It should be easy for any intelligent observer to conclude that Elliot Rodger was a terrorist. On Friday, May 23, Rodger embarked on a killing spree, the details of which are now famous: He began by stabbing his roommates George Chen, Cheng Yuan Hong and Weihan Wang. He then drove to a sorority house near the University of California, Santa Barbara campus and opened fire, killing Veronika Weiss and Katie Cooper. After fleeing the scene of the crime in his car, he shot through the window of an IV Deli Mart, killing Christopher Michaels-Martinez, another USCB student; finally, he shot and killed himself.
Prior to all this, Rodger clearly and explicitly detailed his rationale for the murders. He left a 137-page manifesto, several YouTube videos and posts on misogynistic hate-sites such as “PUAHate” outlining them. In fact, he was quite remarkably clear: Rodger hated women. Rodger wanted to kill women. Rodger wanted to kill all women, but would settle for killing some women. Also, although Rodger was biracial (his mother is Chinese and his father is white), his manifestos speak to a self-loathing white supremacist ideology, in which sex with blonde white women was the ultimate proof of manhood, and other men of color were “ugly” and “inferior,” which is probably why he killed three Asian men before proceeding to the sorority house. In all of this, he was working to create the ideal society he’d envisioned on PUAHate: “A world where WOMEN FEAR YOU.”
“I will punish all females for the crime of depriving me of sex,” he wrote, in a representative passage of his manifesto, made available by the LA Times. He added: “I cannot kill every single female on earth, but I can deliver a devastating blow that will shake all of them to the core of their wicked hearts.”
In other words, Rodger planned to use violence to intimidate a marginalized group for political reasons. This is pretty much the dictionary definition of terrorism. He even referred to this mission as a “War on Women.” And yet, despite a groundswell of feminists on social media highlighting the killings as indicative of a broader climate of violence against women, many mainstream media outlets continue to focus on his apparent “craziness” rather than his racism or misogyny.
In an article that does not mention Rodger’s politics, for example, ThinkProgress quotes an anonymous source as saying that he was “somewhere on the autism spectrum.” Time explicitly refutes any political analysis, cautioning us instead that “blaming a cultural hatred for women for [Rodger’s] actions loses sight of the real reason why isolated, mentally ill young men turn to mass murder.” (That “real reason,” according to Time, is mental illness — in Rodger’s case, specifically the fact that he was “focused on his sexual inadequacies,” which is said to have caused his misogyny, rather than, say, societal misogyny causing him to feel that he was only a real man if he had sex.) Meanwhile, Slate bemoans the fact that, despite receiving therapy until the age of 18, Rodger was not committed to a psych ward four years later, at the age of 22. Again, this article does not mention Rodger’s stated political motivations, nor the actual name of his illness.
Because, you see, Slate — like Time, like ThinkProgress, like this very article — actually can’t give the name of Rodger’s illness. We don’t know it. No one does, other than his therapists and perhaps his parents. The only thing any of us has is pure armchair speculation based on the publicly available materials, which, if we are not mental health professionals, and did not treat Elliot Rodger personally, is not the same thing as an actual, medical diagnosis.
Let me be clear: I don’t think it’s unlikely that Rodger had a mental illness. Certainly, his emotions seem disproportionately extreme. Some passages of his manifesto, where he refers to himself as “more than human” and “the closest thing there is to a living god,” seem overtly grandiose. But I won’t, as some have done, throw a slew of vaguely medical labels at Rodger — “psychotic,” “narcissistic personality,” “psychopath,” or “sociopath” — or speculate on his precise place on the autism spectrum.
I won’t do this, because I’m not a doctor. But I also won’t do it because the drive to classify Elliot Rodger as “mentally ill” and nothing else, to strip his terrorism of its political motivation and context, seems to me like an act of sheer denial: It is a cultural refusal to admit the demonstrable link between sexism and violence. It is also an attempt to take a hate crime committed against two marginalized groups — women and men of color — and place the blame for it on a third marginalized group, the mentally ill.
The fact is, mentally ill people — or autistic people, who are not mentally ill; the conflation of the two is but one of the strangely medieval twists these conversations tend to take — are vastly more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it.There are some afflictions, such as antisocial personality disorder, which list criminality as a potential symptom. But people with that illness are far from the all-powerful, infinitely evil “psychopaths” you see in horror movies. Hannibal Lecter is, thank goodness, a fictional character. In the real world, those with ASPD are more likely to be run-of-the-mill jerks (or, apparently, corporate success stories) than they are to eat someone’s liver with a well-selected wine. According to one study, “a history of aggression, unemployment and promiscuity were more common than serious crimes among people with antisocial personality disorder.” Overall, in 2006, the Institute of Medicine found that “the contribution of people with mental illnesses to overall rates of violence is small.”
But the perception of mentally ill people as violent continues to be a major factor in their oppression. For one thing, the equation of “ill” with “evil” causes people with mental illness to feel shame and avoid treatment, which can be fatal in cases that carry self-harm risks. For another, the perception of people with mental illness as violent or scary can lead to discrimination against them in housing and employment, not to mention personal relationships. And it’s not just the stereotypically “scary” illnesses, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder: According to one report, “68 percent [of Americans] are unwilling to have someone with depression marry into their family.” So, if you have a neurochemical problem that makes it hard for you to feel happy, take comfort in the fact that more than two-thirds of your fellow citizens believe you don’t deserve love.
Meanwhile, though mental illness cannot be conclusively correlated with violence, misogyny surely can. Worldwide, 40 percent of murdered women are killed by a former or current partner; men are six times less likely than women to be killed by people they love or used to love. In the United States, one in six women reports being stalked; one in five women reports either rape or attempted rape; one in four reports being physically abused by a partner. Not only is Elliot Rodger far from the only person to kill women for rejecting him sexually, he’s not even the only man to try it this month. Within 24 hours of Rodger’s spree, another California man shot eight rounds at three women leaving his apartment because they’d refused to have sex with him and his friends. (Thankfully, he missed.) As Jessica Valenti points out in her Guardian column, only a month prior, a man stabbed a young woman to death for turning him down when he asked her to the prom. The Tumblr When Women Refuse, curated by Deanna Zandt, curates stories of women who were physically hurt or murdered for turning men down sexually or romantically. There are many stories. They are chilling.
Before last Saturday’s murders, Elliot Rodger spent his time consuming materials by “pick-up artists,” or PUAs, who explicitly advocate contempt for women, and in some cases, violence against them. The PUA community’s trouble with telling the difference between rape and sex is well known. In April 2013, a PUA named Ken Hoinsky started a Kickstarter for his “seduction” guide. In his Reddit posts, he’d outlined how to use physical force and coercion to “get” sex: “Physically pick her up and sit her on your lap. Don’t ask for permission. Be dominant. Force her to rebuff your advances … Pull out your cock and put her hand on it … Don’t ask for permission. GRAB HER HAND, and put it right on your dick.” Meanwhile, famous PUA Roosh has written blog posts against domestic violence laws, musing that they “have created men such as myself, who see absolutely no incentive to pursue a relationship in a country where I can go to jail or be robbed blind from a failed relationship.” As a Utopian alternative, Roosh offers his time spent in the Ukraine, where he once saw a man slap a woman in the street and no one helped her. The woman herself “did nothing, not screaming or running away.” That’s the world Roosh wants to live in.
And that’s the vision of the world Elliot Rodger eagerly consumed. That’s the audience he was writing for when he eagerly typed about “a world where WOMEN FEAR YOU.”
We live amidst a growing epidemic of violence against women. We know for a fact that there are communities dedicated to fostering hateful and harmful attitudes toward women. And yet, we refuse to connect the dots: to acknowledge the clear and deadly connection between the people who encourage bigotry and violence verbally, and the people who enact that bigotry with violence. The proof is there — all 137 pages of it — but we refuse to look at it. Doing so might acknowledge, after all, that we failed as a society by creating a world where a 22-year-old boy could be taught to hate women and people of color (himself included) enough to murder them.
Blaming Elliot Rodger’s crimes on “the mentally ill” and not “misogyny” is the equivalent of a police officer walking onto a murder scene, seeing a Labrador Retriever and a man with a smoking gun in his hand, and proceeding to arrest the dog. Because, you know, in a very small number of cases, some dogs do have rabies.
By reducing Rodger’s actions to autism, or mental illness, or anything else that fits the “lone madman” thesis, we strive to make his crimes seem like an aberration. And this, in turn, is a way to abdicate our own social responsibility. Seeing Elliot Rodger for what he was — not a murderer, but a terrorist — would require us to accept that sexism and racism are real, and that they kill women and people of color.
We’re so scared of admitting the problem that we’re meeting it with blunt-force denial, even though seeing the situation clearly is the only thing that might fix it. Unless we acknowledge the epidemic levels of gendered and racialized violence in our society, and work to fight them, more men like Elliot Rodger will continue to kill more people. We’re sacrificing our future safety to our present comfort. That, more than anything else, is crazy.
Jude Ellison Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. They are the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow them on Twitter at @sadydoyle.