It’s been difficult to figure out how to write about the tragedy caused by Elliot Rodger. I try to find some point of compassion as I analyze the meta-picture and unpack events, and Elliot makes that very difficult. Elliot’s own words dehumanize women, turning them into objects without individual souls, and so it’s very hard not to dehumanize him back. But then I remembered a conversation I was privy to back in my college days. In this conversation I saw how Elliot’s views were not so much a cause, but a symptom of a larger problem. Because in that conversation, I saw men suffering from a related frustration, but who took their pain in the exact opposite direction. The difference was that they didn’t want to kill others, rather they were looking to kill themselves. But like Elliot, they were looking for ways to go out in a blaze of glory.
The blaze of glory fantasies the men produced in this conversation focused around trying to figure out how to die a hero. They searched for the child in the road whom they could save at the last minute from a speeding car, getting hit themselves in the process. They sought that random bullet they could take so they could trade their lives for that of a random stranger. I also came to understand the level of pain that produced the desire for these glorious suicides: each of those men were forced to question their own masculinity in life, but a blaze of glory would forever seal their honor as men in death. One of those men was sexually assaulted for years by a family friend. One of those men was beaten throughout his childhood by his mother. One of those men had his high school sweet heart come out while they were dating, and while he understood and accepted her orientation on a conscious level, there was an unconscious fear that he had an inherent flaw that drove her away from men. And one of these men was bullied and mocked throughout his life, both at home and school. Like Elliot, each of these men was made to feel like they were less masculine, less deserving to be seen as men. The difference was that where Elliot took that shame and aimed it outwards to murder others, these men turned that shame inwards to fantasies of murdering themselves.
And before you belittle these fantasies as just that, I should also point out that these blaze of glory fantasies would serve as the gateway to more direct suicidal plans. When they realized they were willing to die one way, they were willing to die other ways when the pain became too much.
“I’m only alive today because the beam in the garage I tried to hang myself on didn’t support my weight” I recall being told.
“I don’t know how many nights I sat with a knife to my wrist debating if I should just make the cuts” another one said.
So as we explore what made Elliot a killer, I will be using that conversation and those men as the point of compassion. If you can’t bring yourself to care about the forces that turned Elliot into the man he was (and that is an understandable anger for you to have) look to those other men to help you care about the problems that need to be addressed.
The problem originates in that humans are social creatures. Because we are social creatures, part of our identities and sense of worth are dependent on our various social roles. We have economic roles, we have family roles, we have community roles, and we have gender roles, to name a few. The way these roles are defined comes from a complex interplay of social pressures and personal beliefs. When a person cannot meet these roles, it creates a threat to his ability to be part of the greater society. When a person cannot meet these roles, it threatens his connections with others. This terrifies us on a fundamental level. In people, the common reaction to such a threat of disconnection is to feel shame. And this process, which starts in an inability to fill a role and ends in overwhelming shame, is commonly defined as “role strain.”
Role strain has been connected to many societal problems. When analyzing the connections between wealth inequality and crime in his book The Spirit Level, Richard Wilkinson pointed towards economic role strain as the mechanisms that leads people into crime. When social worth is based on consumerism, the inability to be a good consumer and provide for others leads to a shame that can lead predictably to stealing to make up for the missing status symbols, or to externalizing their shame into interpersonal violence. Gender roles strain has been connected to a whole host of social problems including domestic violence, sexual assault, and homophobia. When a man holds a rigid definition of his masculinity, not having absolute control over his wife and children, being rejected sexually, or the threat to the gender hierarchy present in heterosexual relationships leads to a feeling of threat that gets answered with violence.
Firearms mix into the equation because of the power they represent to the threatened male. Modern gun culture hides behind ideas of “defense,” but realistically, the types of firearms that they strongly defend (high caliber, high firing rates, high capacity clips, etc) are unnecessary in any realistic defense scenario. Unless you are expecting a small army to descend on you, there is no need for the kind of firepower people are flaunting today. But when the threat is not physical, when it is a threat to identity, the threat always escalates with the imagination of the one threatened, and so there is no upper limit to the power needed to feel safe again. As a result, gun fantasies blend with hyper-masculine themes, whether it is the magazines pairing firearms with sexualized women, male leads in movies armed with the biggest weapons available, internet memes featuring men controlling their daughter’s sexuality with a gun (it is the daughter’s decision to give or not to give consent afterall) and video game after video game is made that rewards points for each person shot. Threaten this ideal, and you get people who will bend over backwards to explain why tools designed for increased lethality aren’t lethal, ask a person why they need to possess such high powered weapons (especially when crime is declining) and they will give responses ranging from a list of reasons to be terrified to statements of unrestrained entitlement, and when you point out that you are more likely to die from the gun in your home than to ever use it for defense, they will tell you all the reasons they are the exception. They won’t admit their real motivation for wanting their ever increasing firepower, they won’t admit it to themselves.
The consequences of this mix are being seen today. Gender role strain plus firearms results in five times the domestic violence fatalities. When role strain leads to depression, the addition of the lethality of the added firearm drastically increases the likelihood of a deadly conclusion to the suicide attempt.
And when the person is so threatened that he feels the need to take back his power in a way that cannot be challenged, you have the blaze of glory.
What do we do?
Currently, the trend to answer the violence and misogyny is to attack the entitlement that has become characteristic of those compensating from the gender role strain. This response is understandable, as anger is a natural reaction to the dehumanizations that these men commit. The problem is, for the man who has a rigid gender concept in a struggle to define his masculinity that includes attacking others, there is no reason to care what a woman or man who isn’t “man enough” thinks. The discussion is disconnected, and you have the offended party shouting at the offenders, and the offenders not giving a damn because reclaiming their identity is the dominant drive.
Instead, the real task needs to be to start pushing a new narrative on masculinity. When we began the much needed discourse on feminism, we forgot to have a corresponding movement on masculinism. When we began to accept the changing definition of what it means to be a woman in society, we neglected to have a conversation on how the definition of manhood needed to change along side. As a result, men have had to choose between regressing to the old but well known identities, or venturing into the unknown and creating a new identity on their own. The political misogyny, the “Men’s Rights” groups, and the idiocy from the mouths of many pundits that you see today is the response to this lack of adaptation. These stances, after all, are about returning to the older, regressed, but more comfortably known roles where the man is defined as the bread winning dominator, and the woman is the obedient mate/mother (Ever wonder why there is such a frenzy about abortion? Banning abortion punishes women for not taking up that motherhood role). We have had partial discussions, but the truth is these have been small whispers projected against a cacophony of screams endorsing the older regressed ideals. And we just can’t talk about this, we have to back up our ideas with real, environment changing actions. We need to find new role models to act as guides, but we also need to endorse them over the old, regressed ideals when we consume our media. We need to not only to define the new enlighten male, but we also need to make sure we support those males in their vulnerability, even when we are the ones who are injuring them. We just can’t tell men what not to do, but we also need to guide them to develop the skills to make them realistically assertive, powerful, and successful.
Because the alternative is frustration, shame, and a loss of manhood that can only be regained in a blaze of glory.