Elliot Rodger was mentally ill. That conversation needs to take place.

Elliot Rodger was mentally ill. That conversation needs to take place. May 30, 2014

There is a debate going on as to whether or not Elliot Rodger, the man who recently went on a killing spree in California, was mentally ill or if he was sane and driven by sexism.  Because mental illness is important to me, I feel the need to weigh in.

Jaclyn Glenn put out a video the other day that I could not agree with more:

When this all went down, it struck me that Elliot Rodger was probably suffering from some form of mental illness.  This was because of certain facets of his testimony such as:

Rodger wrote that the “first phase” of his massacre plan would be to stab his two male roommates to death.

“These were the biggest nerds I had ever seen, and they were both very ugly with annoying voices,” he wrote. “If they were pleasant to live with, I would regret having to kill them, but due to their behavior I now had no regrets about such a prospect. In fact, I’d even enjoy stabbing them both to death while they slept.”

“After that, I will start luring people into my apartment, knock them out with a hammer, and slit their throats. I will torture some of the good looking people before I kill them, assuming that the good looking ones had the best sex lives. All of that pleasure they had in life, I will punish by bringing them pain and suffering. I have lived a life of pain and suffering, and it was time to bring that pain to people who actually deserve it.”

These are not the words of a sane person.  Sane people do not take joy in killing people because they had annoying voices.  He also talked about killing attractive people, which included men and women alike, due to envy – envy we’ve all felt at one point or another, but for which none of us have decided to murder lots of people.

I am lucky in that a childhood friend of mine, Jeremiah Beene, is an expert on the psychology of mass murder.  Jeremiah is also friends with Chris Ferguson who is viewed by many as the world’s leading expert on the matter. Ferguson is the creator of the Catalyst Model (Ferguson, 2010) which is the leading model on why mass murders like this happen.  In fact, Ferguson just published an article in TIME that briefly lays out the problem with attributing Rodger’s killing spree solely, or even majorly, to sexism.  I will say from the outset that I find nothing in his article with which I disagree:

Initial reports note that Rodger stabbed to death three roommates before beginning his shooting spree, but his anger appears to have been particularly directed at women. This has led some to speculate that cultural misogyny has contributed to this shooting. For instance, Jessica Valenti, writing in the Guardian, states that “Rodger, like most young American men, was taught that he was entitled to sex and female attention.” And Valenti isn’t the only writer to see cultural misogyny at the core of this shooting. Some reports suggest Rodger may have associated with “men’s rights” groups that view women as hostile.

Misogyny, in all forms, remains a significant problem for society. Women still don’t enjoy pay equity with men, and are underrepresented in core positions of power in business and politics. Violence toward women has thankfully dropped over the previous two decades, but remains intolerably high. The last election cycle brought us odd comments about “legitimate rape” and fights over women’s rights to contraception medical coverage. It’s not difficult to understand why women would perceive the deck being culturally stacked against them. That misogyny can, and certain does, spill over into violence in the case of (one hopes) a small percentage of men whose anger toward women is beyond control.

Linking cultural misogyny to a specific mass shooting is more difficult, however. Although I understand Valenti’s point, I suspect cultural messages on the interaction between men and women are more complex than merely saying that men are taught to feel “entitled” to women’s attention. And although Rodger appears to have been particularly angry at women (and men who were successful with women as he was not), there’s little common thread among mass-homicide perpetrators to target women. Mass-homicide perpetrators often target groups they particularly feel have wronged them, whether their own families, their work colleagues or society as a whole. Marginalized groups are sometimes targeted such as the recent shooting by a 73-year-old man outside a Jewish center. But often mass-homicide perpetrators basically target everyone, every member of a society that the perpetrator thinks has left them high and dry.

The very isolation that mass-homicide perpetrators feel makes them unlikely candidates to respond to societal trends. Rodger appears to have indeed been a misogynist, but this misogyny appears to have raged from within, a product of his anger, sexual frustrations and despondency rather than anything “taught” to him by society. Had he not been so focused on his own sexual inadequacies, his focus might simply have moved to mall-goers rather than sorority sisters.

We have an unfortunate trend when mass shootings occur to focus on idiosyncratic elements as potential causes. That is to say, we look for something unique about the shooter to explain why they may have done what they did. The January 2011 Tucson shooting by Jared Loughner was initially (and incorrectly) blamed by some on right-wing political demagoguery. A rare 2010 shooting by a woman, college professor Amy Bishop, led some to speculate on the traumatic experience of tenure denial. Video games are conveniently blamed when the shooter is young, then ignored when a shooter is older.

All of this serves to distract us from the commonalities between such shooters. With few exceptions, they are angry, resentful, mentally ill individuals. Certainly, we are right to worry about the stigmatization of the mentally ill, the vast majority of whom are nonviolent. But pretending no link exists at all with these crimes, if anything, prevents us from considering an overhaul to our mental-health system that could service all individuals in need, whether at any risk for violence or not.

Talking about a little of this as a cause of one crime and blaming a little of that for another prevent us from considering real comprehensive reform for our nearly nonexistent system for addressing chronic mental-health issues.

Like Jaclyn said, this does not mean that sexism is not bad and that it should not be discussed.  Anybody saying that is wrong.  But by treating Rodger as sane so we can attribute the fullness of his rampage to our ideological enemies, we are missing the chance to get at the root cause of the mass murder (according to the psychological experts on mass murder).

Below are some arguments that I think are likely to arise:

You think ideology had nothing to do with it.

In what I’ve read those saying Rodger was insane have been very careful to say that ideology is a factor, but an incidental one. That means that, yes, of course it played into what happened, but evidence shows that these sort of rampages can be easily caused by any kind of trigger: someone cutting you off in traffic, the IRS, having an annoying, nerdy roommate (which was his stated reasoning for his desire to kill his roommate). Of course misogyny played into this, no one is saying it didn’t. What we are saying is that it was incidental, not causal. If we went back in time and had a genie snap his fingers and create a world where sexism and misogyny did not exist, these scientific models suggest that there would still be murder victims at his hands sooner or later. It just depends on what the new incidental factor, (or catalyst), happens to be.

Why is this important? Because if we want to fix a problem (in this case, mass murders), it is important that we address the causal factor (the state of mental health in America) instead of hijacking the discussion into something that, while being an undisputed problem in our culture, would not prevent more of these events in the future if solved. At best it would simply change who the victims were.

To be clear, everybody in the mental health conversation would love to see an end to sexism, racism, and any other sort of ‘ism’ that is detrimental to society. That is not what I am talking about now. Right now the conversation is about how to prevent more mass shootings in the future (be they against sorority girls, Batman film goers, school children, government workers…anyone).  Mental health is clearly the causal factor but the media and hashtag activism is much faster to rally around feminism because people are passionate about it (and rightly so).  Unfortunately, this becomes harmful if our goal is to prevent more mass shootings because it distracts from the causal factor (mental health) in order to chase incidentals.

By insisting we focus on Rodger’s insanity you are further stigmatizing mental illnesses of all stripes.

The truth of the matter is that some psychological conditions manifest in a greater tendency towards violence (in some cases even yearning for it).  To say that these conditions exist and that they should be treated before they manifest does not stigmatize mental illness, it stigmatizes violence and promotes the need for treatment.  While I am all for removing the stigma from mental illness, this should not be accomplished by masking the sad truth.

The truth is that most people with mental health issues (around 25% of the population by the APA’s assessment) are not violent and are more likely to be the victims of violent crimes than the perpetrators.  This is compounded by the fact that we are so lacking in our public understanding of mental health that we hear the term “mental illness” and cannot apply any nuance.  People with bipolar disorder get lumped in with psychotics because they both fall into the category of mentally ill.  The solution, as always, is more education on the matter, not to insist that the rare people who are violent on account of a particular strain of mental illness are sane.

When people go on mass killing on account of religion you blame the religion.  Why not blame the sexism here?

Sane people are certainly capable of killing, even if that’s not what happened in the Rodger mass murder.  Consider for a moment that religious people have an example of not only hate, but explicitly of mass murder in the heroes of their holy books (books to which they devote their lives) as well as their gods.  That alone sets them apart from organized sexists.  Loathsome though MRAs are, the books they spread around demean women and treat them as liars, sexual conquests, etc. (which is certainly condemnable behavior), but do not advocate for the mass murder of mostly men.

I’m sad to admit it, but sometimes in life there are justifiable reasons to kill (self defense, for instance…I’d reckon if most of us had to kill someone to protect ourselves and/or our loved ones, we would).  And religions sometimes convince believers that normal people are a threat and that to stop them is not only self defense, but the only way to save the innocent of society.  That is not the mindset that Elliot Rodger had.  Rodger was killing for revenge, because he perceived that killing people he didn’t know because others weren’t sexually interested was justice.  That is not a sane outlook, and it is different from many religious people who kill on account of their faith (though not all religious people who do so).

Or sometimes religious people allow their children to die of treatable diseases as they pray rather than summon a doctor.  These parents are often sane, just very wrong about what cures disease.  Their intent is to cure, not to kill.  This separates them from Elliot Rodger as well.

What’s more, let’s take it the other way: consider how you would react if a woman went on a mass shooting citing her outrage at the patriarchy, blaming men for the inequality of women, by first murdering her female roommates (and asserting that she got joy from this because their voices were annoying) before continuing her rampage by killing mostly women – insisting that by doing so she would become a god-like figure.  None of us would say that feminism was to blame for her killing (and rightly so) even if a particularly nasty strain of it had caused her to loathe men.  We would say she was insane, again, rightly so, and that her views on men were integrated as the justification for actions taken on account of her insanity.  And while I can’t speak for everybody, I would personally lament that she did not get treatment before people died.

What would be unfair to do is try to blame the feminists, even the ones who foster bitterness towards men.  Likewise MRAs, though despicable, are not advocating mass murder.  You can rightly accuse them of fomenting bitterness toward women and more (and rightly condemn them for it), but you cannot convict these people, who are opposed to mass murder, for Rodger killing a bunch of people.

This is not the place for armchair diagnosis.  What you’re doing is irresponsible!

I am not armchair diagnosing anybody.  I sought the conclusions of some of the foremost experts in the field and deferred to their expertise (think of how many people leaped to a conclusion about Rodger’s sanity without doing this).  What’s more, aren’t the people insisting Rodger was sane armchair diagnosing him?  If it’s irresponsible, it’s not just irresponsible when done by the people with whom you disagree.  And the people who are positive that Rodger was a sane man motivated mostly or entirely by sexism are making that diagnosis not only from their armchair, but in opposition to the experts in the relevant science.  In the atheist movement we’re usually not pleased with the people who ignore the relevant science to maintain their original opinions.

Stop saying we shouldn’t discuss sexism!

I never said that.  I said the opposite of that.  I did, however, say that mental illness was the root cause of Rodger’s rampage and that those blaming sexism in full are wrong, and that doing so slows our progress in getting society to a point where people like Rodger are more likely to receive treatment before it’s too late.  Saying that sexism was not the root cause of this mass murder is not the same as saying sexism isn’t bad or that people can’t discuss it or shouldn’t be discussing it.

Stop defending sexists!

By saying that I don’t think all sexists are responsible for a crime they didn’t commit I’m not defending sexism, even if I’m defending sexists on this one count.  Even bad people don’t deserve to be convicted of crimes they didn’t commit (by all means, convict sexists of helping to increase domestic violence, fiscal inequality, etc. – they are guilty of those).  Sexism can win as a cause even if we don’t compare our ideological enemies to mass murderers.

What’s more, I probably wouldn’t even weigh in if I didn’t feel that the mental health aspect was getting swept under the rug.  If we want fewer mass shootings in the future we need to start seriously having the talk about mental illness.  And, like I said, this isn’t happening in many circles which seem to be invested in Rodger’s sanity despite what the psychological experts on mass murder are saying.  For me, making sure we’re talking about mental health (even if we’re also talking about sexism) is my primary motivating factor.  I have no love for sexism, but I have a great deal of concern for the state of mental healthcare in this country (and the world, for that matter).

What mental illness could possibly cause something like this?

The leading candidate is called anti-social personality disorder, and it’s exactly what leads to this.  Here’s a link to the Mayo Clinic’s entry on it if you want to know more.

According to research, attitudes only inform behavior on the front side very rarely (r = .23).  So, how does that apply here?  Well, his propensity to violence was already dictated, with evidence from the biological literature suggesting over 50% attributable to genetics.  The Catalyst Model (Ferguson, 2010) goes over how people become violent and elaborates on how the ideology serves only as a catalyst to inevitable violence.

Ok, so you have the Catalyst Model.  What other research confirms any of this?

For starters: Ferguson, 2010a; Vossekuil, Reddy, Borum, & Modzeleski, 2000; Ferguson, 2010b; Moffit, 2005; Rhee & Waldman, 2002; Ferguson et al., 2008; Ferguson & Beaver, 2009; Hayton, Lovette-Barron, Dumon, & Olmstead, 2010; Grafman et al., 1996; Bower & Price, 2001

Isn’t it possible that he was sane?

Possible?  Yes.  Likely?  No.  Not at all.  And even if I admit the distant possibility that Rodger was a sane person, is that enough to dismiss the consensus of the experts?  If the most perspicacious voices in the relevant field say he was not mentally well, why are you so desperate to hear it’s at least remotely possible the experts are wrong (and even worse, to then conclude the experts are wrong based on that scant possibility)?

You’re empowering the sexists.

If I must lie and say that a group of people I do not like are guilty of a crime for which I (and the leading scientists in the field) do not think they were guilty in order to avoid empowering the sexists, something’s really wrong.  Our first concern should be whether or not the charge is true, then we can worry about who the truth does or does not empower.

I think you’re an idiot, a terrible person, a sexist who loves rape, and I’m never coming back to your blog.



I am aware that on some other blogs anybody who dissents is met with profanity, derision, and then blocked.  That will not happen here.  Dissenting comments are perfectly welcome, but any comments denouncing anybody else as a traitor to compassion because of a disagreement or just dropping in to throw out a slew of insults, no matter which side of the debate they are on, will disappear and repeat offenders will be banned.  God damn it, you will treat each other like human beings with the same ultimate goals in this thread.

You may disagree, but the words “cis”, “male”, “white”, “privilege”, etc. are not magic words.  You do not utter them and then automatically win an argument.  It’s fine to disagree with one another and I anticipate there will be plenty of that in the comments, but you will not treat one another as if you support violence or discrimination.  We can talk about this issue without demonizing each other.

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