes) less worthy men. He wanted revenge against women in general. The male roommates he killed before he went out were because he wanted to make his apartment into a torture chamber for women.
If that is not an open-and-shut case of misogyny, I don’t know what is. But one can go deeper and seek the ultimate causes of this misogyny and here things start to get messy. We have many possible interrelated factors that may not be easy to line up on the proximate-ultimate continuum.
How about the media? One possibility is that the fault lies with the media that widely propagates the idea that college is a place where one loses one’s virginity, and that he was frustrated that he was an anomaly. So this could have fed his sense of sexual entitlement and resentment.
How about Hollywood and video games that glorify violence and objectify and demean women? It is undoubtedly the case that nowadays one sees a tremendous amount of this in these forms of media and this could feed the killer’s sense of how to carry out his revenge spree.
How about the easy access to lethal weapons? This is undoubtedly another non-proximate factor at play.
How about mental illness? On the surface, any mass murderer can be assumed to be mentally ill but this may be a little too facile. We tend to give that label to people who deviate too far from the norms of behavior. But what does saying someone is ‘mentally ill’ really mean? We usually use that term to suggest that the person who so suffers is somehow less responsible for their actions because they were slaves to an abnormally functioning brain that overrode their ‘moral sense’, while those who lack a moral sense or have a deviant morality are more culpable. But this assumes a separation between the moral sense and the actions of the brain, and that does not stand up under scrutiny. We all act according to the dictates of our brains. Our moral sense originates in the brain too so why should one set of brain commands be seen as more culpable than others? When we say the mass murderer was mentally ill, what exactly are we implying should be done? There are very tricky issues involved here that resist easy categorization.
It seems to me to be pretty clear that while ultimate causes and their degrees of separation from the proximate causes are hard to discern and may never be known, misogyny was clearly the proximate cause of this particular rampage.