Killers before Elliot Rodger have left behind long messages detailing their grievances, but his had a rare clarity. He hated women. He wanted to kill them. He set out this past Friday evening to do just that. You might think in terms of commentary on his motives, that would be The End.
Yet people all over my social media feeds and yours have been arguing about his motives pretty much since the discovery of that video of him testifying to what motivated him on Saturday. Something about Rodger's directness has set everyone off. It was like a bomb.
Initially much of the internet filled with commentary on the obvious and remarkably literal misogyny that animated the killings. But the wave of doubters followed, in the form of people who seem to think that mental-health issues on the part of a killer automatically make his rhetoric meaningless. A psychology professor writes in a column at TIME, for example, that he doesn't think what he calls "cultural misogyny" is at play here, adding:
We have an unfortunate trend when mass shootings occur to focus on idiosyncratic elements as potential causes.
The only response I can offer is that idiosyncrasy, here, seems to be in the eye of the beholder.
Without having polled them, I feel confident that most of the people who wrote those first op-eds and tweeted with the #YesAllWomen hashtag over the weekend were perfectly able to understand that Rodger likely suffered from mental illness. They were perfectly able to see, as I did, that he had such a disturbingly flat affect in the video. They were perfectly able to comprehend, too, that what was recognizable in his logic had also been twisted by a mind that pictured a "Day of Retribution" right out of a bad Jean-Claude van Damme movie.
But the fact is that his logic was recognizable. For one thing it was present, in a fixed and readable form, in the online fora about pick-up artists Rodger is known to have frequented. And you do not have to frequent those pockets of the internet to familiarize yourself with it, either. The idea that men should go out and "get" sex, that "women" are not so much people as obstacles to prevent men from achieving self-actualization through the loss of virginity—or, with virginity-loss accomplished, just through having a lot of sex—gets wider play. It is in evidence at bars across America on Saturday nights, where some men meeting with rejection overreact. They follow you home; they yell in the bar; they grab you. And every once in awhile, they kill you.
"Not all men," sure, as the joke goes. But the people who live with that risk learn to presume the worst. Living your life in preparation for the moment when a man possibly snaps and tries to kill you can bring on serious resentment. Resentment not just of men, though there is that, but of the way that even mentioning that risk makes you subject to claims that you are "oversimplifying" how men behave. That you somehow have a lesser read on human nature and violence than the more reasonable sort who, not having had to deal with the behavior, claim you must have imagined it. Even when you literally have the YouTube video proving you aren't making it up.
This is what women's experience teaches about the danger, and about the way people react to the idea of the danger. Where and why do these attitudes persist, even among the comparably sane? Even in the best-case scenario—that logic like Rodger's requires mental illness to give it that extra shove toward violence—wouldn't you rather know where these attitudes are coming from? Or at least try to know?
Yes, you can take your analysis too far, as did the Washington Post's film critic Ann Hornaday, when she wrote a half-baked column about the role of Hollywood in all this. When she writes that, "Rodger's rampage may be a function of his own profound distress, but it also shows how a sexist movie monoculture can be toxic for women and men alike," she's drawing far too direct a line from A to B (or to C, or optimistically, possibly G). The process by which Hollywood movies "teach" anyone anything something more like seasoning a stew than drawing up a battle plan.
But Hornaday's rampant use of overstatement was not quite Seth Rogen's criticism of the column, anyway:
Nor Judd Apatow's:
In both cases their essential response is: Shut up, this was a lunatic, and any other thought is "idiotic," "insulting," "misinformed." "How dare" she have this thought. Even if their outrage is understandable, it's disproportionate.
Plainly, popular culture has some kind of influence on the kids today. It is, as I said, part of the stew. Considering every element of it might be uncomfortable. It's uncomfortable to think that your movie, which you sweated over and labored over, might give people the impression that you think women are commodities men need to secure for themselves. It's uncomfortable to think that the time you innocently got drunk and then a mite too aggressive in a bar reminded a woman that she wasn't safe there.
But your discomfort doesn't make the experience of virtually everyone else wrong. That was Rodger's "lunatic" mistake, on some level: He thought that his closed little circle of logic about women gave his hatred of them the ring of justice. But that he was so very, very wrong about that doesn't mean the misogyny he picked up on won't survive him.