Last Saturday in California a young man carried out a killing spree that appears to have ended in suicide. He had already promised his rampage in videos on the internet which had already gotten the attention of his therapist, his family, and the police. He also wrote a lengthy manifesto. Between his manifesto, his videos, and internet forum postings he has made clear a great deal about his obsessions. He was a 22 year old virgin who had never so much as kissed a girl. He was anguished that he had missed out on the hedonistic sex that was supposed to be a highlight of college. He blamed all women everywhere for collectively not having sex with him and was going to punish them collectively by symbolically murdering sorority girls in an indiscriminate fashion. While he was at it, as part of his massacre, he was going to also indiscriminately murder men whom he perceived to be sexually successful where he was a failure.
Conversations and arguments have raged across the social media landscape in the aftermath of this attack. In this post, I want to address a number of the emergent controversies. I want to offer my perspective on what’s really at stake in them and what the most rational and ethical responses to them should be.
First of all, many people are inferring that he is mentally ill. I think they do that for several reasons, some understandable, but all problematic.
The strategic reason that I think people leap to brand everything about him, from his mind to his words to his deeds, as “crazy” is that it serves to disqualify his violent, hateful rhetoric as not worth listening to at all and his deeds as not worth emulating at all. It’s a way of signaling to people: “Read his writings and watch his videos only with a psychologist’s eye towards understanding the intricacies of how a broken human mind might work. His thinking is a disturbing pathological curiosity, far beyond the pale of reason, beneath refutation, and incapable of influencing anyone not equally sick.” Simply as a marginalization strategy, aimed at containing toxic ideas, this is shrewd. Stigmatizing ideas is a social and emotional tactic for influencing people. People can be very irrational, so exploiting such means, in addition to rational arguments, is to level a full approach at containing terrible notions.
There are problems though. For one thing, it’s difficult to know if it’s literally true that he was mentally ill–unless we’re going to define mass murder or murder-suicide as intrinsically insane actions as seems to be some people’s knee jerk conflation. The question is what the use is in saying that? One reason someone might say that is to shut down all inquiries as to how we as a culture might be doing something wrong that we can correct. Automatically leaping to neurological pathologies as completely causally explanatory whenever someone does something extremely and irrationally violent shuts down investigations of whether there are cultural pathologies that were at least part of the equation.
This is very troubling to me. We cannot stop all neurological sources of violence but we can be proactively responsible about what kind of culture we have and so as a culture our focus should be on what we can control. And by what we can control I don’t just mean “how we can rein in the dangerously mentally ill better”. As many people have pointed out, the mentally ill are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. Scapegoating them as a group of people or, as is happening in this case, implying falsely that people with Asperger’s or autism somehow are generally a public menace who can at any moment go on killing sprees is dangerous and counterproductive.
Also exploiting the negative connotations of mental illness to make it synonymous with “irrational” is to do injustice to the general rationality of many mentally ill people who can rationally see just how sick some of what their brain is pushing themselves towards and yet struggle to corral their own brain and their own behavior. We need to be much less interested in throwing people in bins of “rational” or “crazy” and deal much more with the complexities of real people’s brains. And the mentally ill and those with other disorders need treatment and compassion and accommodation so that they are as empowered to live as quality lives as possible. They don’t need demonizing and false mental links forged between homicidal rampages and their maladies.
The question we need to ask is whether this killer, while extreme, is an ugly surface symptom of deeper cultural pathologies. Of course this need not be the case a priori. It is always possible that someone could commit mass violence for idiosyncratic personal reasons which don’t connect to significant mindsets in the culture in any real way. Someone could even be violent in the name of an ideological cause while all the overwhelming majority of others who adopt the same cause stoutly repudiate his violence. There can be anomalies. But it is irresponsible to see someone who murders under ideological auspices and dismiss the very possibility out of hand that he is a symptom of a deeper problem. And there is no way to read or watch this killer and be confused: his intentions were terrorism. He wanted to make it so that the next woman callously shooting down a self-styled “supreme gentleman” will have to fear being literally shot down for real.
So, a lot of men surmised “not all men think like this killer–in fact, not even most do, so it would be irrational for any women to be more afraid based on this isolated terrorist act by a man who represents no one”. The only problem is that all too many women have had run-ins with men where they reasonably couldn’t tell if they were going to be physically unsafe or lose their job or be verbally abused or raped if they refused advances. All too many women have had to deal with stalkers or sexual harassers or domestic violence. And women for years have been warning that entitled guys who blame all women for the lack of sex and romantic love in their lives by accusing women of not liking “nice guys” are hypocrites and not really very nice.
The problem is that where men see this killer as such a ludicrous extreme in his thinking and actions as to be representative of hardly anyone, women are seeing in him one of the purest distillations of every routine vice that is depressingly common amongst men in our culture when it comes to dealing with women. When feminists have extrapolated what “nice guys” are “really saying” to its logical conclusions they have constructed the implicit ideology for years in a way that sounds exactly like what the killer says explicitly. To them the only difference between the killer and the average “I’m a nice guy and women only like assholes” rant is the killer’s honesty about his hatred, his amazingly un-self-aware declaration of his entitlement, and his willingness to get violent about it. But they hear degrees of this exact same hateful and entitled attitude all the time from “nice guys” and PUAs and jilted would-be suitors. A toxic misogyny in response to rejection is to some extent part of many men’s psychology.
What this vividly reminds me of is the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in January 2011. It turned out in that case Giffords’s shooter was, in many ways, not ideological in his motivations but dealing with his own personal idiosyncratic demons and obsessions and he has since been diagnosed with schizophrenia. But nonetheless, at the moment of the shooting, as a left leaning person I raged with anger at the right wing segment of the country that had, at least since Obama was elected, been cavalierly throwing around rhetoric of violent insurrection and even started bringing guns to political rallies. Within that climate of routine political intimidation from the right, here’s how I described what I and other liberals felt when learning a Democratic Congresswoman had been shot in the head:
Those of us more leftish in our sensibilities initially saw this event as the confirmation of our judgment that violent right wing rhetoric and ideologies made political violence highly probable and predictable. Based on our preexisting judgment that violent rhetoric risks violent deeds, we had all along been condemning Palin and the Tea Party as immoral and dangerous, regardless of whether they ever actually inspired the violence they baited.
Seeing that violence come to life, eerily in the form of the shooting of someone specifically graphically targeted with a gun sight by Palin, creates a symbolic association which confirms our initial preexisting and already morally justified moral repulsion at her and the Tea Party’s rhetoric, symbols, and ideology. Even without the direct or, possibly any indirect, causal connections, what we see on the left is the fantasy the right has been crowing about in all its gruesome, deadly, conscience-shocking reality. This exposed the sick cavalierness in the way Palin and the Tea Party have treated the lives of government officials when they have employed violent images and rhetoric.
What to Palin is a fun graphic represents in fact bloody and destructive possibilities. When one of those possibilities was in actuality realized, the symbolic connection between what the far right talks about and what it would look like if it happened clicked on an emotional, visceral level for most of us. And may it be the end of the reckless way that the far right is allowed to threateningly wave their guns in our collective faces in order to intimidate us on the left and the end of the way that they are allowed to invoke veiled and unveiled threats of governmental overthrow with political impunity (or, worse, reward).
This I think sums up how many women felt last Saturday. The killer embodied all their worst fears about the kind of hatred and contempt that lurks the rhetoric of ordinary PUA’s, “nice guys”, MRA’s, everyday boundary violating men, domestic abusers, sexual harassers, and everyday anti-feminists who verbally abuse women. He was the logical extreme of hostilities they were all too intimately familiar with and have every right to point this out–to point out that they live in a world of treatment by men where this guy is not that surprising but is exactly what they are routinely led to fear by the behavior of any number of men.
When they hear his self-deluded and contradictory ramblings they don’t only hear the “craziness”, they hear things too similar to things that have been said to them already and that feminists had been publicly and explicitly complaining about for a long time already. If this wasn’t an “I told you so” moment for the feminist movement, I don’t know what would be. They’re not “politicizing a tragedy” when they collectively say “Now will you listen to us??”
In response, too many people think that if they can isolate the killer as a uniquely idiosyncratic “lunatic” then they can feel safe that he’s representative of nothing larger and his ideas are no cause for general concern. Relatively few people go on killing sprees. Relatively few people die in terrorist acts. These events are nationally traumatic but the average person’s odds of dying in a public massacre or other terrorist act are miniscule. We are all far more existentially endangered by climate change, by ordinary gun accidents, by road fatalities, by heart disease, etc.
But the problem here is not that public massacres, or this one in particular, are a statistically likely cause of death for any one of us in particular. The problem is that they are symptoms of feelings of rage, helplessness, and emasculation by men that are also expressed in numerous other contexts and which in all too many cases are vented at women and lead to the victimization of women. Mass shootings and terrorist acts on American soil are, in the grand scheme of things, statistical aberrations. Violence against women is a commonplace crime.
Jon Stewart hit the nail on the head about the problem of trying to say “even if this rhetoric superficially sounds like other guys, don’t worry, this guy is a lunatic and other guys aren’t” when he made the following remark about Giffords’s shooter:
I do think it is a worthwhile goal not to conflate our political opponents with enemies, if for no other reason than to draw a better distinction between the manifestos of paranoid madmen and what passes for acceptable political and pundit speak. You know, it would be really nice if the ramblings of crazy people didn’t in any way resemble how we actually talk to each other on TV. Let’s at least make troubled individuals easier to spot.
Similarly it’s a worthwhile goal for men not to conflate the other sex with enemies that have to be strategically outwitted into bed or shouted down with abusive backlashes online whenever we perceive them to be wrong. It’s a worthwhile goal not to uncharitably construe all women as manipulative, vain liars who really want to be abused by assholes and have contempt for actually nice guys. It’s a worthwhile goal to not to express our ressentiment and jealousy towards women who have more sex than we do (and with guys who aren’t us) by calling them “sluts”. It’s a worthwhile goal to not reduce them to “cunts” or “bitches” for having opinions we don’t like and for not presenting themselves always in ways that are concerned about being sexually appealing and open to us. In other words, it would be really nice if the ramblings of the hateful and paranoid killer from last Saturday didn’t in any way resemble how men actually talk to women on the internet or on the street or after being rejected.
And while no one but the shooter is to blame for his deeds, we are all responsible for the culture we create. And the “battle of the sexes” and zero sum game sexual politics have to stop. Romantic love and sex are at one time or another emotionally wrenching subjects for, I dare say, a majority of people. These topics cut to the core of people’s identities and vulnerabilities and sense of self-worth. And quite many of us have experienced some of the very best and some of the very worst moments of our lives in our romantic and sexual lives. Broken hearts, unrequited loves, betrayals by lovers, domestic violence, emotional abuse, date rape, breakups, divorces, sexless marriages, sexual harassment, violent rape, sexual abuse, involuntary celibacy, contemptuous treatment by lovers, sexual objectification, being sexually used–the number of sources of anguish and rage and damage that we are all vulnerable to in one of the most intimate areas of our lives are many.
Romantic love and sex are the areas of life where our culture drums it in that we are to find the greatest possible earthly fulfillment and the greatest possible earthly acceptance. We are encouraged in a million ways to invest our entire sense of self in these pursuits. We make our need for particular other people’s approval glaringly clear to them when we express our desires for them and we feel especially vulnerable in these contexts. And so feeling rejected in these times can be excruciating. Being exploited in such contexts can be excruciating. Feeling betrayed in that context can be excruciating. We all suffer. Men and women alike. Everybody hurts. And a great number of us have had our hearts ripped out and stomped on precisely in matters of sex and romantic love. Some of us over and over again.
And the majority of people are heterosexual. And for straight men, that means that the odds are good that there will be some woman or women who wounds them deeply and unjustly as part of the routine emotional mess that can be sex and romantic love. And it also means that for straight women, the odds are good that there will be some man or men who do likewise. Some of our highest hopes are invested in the opposite sex and some of our most anguishing experiences are.
The worst possible response to this is to suffer ressentiment as our reaction. As Nietzsche characterized the concept of “ressentiment” it’s when you cannot have something good and it makes you so envious and enraged that you attack its very value. It’s like “sour grapes” but worse. In Aesop’s fable about the fox and the grapes, a fox is unable to attain some grapes he wants and rationalizes that the loss was no big deal since those particular grapes were probably sour anyway and so he wouldn’t have liked them anyway. As Max Scheler points out in expositing Nietzsche’s concept of ressentiment, in ressentiment you go a step further than sour grapes. Instead of saying “the grapes were sour, not sweet” you say, “I don’t need any sweet things at all since I can’t have these ones. Sweet things aren’t even any good in the first place.”
And this is a common coping strategy emotionally. This was how the killer wound up saying things that many people throwing pity parties for themselves hang on a banner in their minds. He wound up contradictorily arguing that women were undesirable in the first place and that we should create a utopian post-sexual world where no one had sex. These were pathetic posturings and transparent self-deceptions from someone so utterly and irrationally demoralized by his own feelings of being sexually rejected that he killed himself and everyone who had what he didn’t. He quite literally would make a fantastic textbook example of ressentiment. And unfortunately this is an emotion we’re all prone towards when feeling disempowered and one that crops up again and again in the minds of people who perceive themselves to be romantic losers.
And that’s why this killer matters. That’s why his deeds are an occasion for cultural self-reflection. It’s not because very many of us are killers or will be killers. It’s not because in some way “we made him do it”. It’s because he lays bare what reactionary, helpless insecurities look like at their farthest extreme. And it’s vital we ask ourselves, “What kinds of internalized notions about the meaning of masculinity or femininity or power or sex or love or validation are at work in all of us when we start tarring the opposite sex or love itself or sex itself over our own bitter disappointments?”
What many men seem to fear in feminism is that it’s “bitter women who adopt a female supremacist ideology based on their bad experiences with a few men”. They accuse it of being an overcorrection based on a man-hating ressentiment. Hence the #notallmen meme. “Not all men are like that” doesn’t serve as a useful reminder not to pathologize all men and all of men’s sexuality in an overcorrection against predatory forms of it, which is a fine and important qualifier in criticisms. Instead “not all men” is often said in such a way as to say, “there is nothing wrong with our culture’s ideas about gender and there is nothing for me to introspect about, a few bad apples don’t spoil the bunch”. This conveniently would get almost all men off the hook from having to learn anything or do anything different in response to the complaints of women. (As an atheist critic of theistic religions, I constantly have to deal with the equivalent “get out of self-criticism free” card “Not all religious people are like that!” waved in my face all the time.)
But I digress. The point is that anti-feminist men leap to the worst assumptions about the reasons women identify as feminist. They assume it’s about ressentiment and demonization and pathologization of men at the first whiff of criticism about general problems with our culture’s construction of masculinity. And often times in their backlash what do such men express? Their own profound, ressentiment-based bitternesses towards women based on personal feelings of being emasculated and disempowered by women. It is in the realm of sex and love that straight men feel the most out of control with respect to women. The one thing they cannot control is whether a woman will genuinely love and accept them and freely sleep with them. There’s no way to try to force these things without being explicitly a rapist. And putting the eggs of their worth as a man in their ability to be loved and admired and sexually gratified all in the woman’s basket puts them at the mercy of women’s autonomy. And so they attack and pathologize women’s expressions of sexual and romantic and physical autonomy as “slutty”, as manipulative, as fickle, as “crazy”, as hypocritical, as superficial, as bitchy, as vain, as deceptive, as unwomanly, etc. These all sound to my ears like code words for “uncontrollable”, as used by control freaks who cannot feel powerful with an equal who can walk away from them and so want women to be fundamentally controllable in how they behave, think, and write.
And so the floodgates of misogyny open over and over and over again. And now it’s shockingly visible and unavoidable since it happens online. Before it was easy for men like me to be oblivious to the extent of all this because it could happen consistently when men weren’t around, or I might have interpreted a guy friend saying misogynistic things in an understandable venting session about personal matters as just blowing off steam and never thought he’d spew such hatred straight to women to threaten them. But now it’s all there for anyone with eyes to see.
And I’m not saying feminists are never wrong, that they never over-correct, that they never over-generalize, that they never neglect men’s side of the stories, that they never make false accusations, that they never exhibit any ressentiment, that they’re never counter-productive in their rhetoric. Nor am I saying that no women actually are manipulative, superficial, vain, hypocritical, fickle, irrational, betraying, sexually abusive, violent, guilty of rape and domestic violence, etc. Women aren’t angels. They’re as capable of human flaws as anyone else and I’ve personally dealt with some horrible women who did horrible things to me.
But the problem is that when you think a woman is wrong on the internet, the rational thing to do is to rationally engage her and not unleash a torrent of insulting epithets that rehearse misogynistic and sexist tropes. The problem is also leaping from a bad experience with a bad person to a worldview that demonizes women in general. These are the things that are so horrifying. I have both made my mistakes with women and left a bad taste in their mouths and I have been involved with women who have left a bad taste in my own mouth. This is lamentable. It’s something to actively and vigorously work to change. I do this by scrupulously seeking out tons of opinions and information and by listening to women as hard as I can in order to see what I can learn from them. And when I disagree I do so as rationally and civilly as possible. I don’t identify with those men who think because a woman is wrong they can verbally abuse her and take recourse to the entire tradition of subordination of women with the kinds of attacks and slurs they resort to. I don’t identify with men who take their scars from the mutually emotionally wrought field of broken relationships and develop hateful stereotypes about all women.
If you don’t want infuriated feminists to sound like they’re castigating all men stop actually disparaging all women. Stop seething with rage at the first sign of a woman who is merely wrong or daring to prove herself to be beyond your control.
Men as a class are not to blame for the killer from last Saturday. But we are responsible for what we tell each other about masculinity and about our worth. It’s time for all of us, men and women, to stop virgin shaming. To stop slut shaming. It’s time for us to stop spreading myths that there is an orgy down the street that everyone in the world is participating in except for a handful of losers and that all the women at the orgy should be ashamed of themselves. Because more than a handful of people are going to fear they must be one of just a small handful of losers missing out on the fun. And plenty of women are going to be subject to irrational loathing of their sexuality where it should be a source of joy to them and their partners.
We need to stop tying men’s worth to their ability to get laid and their ability to be loved by women. Men can’t control this. Too many feel helpless and emasculated and disempowered when the principle determiner of worth for them is something that’s fundamentally in the autonomous hands of someone they can’t control. That’s the introspective conversation we need to be having as men and among men. I think this is the root of the noxious flower of misogyny and rape and I think it is incumbent on men to uproot it amongst ourselves.
We also need to be looking at our own hypocrisies and all the ways that women are not our sexual oppressors but just as vulnerable in matters of love and sex as we are–and in some ways more so because of other forms of social, political, and economic power that men are glaringly disproportionately afforded. We need an entire cease fire in the battle of the sexes and a rehumanization of the “enemy”.
As the Stoics rightly teach us it is only a source of misery to put our own feelings of self-worth up to the opinions of others to control. If you are dependent on other people liking you in order to like yourself, you’re making yourself vulnerable to something you cannot control. And no amount of raging and domineering towards the people you feel are withholding their approval from you will solve the problem. You need to focus on what true personal excellences look like and cultivate those. Not because others will like you, but because they’re good in themselves. Because being awesome is awesome in its own right. Awesome people are, as a matter of fact, usually well liked. But you need to like yourself because you’re you and if you don’t stand up for yourself sometimes no one else will. And then you need to make yourself actually awesome because you want that for you, irrespective of any concern for others’ opinions. You must look inward if you want to be a truly excellent person and you must care about excellence for its own sake and take joy in it for its own sake. Only truth matters. Not the fickle and uninformed and shallow opinions of other people.
Being romantically loved and sexually happy are sweet things. But they’re not the be all and end all of existence. Personally, I would very much welcome such things in my life again but have become immensely happier the less I put them at the center of my understanding of value and started appreciating the true wealth of good things I have without them. It was a hard won struggle for me. A couple weeks ago a woman friend sneered behind my back (but where I could see anyway) that it was “sad” that for someone as perceptive about relationships and sex as I am, my “only real relationship is with Doritos”.
In the past, I would have let that get to me. But now I see how shallow and oppressive that one size fits all view of value in life is. Now, my eyes are open to how many people love me, how many people value my friendship, how many people I have touched in substantial ways in my life, and even how many women have loved me. And the fact that I’m celibate for most of the year and always have been that way is just one of the tradeoffs of my life that has always opened me up to other good things in its place. I can recognize the value of what I don’t have. I don’t have to convince myself it’s worthless. I don’t have to resent people who have what I don’t. I can assess honestly and realize that my own choices play a huge role (both good choices and bad ones) in why my life has been as it has been with women. I realize that while I don’t choose to be alone directly, I really am right now indirectly choosing to be alone. I have options. I am pulling away from them and that’s okay. And I can simultaneously appreciate the wealth I do have in my abilities and in my relationships and in my achievements and in my impact on more people than I could reasonably count. I’m not a loser. I’m not a winner. I’m not a sinner. I’m not a saint. I’m just a guy. I have strengths and weaknesses. I take pride in my strengths and appreciate myself for them and I own my weaknesses and conscientiously try to fix them. I only listen to what has the power to empower me to become a better person. To all the rest, I say fuck that noise.
As a culture, we should be proactive about having conversations about what is really of value; what the real marks of excellence in life are. We need to do better by young men and stop shaming them, and people in general, for not having what they can’t control—like how they look or whether they happen to have been lucky in matters of sex and love or not.
And we need men to take responsibility for other men. Not the blame, but the responsibility for the expectations and interpretations of manhood that men place upon other men. We need to be proactive. Good values don’t just fall from the sky. Religious institutions and unexamined patriarchal cultural assumptions are not reliable and trustworthy guides. Mass popular culture is determined by corporate greed and so will manipulate and mindlessly exploit our sexuality and insecurities and vulnerable needs to be loved in order to profit off of them in whatever ways it finds convenient.
In a secular culture we need to take active responsibility for shaping our own norms and values rationally. We shouldn’t be deferring to common sense–it’s riddled with harmful prejudices. We shouldn’t be dangerously rehearsing outmoded and unfair biases. We should all feel ourselves to be actively responsible for exactly what values and norms we perpetuate. We should all scrutinize them for flaws and work to fix them. We all need to feel responsible to do this. We all need to feel responsible to have constructive discussions with other people we influence and who influence others. Yes, all men need to do this.
“You Can’t Stop Teenagers From Having Sex”
In Moral Defense of Feminism
Empowerment Ethics: “How Can Atheists Condemn Rape Without Theistic Moral Absolutism?”
Schrödinger’s Rapist and Schrödinger’s Racist
How To Live Happily: Truthfully Understand Yourself and Your Constructive Potential
In Defense of Taking Offense
From Normal to Normative, Human Minds’ Conformist Conservative Prejudice
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