Last week, I wrote an article on a conflict of my moral inclinations catalyzed by the UCSB shooting and Elliot Rodger. I questioned how we balance various fundamental rights against the risks that allowing those rights might precipitate.
Elliot Rodger, his actions and the justification he believed he had for those actions, raise another question: how do we think about someone who does such terrible things? This is a question both of morality and strategy. Morality insofar as we should ask, “What is the right way to think of such a person?” Strategy insofar as you believe that our conception of a person—the legacy that we allow him or her to have in the aftermath of such an act—is a crucial aspect of the ongoing trend of mass murders. Fortunately, the morally right way to understand such a person is also the most strategically advantageous tack to take in diminishing the likelihood of future similar acts.
I have often championed empathy as the most admirable emotional practice. However, empathizing with evil is too often confused with supporting it, and this conflation deserves clarification.
What Elliot Rodger did was a terrible thing. He killed innocent people because he felt slighted by women—both specific women and the sex in the abstract. Women, he believed, refused to have sex with him because they were attracted to thugs and idiots. There are awful people who not only empathize with his pain, but also cheer his actions. Men who say things like, “Media doesn’t acknowledge the majority of males’ contentment with current sexual dystopia… It’s all about HATING WOMEN.” Elliot was not alone in his point of view. He represents a microcosm of society that views life as fundamentally unfair because women are attracted to some men and not to others.
There is also a larger group of people, some of whom could reasonably be described as mainstream, that say they can understand his hurt and that, while it does not excuse his actions, it’s an unfortunate circumstance that he was in. There is a very big problem with this—not with this attempt at understanding per se, but because the attempt at understanding is undertaken so lazily.
It is unfortunate that someone should feel rejection, especially perpetually so. But empathizing with this specific emotion should not be confused with feeling bad for Eliot, nor should it make us understand his actions. Elliot’s actions did not come from rejection alone, but from a sense of rejection in combination with an extreme sense of entitlement: it was not just that Elliot felt women didn’t like him, it was that he felt he was being denied affection and intimacy that he was owed by women.
The unavoidable logical implication of this belief is that women wrong men when they are not attracted to them. If every Elliot Rodger that exists feels wronged by women who deny them, then their collective argument is that women should be attracted to each and every man that desires them. How can this be true unless one believes that every woman’s existence is justified because of her ability to please men? This is objectification in the strongest and most despicable sense.
As far as I can tell, Elliot’s objectification was exacerbated by a profound narcissism. Not only are women hurting him by failing to please him (and therefore not fulfilling their role), but as a result of his pain, other people deserve to suffer. The narcissism becomes all the more stark when we realize that Elliot also hated the men who succeeded sexually. Suddenly his objectification of women is made clear for what it is: not an honest (if deranged) belief in their inferiority, but an act of mental contortion to dehumanize anyone who makes him feel bad about himself. And they deserve that role because of how they hurt him. And eventually they deserved to die.
Some might rightly call what I laid out above an act of (admittedly, amateur) psychoanalysis. I would call it empathy. I started from a point of commonality between Elliot and myself: I could understand his sense of hurt and rejection, because I have experienced it myself. Then I tried to pick apart where his argument and actions deviated from any motivation I have experienced. I wondered, “If we have both felt this hurt, why did he want to kill people and yet I have never felt that drive?” I discovered he felt he was owed a blissful life.
We might start another thread of exploration to understand where his extreme narcissism came from. I don’t know nearly enough about him to do that justice. But anyone who tries to point out how Elliot’s actions were in some way understandable because they have felt similar rejection, or because they believe women are attracted to certain types of men, should be fully aware of exactly what they are agreeing to. It is not just a sense of hurt that drives someone to do what Elliot did. Stopping there is sloppy reasoning and downright dangerous.
Which brings me to the strategic advantage in this exercise of empathetic understanding. Most people hear about an atrocity like what Elliot has done and call him a monster, and implicitly argue that anyone who tries to contend otherwise is fraternizing with the enemy. This must be because a monster is an abomination, whereas a person exists among us and acts for reasons. If Elliot was a monster, then his victims were killed by pure evil, like in the storybooks we read growing up. If he is a person, then maybe his victims are in some way complicit.
I reject this dichotomy outright. Striving to understand a person who commits terrible acts does not mitigate his responsibility for those actions. Too often the media conflates these notions: “He played violent videogames, so those are the real culprit.” We do not need to decimate personal responsibility in order to arrive at helpful lessons. We are, all of us, little more than the combined influences of all our past experiences, but we are still the ones who are responsible for what we do.
I do not refuse to call someone like Elliot a monster because I want to protect his memory from harm. I refuse to call him a monster because I believe that, if any good can come from such terrible incidents, it should be understanding what causes these things to happen, so that we can strive to prevent them in the future. By empathizing with Elliot, I was able to dissect his ‘great manifesto’ into what it actually was: a deranged justification for extreme objectification rooted in narcissism. It is the one weapon we have against those who would flock to Elliot’s banner, like the young man on a message board Elliot frequented, who said, “he would have had a boring […] life then died of cancer […] without ever leaving a mark […] he is famous 4 ever now.”
When condemned as a monster, Elliot becomes a martyr to those who would agree with him, to those who revel in feeling like the world just doesn’t understand, that some day we will see the truth. When we try to understand him we can both strive to create a world that does not nurture beliefs like his and mitigate his martyrdom by revealing his grandiose arguments for what they really are.
And yet I must admit, researching Elliot and the community that supports him was not easy. Both for my own sanity, and to impart hope in the face of this hatred, I share with you the words of soul and jazz poet Gil Scott-Hebron—a shower for the soul after crawling through these moral sewers: “To give more than birth to me, but life to me […] God bless you mama, and thank you. […] My life has been guided by women, but because of them, I am a man.”