Scattered thoughts on Elliot Roger, evolution, and gender

I have a theory on Elliot Roger that I haven’t seen anyone else mention yet. The theory comes from chapter 6 of Steven Pinker’s excellent book How The Mind Works. The chapter is entitled “Hotheads,” and begins as follows:

On March 13, 1996, Thomas Hamilton walked into an elementary school in Dunblane, Scotland, carrying two revolvers and two semiautomatic pistols. After wounding staff members who tried to tackle him, he ran to the gymnasium, where a kindergarten class was playing. There he shot twenty-eight children, sixteen fatally, and killed their teacher before turning the gun on himself. “Evil visited us yesterday, and we don’t know why,” said the school’s headmaster the next day. “We don’t understand it and I don’t think we ever will.”

We probably never will understand what made Hamilton commit his vile final acts. But the report of pointless revenge by an embittered loner is disturbingly familiar. Hamilton was a suspected pedophile who had been forced to resign as a Scout leader and then formed his own youth groups so he could continue working with boys. One group held its meetings in the Dunblane school’s gymnasium until school officials, responding to parents’ complaints about his odd behavior, forced him out. Hamilton was the target of ridicule and gossip, and was known in the area, undoubtedly for good reasons, as “Mr. Creepy.” Days before his rampage he had sent letters to the media and to Queen Elizabeth defending his reputation and pleading for reinstatement in the scouting movement.

The Dunblane tragedy was particularly shocking because no one thought it could happen there. Dunblane is an idyllic, close-knit village where serious crime was unknown. It is far from America, land of the wackos, where there are as many guns as people and where murderous rampages by disgruntled postal workers are so common (a dozen incidents in a dozen years) that a slang term for losing one’s temper is “going postal.” But running amok is not unique to America, to Western nations, or even to modern societies. Amok is a Malay word for the homicidal sprees occasionally undertaken by lonely Indochinese men who have suffered a loss of love, a loss of money, or a loss of face. The syndrome has been described in a culture even more remote from the West: the stone-age foragers of Papua New Guinea.

The amok man is patently out of his mind, an automaton oblivious to his surroundings and unreachable by appeals or threats. But his rampage is preceded by lengthy brooding over failure, and is carefully planned as a means of deliverance from an unbearable situation. The amok state is chillingly cognitive. It is triggered not by a stimulus, not by a tumor, not by a random spurt of brain chemicals, but by an idea. The idea is so standard that the following summary of the amok mind-set, composed in 1968 by a psychiatrist who had interviewed seven hospitalized amoks in Papua New Guinea, is an apt description of the thoughts of mass murderers continents and decades away:

I am not an important or “big man.” I possess only my personal sense of dignity. My life has been reduced to nothing by an intolerable insult. Therefore, I have nothing to lose except my life, which is nothing, so I trade my life for yours, as your life is favoured. The exchange is in my favour, so I shall not only kill you, but I shall kill many of you, and at the same time rehabilitate myself in the eyes of the group of which I am a member, even though I might be killed in the process.

Pinker uses this as a launch pad for laying out his theory of the emotions, which he likens to the doomsday device in Dr. Strangelove. The point (in the case of destructive emotions like anger or a thirst for revenge) is not that triggering them benefits the owner. Quite the opposite. The point is to make others fear the triggering, and act in ways that are more friendly to the possessor of the emotions, or the doomsday device. This is what allows seemingly irrational emotions to be favored by evolution.

It’s been well-publicized that before his shooting spree, Roger made a video where he said he was doing it to retaliate against women and the world in general (some of his victims were men) for his own inability to get laid. Reading excerpts from his rant, I couldn’t help but think of Pinker’s account of the run-amok men of southeast Asia. The comparison suggests that Roger wasn’t the product of anything in particular about American culture circa 2014. Rather, it may reflect something hard-wired into human nature.

People with a poor grasp of evolutionary psychology will probably misinterpret the above as somehow justifying Roger’s actions. People with a good grasp of evolutionary psychology will understand it as just another example of how evolution is a blind idiot God to whom human values are utterly meaningless.

Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!

Today I listened to Dan Savage talk on his podcast about the story of a guy who strong-armed his girlfriend into an open relationship and ended up regretting it:

He goes on in his post to say the reason he wanted to fuck other women was that his girlfriend is not attractive, she’s big, big for him is synonymous with not attractive… and irony of ironies, they opened her relationship up at his insistence, and she’s getting laid like crazy by hot guys who are into her, and he can’t find another partner, he can’t get pussy to save his life…

Some people are thinking [this story, which was posted on Reddit] might be fake, ’cause it’s a little bit like a female revenge fantasy, but from my experience I’m going to call this real… because I have encountered these stories in the past. At the impetus of the dude the couple opens the relationship, and she does so much better out there in open relationship land than he ever could, and he wants to shut it down. Careful guys, careful what you wish for, because she just might get it.

What the hell does this have to do with Elliot Roger? Nothing, except that a friend of mine posted on Facebook this quote from Freethought Blogger Miri Mogilevsky:

“The Rodger thing has me thinking about the fact that one of the fastest ways to make me uncomfortable if you’re a guy is to start talking about how women are sexual gatekeepers and how I can walk into any bar and get laid and you, as a guy, cannot, and how women need to have more sympathy for the plight of guys because they cannot walk into any bar and get laid.

“NOT SAYING YOU ARE ALL LITERALLY LIKE RODGER; however, that attitude is toxic and creepy to me.

“Here’s the reality. I can walk into any bar and get harassed, groped, threatened, cursed at, stalked, assaulted, raped, beaten, or even killed. YOU can walk into any bar, and really almost anywhere, and be confident that you will be safe.

“And I know that the only reason you’re giving me this spiel about being able to walk into any bar and get laid immediately with any guy I want is because I’m young, white, thin, able-bodied, and attractive. I don’t see any of you guys demanding sympathy for all the *women* who aren’t privileged enough to be considered instantly fuckable by your average dude in a bar. No. Not being able to get fucked the moment you want it is presumed to be a ‘male problem,’ and women who are lonely and sexually frustrated and deemed undesirable never get any airtime from you.”

A ton of people liked this post… which is in turn kinda frightening to me. Because the thing about women having an easy time getting laid is completely accurate. And contra Mogilevsky, I don’t think women who fail to meet conventional beauty standards are an exception to this. The detail in Dan Savage’s story about the girlfriend being big, and still fucking a lot of hot guys anyway, didn’t surprise me in the least.

Women who aren’t conventionally attractive may not have as easy a time of it as conventionally attractive ones. They might have to do more of an active search, rather than just waiting for the guys to come to them. But—especially if they’re just looking for casual sex, and aren’t being any pickier than they can afford to be—they’re still going to have an easier time of it than the average straight dude.

This isn’t to say that the troubles straight dudes have getting laid are in any way comparable to the problems women have with harassment and sexual violence. Yet the point about women generally having an easier time getting sex than guys do remains accurate, and to be told making a perfectly accurate, almost banal, observation like that is toxic and creepy, and somehow vaguely linked to Elliot Roger (even though she’s “NOT SAYING YOU ARE ALL LITERALLY LIKE RODGER”)—that’s scary to me. Especially when a bunch of people are cheering the proclamation on on Facebook.

Now’s time for a belated disclaimer that this post isn’t really about Elliot Rogers. It’s mostly about the things people are saying about him, which made me hesitant to write it at first. I’ve become convinced that the number one mistake people make in stupid internet arguments is thinking the arguments matter in the first place.

I’ve written about stuff in this vicinity before, about how its easy to find something awful some nobody on the other side of the debate from you said, and gin up outrage over it. As an atheist, I’ve come to realize that too much of the atheist blogosphere is driven by that phenomenon. You see the same phenomenon with neoreactionaries who find the worst of “social justice” Tumblrs and extrapolate to future left-wing dystopias. And you see it with the feminist blogs who are pretty much solely responsible for my knowing that the “Men’s Rights Movement” exists.

But now a lot of people (of whom Miri Mogilevsky is just one example) are using Elliot Rogers to say, “See? We told you the Men’s Rights Movement was dangerous! This proves we’re right!” And I find myself with weird complicated feelings about this.

First of all, I don’t want to dismiss the role that certain ideas may have played in egging on Roger’s spree. When I think about the violence associated with religion, I think that even though the people who point to other causes of religious violence have a point, we still shouldn’t overlook the role that religious (and other) ideologies can have in justifying violence. The same applies here.

Second, there are times when I’m tempted by a misandry next to which the occasional careless generalizations about men you see on the internet pale by comparison. My considered view of human nature is that humans are all around pretty terrible, but men especially so. At the same time, though, I recoil from pathologizing the wants and frustrations of men who aren’t actually hurting anyone. Civilization doesn’t work by conditioning people to have only nice impulses. It works by taking people with a lot of really dark impulses and giving them incentives to behave themselves anyway. So when deciding who to praise and condemn, look at what people actually do.

Occasionally, I see well-intentioned female writers attempt to explain how sexism hurts men too by talking popular stereotypes regarding men. Whenever I read the description of these stereotypes, I invariably think, “Hey! I resemble that remark!”

In many ways, I think men and women aren’t at all different. In a few ways, I think their minds are pretty much completely alien to each other, and foremost among these ways is how they regard sex. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective: while human males tend to invest a lot in their offspring, they still have the possibility of skipping out on the costs of reproduction in a way that women don’t. Thus it makes sense for women to be more careful about who they have sex with.

In theory, we could have evolved to handle this purely on a conscious level, so that once you create a utopia of 100% reliable birth control and no STDs or violence against anybody, men and women will become identical in their sexual behavior. But a lot of the difference in male-female sexual behavior seems hardwired.

(If you want to be strictly accurate, maybe we shouldn’t be talking about “men” and “women” here. The proximal cause of the difference seems to be not chromosomes or gender identity but hormones. This is particularly suggested by anecdotal evidence of trans folk who’ve undergone hormone replacement therapy. Trans women report going on androgen blockers and suddenly never getting horny; trans men report starting testosterone injections and becoming horny all the time, substituting “she looks nice, I’d like to get to know her” with seeing a random woman on the street and jumping straight to the dirty things they’d like to do to her. So in the name of strict accuracy, I shouldn’t say that the stereotypes about men are all true, but that the things testosterone does to your brain really are as awful as everyone says. But for convenience, I’m going to go back to talking about men and women. End tangent.)

When I hear women complaining about misogyny, a lot of it seems to rest on misunderstand that stem from men and women just being very different in some ways, so that as a result we occasionally find each other strange and terrifying (but it’s more socially acceptable for women to say so). So part of me wants to urge that we should be able to get along in spite of our differences. But part of me wants to urge that the things they’re attributing to culturally learned misogyny are actually the product of men being innately that awful.

Yet innate does not mean immutable. To use a gender-neutral example, pick one of your fellow citizens at random (man, woman, or genderqueer). The odds are very good chance that had they been a citzen of WWII-era Germany, they’d have been enthusiastic supporters of the Nazi regime. Not because they had any illusions about it but because they’d also have been vicious anti-semites who wanted some payback after Germany’s defeat in WWI. And there’s an evolutionary explanation for this, one that would involve a lot of references to “in-groups” and “out-groups” and actual tribal warfare on the African savannah.

But in spite of the evolutionary explanation for their counterfactual Nazism, given that they’re not citizens of WWII-era Germany but citizens of 21st century America, the odds are very good that they’re not Nazis or vicious anti-semites. And so you can’t really hold their humanity, and the creepy undertones of those Lord of the Rings books they like, against them too much.

So, uh, yeah, women should know that actually a lot of the men around them do have, buried somewhere deep in their brains, the circuitry to go Elliot Rogers under the right circumstances. Albeit very different circumstances than their actual circumstances. Really it’s very unlikely. But likely enough to make me want to repeal the 2nd Amendment. I’m sorry, I wish I had something more reassuring to say. Evolution, human nature, and men all totally suck.

But the men who limit their expressions suckiness to feeling sorry for themselves online, or maybe jerking it to incredibly fucked-up pornography which they carefully hide from their girlfriends, stuff like that… cut them some slack.

  • rg57

    “some of his victims were men”

    That’s misleading. Most of Rodger’s murdered victims were men (even if you exclude himself). He stated in video and manifesto that he hated men, who he saw as competition.

    “it may reflect something hard-wired into human nature.”

    I agree. There are many men living lives similar to Rodger. But they don’t go out and commit suicidal mass murders. There is something different about the way Rodger’s brain responded, versus the others in the same boat. This is not a “men” problem. It’s a “people like Rodger” problem.

    “we still shouldn’t overlook the role that religious (and other)
    ideologies can have in justifying violence. The same applies here.”

    True enough, but Rodger had no connection to any men’s rights content online, nor were the ideas in his rants related to themes in men’s rights. In contrast, he seems to have accepted the philosophy of the “pick-up artist” crowd, and hated them for it because it highlighted his failure.

    “humans are all around pretty terrible”

    I saw a documentary where foxes (not wolves) were bred for tameness, and over a few generations, they ended up with tamer foxes. Of course, suggesting we do this with humans would make me almost the most evil person on the planet. :(

    “the things testosterone does to your brain really are as awful as everyone says”

    As a gay guy, I have to disagree. The things testosterone does the brain are not awful. They are wonderful. It is your bias that causes you to view the female brain as preferable. Step outside the species. Unlike ants, male and female humans are both evolutionary winners (relative to each other at least. I can’t predict how soon our extinction will be).

    “men all totally suck.”

    No we don’t. Some men suck (and so do some women: e.g. Jennifer San Marco, Amy Bishop). We need to find out what makes them different. And, with enough time, we will.

  • trivialknot

    On Miri’s quote, I’m not sure why, but I also find it creepy when men complain about women being the gatekeepers to sex. Possibly it’s creepy not because it’s literally wrong (although I do wonder, especially when we look outside the world of casual sex), but because it’s a very one-sided way to view the problem. Being a gatekeeper is not so hot, because gatekeepers constantly need to worry about security! Or another reason it could be creepy is if the kind of person who says it that way is often the kind of person who has other legitimately creepy attitudes. Like believing that the whole situation is somehow women’s fault, or believing that women secretly possess all the power.

    • Spooky Tran

      It is creepy, but I don’t know why. And yet is is also true, in modern societies.

    • JQuinton

      The “gatekeeper” thing seems like economics/game theory, and not some gender essentialism. Example, if I’m in a relationship with a woman and she wants sex more than I want sex, then I become the gatekeeper of sex because based on our drives, sex can only happen when we both want it, and whoever wants it the least becomes the “gatekeeper”.

      It would be the same deal in a non-sexual context. If I have two kids and one *always* wants ice cream after dinner and the other one wants it every once in a while, and I made a rule that they can only have ice cream after dinner if they both want it, then the second kid who only wants ice cream every once in a while becomes the gatekeeper of ice cream.

  • Luke Breuer
  • Luke Breuer

    My considered view of human nature is that humans are all around pretty terrible, but men especially so.

    Do you talk about your thoughts on human nature more, elsewhere? I just watched a TED talk by Pinker where he discussed his book The Blank Slate; one of the particulars was that there was a general denial of [genetic] human nature and an affirmation of tabula rasa. So perhaps some of your thoughts on humans come from him? I hear he likes to drill into people the results of the Milgram experiment. :-)

    Your view of human nature seems quite different than many atheists and skeptics I encounter. I find your view to be much more accurate than their rosy views (reminds one of those (including many scientists) who thought humans were going to do awesome things in the years leading up to WWI). I especially linked Pinker’s quotation of Anton Chekhov:

    Man will only become better when you make him see what he is like.

    Many atheists and skeptics I encounter are happy to enumerate cognitive biases and whatnot, but not willing to say “pretty terrible”. Have you thoughts on why?

    • Chris Hallquist

      Yup, I’m hugely influenced by Pinker. The “men especially so” bit is something I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anyone say explicitly, but the thought is simple: in our evolutionary past, men had more to gain from being jerks, so…

  • BeaverTales

    This is about so much more than just misogyny and MRA entitlement:

    –It has overtones of racism – where he discusses how pretty blondes prefer “inferior” blacks to him, and his insecurity about being biracial and of small build

    –Overtones of homophobia – bigoted Fox News reporting about his supposed homosexuality, apparently based on his mannerisms and virginity alone, and not based on his confessed attraction to unattainable women.

    –Imperfect national gun laws that allow mentally disturbed individuals to purchase weapons, despite repeated instances of this kind of violence.

    –An overtaxed mental health system and incurious police force that may or may not have completely followed through on someone who showed signals of being prone to violence.

    –Wealthy parents whose financial enabling allowed them to foist a son with serious mental health issues on friends roommates and a community unprepared to deal with him, and to stay enrolled when he was doing poorly in school. His blatant materialism is shared by many people in the upper eschelons of society.

    It really summarizes a lot of complicated issues that form the ugly cultural underbelly of our American society today. These are things that should be discussed more, but more than likely people just want to forget this and pretend these issues were unique to Elliott alone.

  • GeorgiaPeach23

    Here’s the thing about being an overweight woman: you’re invisible and nobody finds you attractive. By the time you figure out how aggressive you need to be and how low your standards need to drop, it is so much safer/easier to buy a nice vibrator. It’s nice that the author imagines these ladies could, hypothetically, be getting laid… but he uses that assumption to gloss over why all the sexless unattractive women of the world almost never go on killing sprees. They turn that shame and sadness inwards; they rarely buy guns and shoot people.

    • u

      he just said it has to do with. did you even read the article?
      ”The point is to make others fear the triggering, and act in ways that
      are more friendly to the possessor of the emotions, or the doomsday

  • Ophis

    “Here’s the reality. I can walk into any bar and get harassed,
    groped, threatened, cursed at, stalked, assaulted, raped, beaten, or
    even killed. YOU can walk into any bar, and really almost anywhere, and
    be confident that you will be safe.

    I have a huge problem with this paragraph from Mogilevsky. It’s also not the first time that I’ve seen it assumed that men experience this level of safety, able to wander dark alleys at any time of night safe in the knowledge that their male privilege protects them from harm. Yet it’s complete and utter bullshit. Men are significantly more likely to be murdered or violently assaulted, and at least in my own experience, we are very much aware of the possibility of that happening to us or to someone with us. We don’t blithely blunder around, assuming that no harm can come to us, and that the idea of a man being beaten up on a night out is some freak occurrence.

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