I know you’re not supposed to read the manifesto of a mass murderer, but that’s what I’ve been doing this morning. Elliot Rodger, the kid who stabbed and shot a bunch of people in Santa Barbara, California, this past weekend lived a very sad and lonely life. Please forgive me if it seems disrespectful to the victims of Elliot’s horrible crime to express my empathy for him, but there were many things he described about his thought process as a lonely child to which I really related. And one of my hopes as a campus minister is to find guys like Elliot and befriend them so that they won’t be lonely and do horrible things out of rage in that loneliness.
I’ve sometimes wondered if I have Asperger’s syndrome. The people whom I know to have it always seem a lot more obviously “off” than I think I ever was. But the thing that I saw in Elliot’s writing about his childhood to which I related seems like what people are talking about when they talk about Asperger’s. So whether I’m speaking for people with Asperger’s or social anxiety or some other category of mental makeup when I say this about people like me and Elliot Rodger, our basic tragic foundation in life is that we don’t know how to play.
We are always analyzing what other people around us are doing, trying to figure out what we’re supposed to be doing. But there is an intuitive playfulness and chitchattiness that we simply don’t gain naturally. And so we stand awkwardly on the edge of the playground with our hands in our pockets, because we’re always thinking about where we’re supposed to put our hands. In my case, I actually got made fun of in middle school for my hands. The kids said I walked like a penguin so they would form a line behind me and do my penguin-walk on the way to the cafeteria each day.
We see other people laugh at each other’s jokes and so we do research, watching television shows trying to figure out what makes for a good joke, because if people laugh at your jokes, that means you’re socially accepted. I remember hearing the kids talking about Saturday Night Live in sixth grade, so I figured that I could do better socially if I started watching Saturday Night Live so that I could make conversation about it at lunch on Monday. It was decades later that I realized the real difference between me and the other kids wasn’t that I hadn’t seen the right TV shows to make acceptable banter at lunch, but that the other kids knew how to spontaneously chitchat, while I was anxiously trying to figure out how to program myself to do what came to them naturally. I think it’s analogous to the difference between playing a musical instrument by ear and meticulously following sheet music.
Whenever I read novels about the past as a teenager, I was always envious of the people who grew up in less sophisticated times when everybody told corny jokes and all the boys had square-looking haircuts. I particularly wished that I could just live inside a Charles Dickens novel. In a Charles Dickens novel, if you fall in love with a girl, you simply write her a ten-page letter “declaring your intentions” and she comes over to your parlor and declares her response to your intentions. You don’t have to go through this elaborate game of joking around and chitchatting and pretending that you’re innately awesome and oblivious to what other people think about you. A lot of Elliot Rodger’s observations seemed like what would happen if you took a callow, romantic 19th century Dickens character and transplanted him into the confusing, uber-sophisticated culture of 21st century California:
Everything my father taught me was proven wrong. He raised me to be a polite, kind gentleman. In a decent world, that would be ideal. But the polite, kind gentleman doesn’t win in the real world. The girls don’t flock to the gentlemen. They flock to the alpha male. They flock to the boys who appear to have the most power and status. And it was a ruthless struggle to reach such a height…
The more I explored my college town of Isla Vista, the more ridiculousness I witnessed. All of the hot, beautiful girls walked around with obnoxious, tough jock-type men who partied all the time and acted crazy. They should be going for intelligent gentlemen such as myself. Women are sexually attracted to the wrong type of man. This is a major flaw in the very foundation of humanity. It is completely and utterly wrong, in every sense of the word.
We live in a world today where socializing is an extremely stressful and sophisticated challenge for people like me. I suspect that Asperger’s, social anxiety, and whatever other social “disorders” are out there simply didn’t exist for most of the history of human civilization. There are certain “brain-wirings” that just don’t mesh in our world today, and I really wonder if they aren’t actually caused by the demonic disorder endemic to our society itself. We live in a world where young men are taught to think that their entire self-worth is measured by how many women they’ve slept with. Men who are good at the thing that people like me call chitchat seem to glide through this world naturally and effortlessly. Those of us who suck at chitchat hate those men and the way that they have such an easy time getting women. For outsiders like me and Elliot Rodger, sex becomes completely detached from anything resembling genuine intimacy; it is simply the reminder that other people are not as utterly alone as we are, especially and most perversely if we masturbate alone while watching other people have sex online. Elliot writes:
One day I found some posts on the internet about teenagers having sex, and I was once again reminded of the life I had been denied. I felt that no girl would ever want to have sex with me… And I developed extreme feelings of envy, hatred, and anger towards anyone who has a sex life. I saw them as the enemy. I felt condemned to live a life of lonely celibacy while other boys were allowed to experience the pleasures of sex, all because girls didn’t want me. I felt inferior and undesirable… I began to have fantasies of becoming very powerful and stopping everyone from having sex. I wanted to take their sex away from them, just like they took it away from me. I saw sex as an evil and barbaric act, all because I was unable to have it. This was the major turning point. My anger made me stronger inside. This was when I formed my ideas that sex should be outlawed. It is the only way to make the world a fair and just place.
I don’t think we can talk about the misogyny of Elliot Rodger and his affiliation with the misogynistic so-called “men’s rights” online groups without the Asperger-ish context. I have no idea what the actual composition of online “men’s rights” groups are, but based on the social maturity level of some of the comments I’ve seen, I suspect that they’re made up of socially awkward guys who spend most of their time online playing video games and viewing pornography and have very little real-life social interaction with other people. It seems important to recognize that there are two kinds of misogynists: men who know how to play the game and exploit and abuse women because of their seductive skills and men who have always failed miserably at the game and hate these “pickup artists” and the women who fall for them.
I think it’s important to distinguish between these two kinds of misogynists in terms of thinking about what kind of intervention is needed. I don’t think that any man is free from the influence of misogyny. We all need to repent and heal from the sinful attitude of treating women as tokens and trophies in our quest for our self-definition through sexual conquest whether they were trophies we had on our shelves or trophies we saw and despised on other mens’ shelves. I’m not sure what needs to be done to knock the Don Juans of the world off their high horses. I’ve never been one. So I don’t know what would break them. Maybe they need to be tied to chairs and forced to sit in a room and get yelled at for hours by women who have been hurt by their abusive behavior.
But it seems to me that the way to battle the kind of misogyny that Elliot Rodger represents is not to gather a vigilante squad to corner all the lonely, angry-looking men in college cafeterias eating by themselves and ask them if they’re planning to rape women or go on shooting sprees. They don’t need to be confronted or screamed at because they’re already completely broken and devastated inside. I think a much better solution for kids like Elliot is to create safe spaces for friendship where socially awkward kids can thrive. The reason I didn’t become Elliot Rodger was because my high school Young Life leader Phil Weeber invited me over to his house to shoot potato guns. And when I was in college, I joined Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. Despite eventually having a theological falling-out with the group, it was a place where super-nerdy kids like me didn’t have to make clever, funny chitchat to fit in, and there were some cool jocks in the group who acted like they thought we were cool too.
When I start my work in campus ministry this fall, I want to find Elliot Rodger in the college cafeteria and ask him if I can sit at his table. I’m not going to try to proselytize him. My goal will be to have an extended socially awkward conversation where it’s clear that his social awkwardness doesn’t bother me in the slightest and that I’m just as bad at chitchat as he is. I will probably make some really bad jokes that he doesn’t laugh at, but hopefully he’ll be comforted by knowing that other people suck at making jokes. Maybe somehow Elliot will let me be his friend. Maybe he’ll open up to me after a while about the rejection he’s experienced for all of his life. Then if it seems appropriate, I will talk to him about the Despised One, the God who got crucified by his own people so that all the rejects could know that the king of the universe is a reject too.
I don’t mean to tie a little bow on this piece and say blithely that the solution IS JESUS! There are so many versions of “Jesus” that just reinforce the world where the Don Juans and their pretty girlfriends always win. But the popular kids who try to own Jesus today and make him into another validation of their success were the ones who crucified him in real life. The real Jesus hung out with total losers. That’s the Jesus I hope to introduce to my fellow losers on the campus of Tulane this fall.