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Thursday, May 29, 2014

Tragedy, Scripted and Foretold

Elliot Rodger was consistently broadcasting distress online for months before he decided the answer was "retribution". One of his videos was shared on Reddit - as a subject of ridicule (on r/cringe). One commenter had this to say - "If this isn't a troll, I bet we find out this guy is a serial killer."  Others found his manner forced, comparing his overacting to that of an "anime villain".

Hundreds of people have responded through online fora, in the aftermath of the UC Santa Barbara killings by - this much is true - a mentally disturbed 22-year old. (More on that characterisation later.) There is a conversation, or at least a collective venting of frustrations, in progress under the banner of #YesAllWomen. Is a life lived increasingly in social media spaces making people mistake a hashtag trend for meaningful involvement or interaction? And is it making us too boorish to respect even the privacy of the bereaved?

There is always something intrusive, even ghoulish, in trying to find meaning in another person's tragedy. How dare I, by some quirk of nature not confronted with disaster, try to voice any opinion in the place of those affected? I scarcely know what to say to them. I could scarcely seek to explain to a grieving parent what led to the loss of their child. I could not imagine their grief is anything but personal. My trepidation in intruding on it, I am sure, is shared by many.

That said, I do believe the personal is political today; the norms on what is open for public comment truly are shifting; at the same time, today's social media user does not lack self-awareness. Sincere commiseration knows all too well its own inadequacy; if we still speak, it is in no small part to satisfy our own urge to provide a coherent response. The conversation arises because the entire tragedy precipitated by Elliot Rodger really does speak to people. We cannot respond to those bereaved, but we can - and do - speak to a shared understanding of it.

Understanding a crime is always about means and motives. On the former, Richard Martinez, whose son was killed by Rodger, made a point that should be self-evident: when you permit access to deadly weapons, you bear the blood of their victims on your hands. It is a point that has been made all too often. (Martinez referenced Sandy Hook.) I have tried - and failed - to understand the arguments against restricting access to assault weapons; I am always aghast to hear them glibly offered to those who have suffered such bereavement. Suffice it to say it is not a debate I wish to enter at this time.

As for motive, the news has been running excerpts of Rodger's videos on Youtube, and of his elaborate long-form written rationale. (Although his online footprint is now much reduced.) They show someone frustrated with disappointments in life, misattributing the sources of those disappointments, and fantasizing about giving a 'fitting response'. It is tempting to dismiss these as a result of mental illness. Not knowing the line between fantasy and reality is, after all, the literal definition of "delusional". There's just one small problem: his deviance and his mental illness are related but distinct, and there is at least one important sense in which he is more typical than not.

Rodger's rants and laments are disturbingly familiar; there is a sense of deja vu, as if hearing someone recite from a script you have read before. At some point, you recognise it: he is reciting the rapist's script, chapter and verse. His entire complaint compresses to this: I am entitled to physical and emotional intimacy from women. Why do I lack the power to exercise dominion over their bodies, to make them do as I please? (And how dare other people enjoy such things when I cannot?)

For the denial of this entitlement, Rodger believed an appropriate solution was to kill the people he had come to hate - his peers, of whom he was jealous, and then himself. Only in that choice did he differ from a rapist, whose response to a sense of powerlessness is to assert that power by force, a path that precludes the jealousy Rodger so strongly declared. If his recordings suggest a desperate effort to convert his life into a narrative of victimisation (and consequent retribution), remember that many struggle to find meaning in their sufferings (real or imagined) as well. Rodger is scarcely unique in indulging in "idle fantasies"; he is not even unique in the content of his imaginings. His delusion, such as it is, lies in believing and choosing to act upon those fantasies, in a manner that those who are psycho-socially well adjusted have a number of compelling reasons not to attempt. In his perceptions and choice of response, we may call him deviant, just as we often call rapists deviant. It is a mistake in both cases, and for the same reason: it suggests that these "deviants" invent the narrative they chose to believe. The reality is that they learn it.

Each of us learns that narrative, and performs it - thank you, Judith Butler - almost without effort or awareness. Every medium, every form of interaction, is literally saturated with it. How was Elliot Rodger to avoid imbibing it as well? Where would he have turned that he could avoid it? Popular culture broadcasts it 24/7: The hero (usually a young white male) always gets the girl. The villain? Well, he might end up dead, but he probably got a lot of sex first - chicks love bad boys. Advertisements are replete with the suggestion that [man + woman + our product = sex]; I'm amazed how hard it is to buy something without aphrodisiac properties. Even literature is only partially exempt, at best. The last novel you read where the hero did not have a love interest was probably The Lord of the Rings.

This framing of gender dynamics is pernicious; it affects our perception exactly like any other prejudice. There are, in fact, many role models for positive, well-adjusted interactions between the genders. A healthy family life involves negotiating power dynamics within a relationship, for outcomes that partners find mutually rewarding. Young people all around the world have relationships that involve affection, respect, even (emotional) intimacy, without the least bit of romantic or sexual attraction. Trawl the internet, though, and you could be pardoned for thinking men can only ever "score" (cue applause) or be "friendzoned" (cue mockery). When seeing the world through a misogynist lens, every interaction is painted with sexual implications.

When Rodger saw boys and girls his age conversing, playing, dancing, sharing a table at a coffee shop - did he assume they were in an intimate relationship? I know I have; I know I have been mistaken at times; I know I will still jump to that conclusion more often than not. If I'd recently ended a relationship myself, I might even be jealous. I'm aware that I'm doing this when it happens - and I still can't stop it from playing out. If you grew up in urban India, at least, I have little doubt you've shared this experience (and I suspect that's irrespective of your gender, though I may be making that claim in ignorance). Where you and I differ from Rodger, gentle reader, is primarily our choice of response: when you are miserable, you buy chocolate, not a handgun. More philosophically, perhaps, it is that we do not take ourselves quite so seriously. When I read Ambrose Bierce on the platonic lover ("one who holds the eggshells, while another enjoys the omelette"), my reaction is amusement, not self-pity or murderous rage. To the extent that we are aware of where the screen image of masculine prowess diverges from reality, we resist subscribing to it at least on occasion.

Turns out, we're doing ourselves a favour. As Noah Berlatsky writes in the Atlantic, this narrative of masculinity is a double-edged sword: it reduces women to non-persons, nothing more than a means to keep score between male players, but it reduces men who fail to score to non-persons as well. Of course, no matter how successful, one can usually find a new object to lust after; this is a game you win only by refusing to play - but that also means you're not in focus anymore. (When was the last time you idolised a staid, unglamorous, regular guy?) When every referent available to the young man is, by definition, steeped in this poison, how can it surprise us that it seeps into their thinking? It is entirely accurate to say that Rodger had unrealistic expectations, but that begs the question of how they are formed; when approximately 15% of all internet searches are for pornographic content, well, what manner of expectations do we think result from those?

Johan Galtung, writing more than four decades ago, explained that the kind of violence Elliot Rodger embodied - the overt, weaponised, lethal violence - is only the tip of the iceberg. It rests on structural violence, that elicits and enables it; these structures, in turn, depend on a culture that legitimates their violence. The narrative that Rodger bought, and tried to peddle online - the narrative he consumed, and which consumed him in turn - is a glimpse of that cultural violence laid bare for each of us to see. Away from the glossy adverts, away from the glamour of silver screen and red carpet, a chance for each of us to see the narrative of the alpha male for what it truly is: misogynistic and murderous, visiting violence on the daily lives of women - yes, all women.

History repeats itself, first as fantasy, then as tragedy after tragedy. Some historian - far enough removed that the feelings of victims and survivors carry little weight and lesser meaning - will perhaps think it farcical that we continue to manufacture (and buy into) content that propagates so evidently harmful a belief. I can scarcely begrudge them the judgment.

Sean Connery (as James Bond) & Rowan Atkinson (as Nigel Small-Fawcett - I say, what a clever pun!)
in Never Say Never Again. One gets the girl. One gets shafted by the patriarchy.

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