The sociology of Elliot Rodger

I wrote an overly brief post recently about the Elliot Rodger case (in the process offending some guys who are nice, though not ‘nice guys’) – this article by Richard Seymour, prefixed with a trigger warning, deftly shows how there’s much more to this case than just one person’s contingent hatred and brutality:

This is why it is essential, though not sufficient, to listen to what Rodger says. The killer left a detailed life story, and many video diaries, and his obsessions with gender, class and race, his framework of privilege and entitlement, structure the entirety of his account. The hatred and resentment toward women in particular, and the masculinist fantasies of retribution and cleansing, provide the quilting point, through which he explains his issues to himself: everything can be resolved if only they can be made to pay. And there is no obvious reason why a mental illness should express itself in such a toxic fusion of gendered, classed and raced resentment and rage, leading to the premeditated “slaughter” of seven people (including himself), like “animals”.

Before going any further, I would add that in explaining himself the killer clearly sought to aestheticise his actions, and courted precisely the wide audience for his own gargantuan melodrama that he regarded as befitting his proper status, and which he has now obtained. As he put it, “infamy is better than total obscurity”. To talk about him, to review and punctuate his own words, is to be partially complicit in this. But there is one way in which to avoid being complicit, and that is to categorically reject the demonological approach and to notice the appallingly quotidian, commonplace nature of the ideologies informing this atrocity, and the equally too common systemic and individual violence against women that these ideologies are linked to. Because Rodger is not so unusual among twenty-something males. You’ve met men like him. His issues, his insecurities, the huge burden of resentment and shame, the ideology of violent women-hatred that he gives realisation to, are all too widespread. And this is what is most frightening, and what is missed by the rush to confine this case to a psychological black box.

I think Richard’s point here is really important. The refusal to analyse a case like this in anything other than its own terms, treating it entirely as an expression of the inner strivings of the individual at its centre, entails complicity in that person’s own self-aggrandisement. We have a moral responsibility to analyse cases like this – to not treat them as entirely exempt from history while also avoiding the risk that we reduce them to the banal and everyday (to borrow a distinction from Bauman). In analysing them we refuse Rodger’s aspiration to be a ‘god’ in relation to the ‘animals’, instead showing how his actions reflect much broader trends which, when inflected through his personal cruelty and rage, led to these horrific crimes.

4 Comments

  1. I completely agree. The common public rhetoric is to dismiss the perpetrators of acts like this as ‘monsters’ or ‘sick’. It’s particularly egregious in the tabloid treatment of child sex offences, where simplistic dismissal replaces any effort to understand (because to them understanding equates to acceptance). The reality is that it’s only through understanding, via analysis, that we can perhaps prevent future actions in a similar vein.

    1. I’d like to think you’re right about prevention. Having had this line of thought reverberating in my mind since this morning, I’m actually a little depressed by it to be honest.

      1. I’d only say prevention in the long term, and even then only partially. Humanity is imperfect, and there’ll always be those who commit acts of violence.

        It helps not giving them guns, of course, but the US is insane in that regard. I’d even go as far as to say primitive.

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