Mass Shootings and Important Conversations

Elliot Rodger, a disturbed rich young man went on a shooting spree in Isla Vista, a wealthy district in Santa Barbara, California. Thanks to the joys of social media, both his written and videotaped “manifestos” were able to go viral. The reasons he listed for his killing tour included his parents’ divorce, lack of luck with the ladies, and being short.

I get the divorce and the sexual frustration, but being short? That one was new.

Predictably, this has set off all manner of commentary in the public sphere. First and foremost, of course, comes the discourse on gun control. Gun control advocates have pointed out that all of the guns that Rodger used were legally obtained. The Brady Campaign Against Gun Violence has spoken out on the need to tighten controls on obtaining firearms, and one of the victim’s fathers blamed “craven, irresponsible politicians and the NRA” for his son’s death. To be fair, three of the six people who died were actually stabbed to death, but Rodger had plenty more ready in his car that he could have used.

The feminist response to the “manifesto” (can we even call it that? should we?) has been swift and furious, pointing out the misogynism woven through it and drawing attention to his links to the usually peculiar, occasionally violence-embracing “Men’s Rights Movement” (which, by the way, is what exactly?)

But it also denies reality to pretend that Rodger’s sense of masculine entitlement and views about women didn’t matter or somehow existed in a vacuum. The horror of Rodger’s alleged crimes is unique, but the distorted way he understood himself as a man and the violence with which he discussed women — the bleak and dehumanizing way he judged them — is not. Just as we examine our culture of guns once again in the wake of yet another mass shooting, we must also examine our culture of misogyny and toxic masculinity, which devalues both women’s and men’s lives and worth, and inflicts real and daily harm.

Outspoken feminist writers have pointed out that this is not the first time a shooter has claimed similar motives, and Laurie Penny, in her usual no-holds-barred style, has dubbed the attack as the latest example of misogynistic extremism.

Last, and perhaps least, is the quiet conversation about mental health that seems to only experience half-hearted revivals when these tragedies strike. Mental health advocates speak up to point out that mental illness and seeking treatment for it are stigmatized in our culture, so social awkwardness and becomes anger without productive outlets which then warps into repressed rage. The media usually turns its head for a bit, shrugs, and then moves on to montages of grieving members of the community and talking heads interviewing NRA spokespeople on CNN. Unfortunately, this shooting has pitted feminists and mental health advocates against one another – as if Elliot Rodger the misogynist and Elliot Rodger the mentally unbalanced were mutually exclusive.

As both a feminist and a public health advocate, that makes me sad.

However, I think these are all important conversations to have. I much prefer them being featured on prime-time television in shows like Law and Order: SVU and Scandal than to have them forcibly thrust into the spotlight in the wake of a tragedy, but they need our attention nonetheless – and not at the expense of one another. While I’m not quite with the NRA on (lack of) gun control, I do think it’s something of a straw man in this case – California is one of the strictest states when it comes to gun ownership, and preventing mass killings goes beyond cutting off access to handguns (which, for better or worse, cannot be kept from citizens per the Supreme Court) – but conversations about gun violence segue into discussions about poverty and equity, which badly need to be confronted. We need to scrutinize sexism and gender violence as much as society’s assumption that a man’s worth is based on his sexual prowess – all of which hurt men as much as they hurt women, but in completely different ways. And we need to stop sweeping mental health advocacy under the rug, so that people don’t avoid treatment for mental illness for fear of being unable to get jobs in places like the military or the federal government.

Rather than fighting each other for the spotlight, let’s share it together.

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