My grief about Elliot Rodger’s Santa Barbara killing rampage takes me to an almost wordless place. But I think it’s important to find my voice and try to address it.
Two distinct perspectives on the topic of masculinity and socialization came together today that make sense to me.
It just happens that today was the day that I needed to watch a TEDx talk by Joe Ehrmann of Coach for America. Erhmann talks about three words that are one of the most culturally destructive mandates in this country: “Be a man.” Ehrmann says that the typical socialization of masculinity involves massive repression, separating boys’ heads from their hearts. You can see some of what Ehrmann calls the “myths of masculinity” in Elliot Rodger’s violent manifesto he put out before undertaking mass killings. The myths are: 1. Size, strength and athletic ability define a man. 2. Sexual conquests, using women to validate yourself, define a man. And, 3. Economic success is key to masculinity.
Erhmann wants us to rewire and reframe what it means to be a man, recasting sports in a positive way to help this effort. This will take rewiring and reprioritization of sports teams as a set of relationships working toward a common purpose, in a way that curates the trust, respect, integrity and dignity of all team members.
Elliot Rodger was privileged but not as wealthy as those around him, a fact he grievously resented as a “bitter form of envy.” He bought into the materialistic ideals of wealth as success, but fell short of achieving riches. Rodger’s mysogynist anger was directed at women who would not date him, and also his roommates, whom Rodger judged to be other unsuccessful men–“nerds” who failed to live up to his definition of masculinity. He stabbed to death three men in his apartment before embarking on his shooting rampage designed to kill attractive women, targeting sorority members. Rodger ultimately killed six people, two young women and four men, and wounded 13 others, before killing himself. More than 400 rounds of unused ammunition were found in his wrecked BMW.
The first voice that immediately came to mind when I heard about Rodger’s massacre was Carol Lee Flinders, a writer who takes on the intersection of feminism, spirituality, and politics. She makes it clear that in the gender wars there are no real winners. A piece from her book At the Root of This Longing has stuck in my mind from the day I read it, over ten years ago. She was writing about the murderer Richard Allen Davis, who in 1993 snatched 12-year old Polly Klaas from her home and killed her, but Flinders could just have well have been writing about Elliot Rodger when she wrote:
What I felt I could not ignore…was the basic shape of these crimes–this one crime. This was not violence in general or in the abstract, it was violence in a particular and concrete form: a man overpowering and then destroying a young woman with whom he has absolutely no acquaintance. No emotional nexus, no drug deal gone awry, no personal score to settle….Each of those girls had been deeply cherished, not as a possession or asset, but for the vibrant, lovely, intelligent being that she was and for all the promise her life held. But in the eyes of the man who destroyed her, she was absolutely nothing. She was, in fact, an object–a thing. Here was the logical endpoint of that process I’d seen traced out by feminist historians that began when women and girls first became negotiable tender. It was with enormous reluctance that I came to believe I had to read these deaths no merely as acts of violence in an increasingly violent culture, but as crimes committed by men against women.
Flinders connects these murders to our larger system:
I had come to see Polly Klaas’ death as a real watershed, because I simply could not look at it, as I once might have, in isolation. Its resemblance to the only two other violent deaths that had touched my life was just not to be denied. The truth that forced itself upon me now involved a connection that I’d been close to making for some time but had resisted. It was that the men who deal out violence upon women and children–the rapists, the kidnappers, the molesters, the pornographers–are the unacknowledged but systematically groomed “enforcers” of a system of values and priorities that it seemed to me inaccurate to identify as anything but patriarchy.
What scares me most about Elliot Rodger’s murderous rampage is this: he was not railing against our social script like an anarchist Unabomber–instead, Rodger was sitting in his BMW, making YouTube videos, preparing to acting out our social script with explosive, deadly intent. Despite ample warning signs of mental instability and impending violence, we were not able to stop him. I wonder if the police didn’t take the warnings about Rodger more seriously because he was following our social script–so from what they knew of him, he didn’t seem too far outside of normal. The police were steps away from discovering Rodger’s gun stash when they visited his apartment in April, but Rodger talked them into thinking he was okay. (This huge failing to stop Rodger in April when they had the chance will undoubtedly be the subject of an ongoing investigation. It appears that police had neither watched the disturbing YouTube videos that alarmed Rodger’s parents, nor did they check to see if he owned guns, before they visited him at his apartment.)
So where are we now? Shaking our heads and saying nothing can be done? Controlled by fear as always? Or do we have the courage to write a new script? This is a multi-generational effort, a social evolution and revolution that feels maddeningly slow. It’s as though we know better but we still cannot do better. But we have to keep trying.
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I am feeling encouraged by the explosion of discussion on Twitter, using the hashtag #YesAllWomen. 500,000 Tweets strong and growing! Read what others have said and add your voice.
#YesAllWomen has captured the mainstream media’s attention as well: “California Shooting Sparks Massive Social Media Response From Women,” coverage by The Wall Street Journal
Comprehensive news coverage from the L. A. Times, including “In Isla Vista, red flags came too late.”
“Elliot Rodger and Poisonous Ideals of Masculinity” by Noah Berlatsky, via The Atlantic.
“Elliot Rodger and the Price of Toxic Masculinity,” by Dr. Nerdlove on the Paging Dr. Nerdlove blog.
“Elliot Rodger’s California shooting spree: further proof that misogyny kills,” by Jessica Valenti via The Guardian.
“How ‘Pick-Up Artist’ Philosophy and Its More Misogynist Backlash Shaped Mind of Alleged Killer Elliot Rodger” by Amanda Marcotte via The American Prospect.
“Pick-Up Artist Site On Mass Shooting: ‘More People Will Die Unless You Give Men Sexual Options’” by Nicole Flatow on the Think Progress blog.