Usually, when a college shooting takes place in the US, there’s this tremendous outrage about insanity and warning signs and support groups and training people to see. Sometimes, there is a conversation about race, about how black killers are killers and white killers are mentally unfit. On the morning of Saturday 24th May, what instead happened was a tremendous outrage about gender, privilege and patriarchy.
As unpopular an opinion as I know this will be, I want to bring the insanity bit back in…
On Friday 23rd May, Elliot Rodger unleashed a murderous rage on the streets of Santa Barbara, California, but not before releasing a YouTube video stating what he would do and why. Now, all of this is disturbing enough as it is – a 22-year-old boy lets himself loose with a gun and a knife, determined to take a few innocent lives before presumably ending his own. What makes it even more difficult to stomach was why he did it – because his sexual advances towards women in his school were rejected.
With that in mind, let me go ahead and agree with the statement that male privilege has a lot to do with this case. The idea that this young man thinks that he somehow deserves sex from women, and that not getting it should end in violence towards other persons, is as telling of the world’s sexual climate as it is depressing.
That said, here’s the unpopular opinion – I think he was a victim of the same patriarchy that unfortunately led him to take innocent lives.
When I finally took the time to read the story from as many places as I could, this was what I came up with; this boy left his house with a deliberate aim to kill the women who he felt he could never be with because of insecurities that he could not cope with or find reasonable outlets to ventilate through. In his high school experience, and even mine, the social status that comes with dates to graduations and girlfriends and having sex is (somehow) important. In his mind, they became even more important. It’s important to keep in mind here that Elliot’s parents have said openly that he had Asperger’s Syndrome. There’s no scientific evidence that this is what would lead him to violence, but the argument that he had another psychiatric condition may come up in the future. And (I’ll admit I’m speaking from limited understanding) this does get in the way of his social interactions and how he perceives certain social cues. He probably communicated differently, maybe even difficultly, and communicating to him probably wasn’t all too easy either. That means that, even if someone saw the signs of possible aggression even close to this scale, reaching out to him on it may not have been simple.
I’m no psychiatrist, but there is a possibility that this increased idea of entitlement comes from the very personal nature of a mental disorder like Asperger’s. And that’s really important here. Mental illness is incredibly complex, and needs to be dealt with delicately. Elliot was no hysterical schizophrenic. He didn’t have post-traumatic stress disorder or bipolar disorder. He was possibly just a functionally autistic boy who took something that most people just see as unfortunate as a completely different cue altogether.
Let me come out and say that I’m a lot bit worried by the idea that we can connect one young man’s massacre to a larger ‘ism’. Take, for instance, the murder of Trayvon Martin. George Zimmerman’s white privilege is connected to him killing a young, unarmed black boy…but is that an indictment against white men, or against Zimmerman? I vote Zimmerman. And that doesn’t take away from the racism of others. It just doesn’t attach it to those who don’t deserve it, to me.
Elliot Rodger killed because he personally couldn’t handle the anxiety of not having his sexual desires gratified, and personally expressed that anxiety against the people that fuelled that anxiety. If this were, instead, about all the teachers that gave him a falling grade, he wouldn’t be considered teacher-ist. He’d be considered anxious about failure and having a mental breakdown. We’d have a conversation about the bigger picture – standardized testing and proper school counselling and teaching styles – but that one incident would still remain singular. And, to some degree, it should.
Honestly, though. you can’t take away the fact that, in a very sex- centred and patriarchal world, Elliot Rodger’s anxieties all came as a result of women telling him no, a right that all women have regardless of his anxieties. As far as young people and sex are concerned, it’s easy to acknowledge that there are expectations. They are not only from him, but of him. Regardless of whether a young man wants to have sex, he’s expected to. And this young man could not fulfil has manly expectations. He, like many young men, have learned that if you’re not having sex as soon as you hit puberty, you’ve failed. And some people take failure worse than others. In this case, much worse…
It is my humble opinion that we should be mindful about calling him a hater of women. I don’t think that he was. But we was an unfortunate participant in a societal expectation about men, adolescence and sex that he did not perform well within. That made him anxious and unnecessarily violent. In some way, he is a victim just like the women he killed so thoughtlessly. He was expected, if even only in his own mind, to have sex or be considered a failure. He failed, and that upset him in irrational ways. It is society’s illogical pressure against men as well as women (in addition to his own neuroses) that effected this unfortunate incident. Not necessarily a misogyny of his, but a patriarchy that he was expected to be a winning player in.
Now, I’m not at all saying that writers like Laurie Penny are completely wrong about this. We are right to say that he killed those girls because he did not receive something that patriarchy has taught men that they deserve. But I think we are wrong to say that all men who perform within that patriarchy are agents of misogyny instead of folks also trapped inside that system of expectation.