The recent shooting-stabbing in California follows a familiar pattern: a socially isolated male, with chronic anger and mental-health problems, lashes out against a society he feels has wronged him. Both a video, complete with cliché maniacal laughter, and a 140-page manifesto have been published online which, if confirmed as Elliot Rodger’s, detail a young man consumed with rage over his inability to connect with women. Family members had apparently contacted police in the weeks prior to the violent assault but, unlike in some other cases, attempts to warn authorities did not divert this horrific crime.
Initial reports note that Rodger stabbed to death three roommates before beginning his shooting spree, but his anger appears to have been particularly directed at women. This has led some to speculate that cultural misogyny has contributed to this shooting. For instance, Jessica Valenti, writing in the Guardian, states that “Rodger, like most young American men, was taught that he was entitled to sex and female attention.” And Valenti isn’t the only writer to see cultural misogyny at the core of this shooting. Some reports suggest Rodger may have associated with “men’s rights” groups that view women as hostile.
Misogyny, in all forms, remains a significant problem for society. Women still don’t enjoy pay equity with men, and are underrepresented in core positions of power in business and politics. Violence toward women has thankfully dropped over the previous two decades, but remains intolerably high. The last election cycle brought us odd comments about “legitimate rape” and fights over women’s rights to contraception medical coverage. It’s not difficult to understand why women would perceive the deck being culturally stacked against them. That misogyny can, and certain does, spill over into violence in the case of (one hopes) a small percentage of men whose anger toward women is beyond control.
Linking cultural misogyny to a specific mass shooting is more difficult, however. Although I understand Valenti’s point, I suspect cultural messages on the interaction between men and women are more complex than merely saying that men are taught to feel “entitled” to women’s attention. And although Rodger appears to have been particularly angry at women (and men who were successful with women as he was not), there’s little common thread among mass-homicide perpetrators to target women. Mass-homicide perpetrators often target groups they particularly feel have wronged them, whether their own families, their work colleagues or society as a whole. Marginalized groups are sometimes targeted such as the recent shooting by a 73-year-old man outside a Jewish center. But often mass-homicide perpetrators basically target everyone, every member of a society that the perpetrator thinks has left them high and dry.
The very isolation that mass-homicide perpetrators feel makes them unlikely candidates to respond to societal trends. Rodger appears to have indeed been a misogynist, but this misogyny appears to have raged from within, a product of his anger, sexual frustrations and despondency rather than anything “taught” to him by society. Had he not been so focused on his own sexual inadequacies, his focus might simply have moved to mall-goers rather than sorority sisters.
We have an unfortunate trend when mass shootings occur to focus on idiosyncratic elements as potential causes. That is to say, we look for something unique about the shooter to explain why they may have done what they did. The January 2011 Tucson shooting by Jared Loughner was initially (and incorrectly) blamed by some on right-wing political demagoguery. A rare 2010 shooting by a woman, college professor Amy Bishop, led some to speculate on the traumatic experience of tenure denial. Video games are conveniently blamed when the shooter is young, then ignored when a shooter is older.
All of this serves to distract us from the commonalities between such shooters. With few exceptions, they are angry, resentful, mentally ill individuals. Certainly, we are right to worry about the stigmatization of the mentally ill, the vast majority of whom are nonviolent. But pretending no link exists at all with these crimes, if anything, prevents us from considering an overhaul to our mental-health system that could service all individuals in need, whether at any risk for violence or not.
Talking about a little of this as a cause of one crime and blaming a little of that for another prevent us from considering real comprehensive reform for our nearly nonexistent system for addressing chronic mental-health issues.
Ferguson is associate professor and department chair of psychology at Stetson University. He has published numerous scientific articles on the topic of video games and mental health and recently served as guest editor for an American Psychological Association’s special journal issue on the topic. Ferguson is also the editor of Violent Crime: Clinical and Social Implications and the author of The Suicide Kings.