How does one begin a blog post about a profoundly tragic event? With shock? Only, I’m not shocked. With anger? I am angry, but starting there doesn’t feel right. Empathy, I think, is how I have to start. I can only imagine the pain and fear of the people of Isla Vista, and honestly can’t imagine the depth of pain felt by those who lost family members and loved ones in Friday’s shooting.
As we all fumble through this event—which feels like yet another blow in a terrible but patterned chain of violent events—I believe many of us can’t help but wonder: how did this happen? How does it keep happening?
As with all things, the “how” is a complex question, one for which complete answers are largely impossible. In this case, however, I can identify two key interlocking factors: digital dualism and misogynistic culture.
Before Elliot Rodger killed anyone, he told people what he was going to do. He told them via YouTube and his blog. He said in both text and speech that he was lonely, angry, and ill intentioned. In his immediately infamous “Retribution” video [intentionally not linked], Rodger declares:
You never showed me any mercy, so I will show you none…I’ll give you exactly what you deserve — all of you. All you girls who rejected me and looked down upon me and treated me like scum, while you gave yourself to other men. And all of you men for living a better life than me. All of you sexually active men. I hate you.
He then chillingly warns:
I will slaughter you all.
His parents saw the digitally mediated rants and contacted his therapist and a social worker, who contacted a mental health hotline. These were the proper steps. But those who interviewed Rodger found him to be a “perfectly polite, kind and wonderful human.” They deemed his involuntary holding unnecessary and a search of his apartment unwarranted. That is, authorities defined Rodger and assessed his intentions based upon face-to-face interaction, privileging this interaction over and above a “vast digital trail.” This is digital dualism taken to its worst imaginable conclusion.
But digital dualism did not work alone here. Plenty of “terrorists” and “extremists” have been targeted for their digital presence. “Jihad Jane” for instance, who plotted to kill Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks for an offensive depiction of the prophet, was investigated by the FBI due to her participation in online forums (she ultimately got 10 years in prison). In this vein, reports show that racially charged hate groups are leaving digital media in an effort to avoid the watchful and punishing eyes of law enforcement and a disapproving public. And yet, Rodger’s extensive written and spoken warnings were not enough. They, somehow, were not read as “extreme.”
They were not read as “extreme,” I argue, because they were embedded in a misogynistic culture, one in which anger—even violence—is a reasonable reaction to a lack of access to women’s bodies. The extremism of his hatred towards women, though raising red flags for his family and therapists, is given ambiguous status within a culture that allows for, perhaps expects, some degree of this hatred. A misogynistic culture is one in which a heterosexual man’s loneliness and unfulfilled sexual desire can transfer onto women as the responsible parties. It is a culture in which hate speech and physical threats are debatable as an indication of mental instability. It is a culture in which a man who says what Rodger said, can, in any light, still come across as a “wonderful human.”
This is certainly not to say that misogyny and digital dualism are the only causes of this tragedy. There is a lot LOT more going on. It is to say, however, that cultural ideologies can collide in unexpected ways, and the consequences of those collisions can unfold into unimaginable realities.
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