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Elliot Rodger: California shooter’s actions may be singular, but his thinking was not

By Rebecca Davis 28 May 2014

The meaning behind the actions of Elliot Rodger, the 22-year-old gunman who killed six people in Santa Barbara last week, continues to be pored over in conjunction with the 144-page manifesto he left behind, filled with hate towards women. While some have used the shootings as a rallying moment for anti-misogyny, others insist that Rodger’s motivations were simply those of a very mentally ill man. The California shooter may indeed have had serious mental problems, but the rhetoric of his manifesto is found all over the internet – and beyond. By REBECCA DAVIS.

Before he embarked on a killing spree with knives and guns, before his face was splashed all over 24-hour news channels, Elliot Rodger wrote what is being termed a “manifesto”. In truth, it is not so much a manifesto as an extremely tedious chronological detailing of a relatively uninteresting life. If it is reminiscent of any literary document, it is less a call to arms than it is The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole.

In 144 dull pages, Rodger meticulously chronicles every tiny slight he experienced throughout his short life. These are significantly minor infractions, mainly at the hands of girls who fail to pay him sufficient attention. By the standards of 99% of the world’s population, Rodger had it made: money, comfort, parents who clearly did as much as possible to give their strange son a good life. He was teased a bit at school, but not enough to fill even one convincing chapter of a misery memoir. The central injustice of his existence, the hardship which would define his whole life and death, was that girls did not want to date or have sex with him.

That is, of course, on Rodger’s own version. In his manifesto he expresses interest only in one particular kind of girl: tall, blonde, beautiful and slim. There are no personality or intellectual traits to flesh out his desired female. He makes no mention of attempting to approach any girls who did not tick these physical boxes. Indeed, he barely approaches girls at all, beyond a few attempts to say “Hi” to strangers, which are not met with encouraging warmth.

Video: Elliot Rodger’s threat

Repeatedly, he expresses astonishment and disbelief that he – he, Elliot Rodger, who had travelled to six different countries by the age of four – cannot get the women of his dreams. Since there is no possible fault with himself – he is “magnificent” – the fault must lie with the opposite sex. “I was cast out and rejected, forced to endure an existence of loneliness and insignificance, all because the females of the human species were incapable of seeing the value in me,” he writes in the manifesto’s introduction. “It is a story of a war against cruel injustice.”

Rodger, wrote the Guardian’s Jessica Valenti, “like most young American men, was taught that he was entitled to sex and female attention”. His sense of entitlement shines through in every page. Rodger literally cannot believe that the desirable young women around him are not his. It has been suggested that what this points to above all is some kind of deep-seated narcissistic personality disorder. There has been a push-back against writers like Valenti suggesting that in figures like Rodger, widespread structural misogyny finds its final expression.

Writers associated with the Men’s Human Rights Movement (MHRM) have been particularly quick to counter this suggestion. In one such article which repeatedly calls the shooting spree an “outburst”, the author – who is allegedly a woman – hits out at “media feminists” using the event to make points about misogyny, and then proceeds to use the event to make points about discrimination against males. “The fact is that Elliot’s outburst does indeed highlight an issue of central importance to the MHRM – the inadequate, almost non-existent treatment of mental health problems for young men. Socially, our treatment seems to be to wait until the tortured young man puts a bullet in his own head,” she writes.

This ignores the fact that Rodger had seen a psychologist by some accounts every single day while in high school; had been in counselling throughout college; and had been prescribed medication.

Men’s Rights advocates have said, too, that it is nonsensical to describe the shootings as being caused by misogyny when Rodger killed men as well as women – in fact, more men than women. Indeed, if you read his manifesto Rodger makes it clear that he hates other men too. But he hates them specifically because women prefer them to him; he wishes to see them wiped out so that women will have no choice but to turn to him.

The kind of thinking which Rodger expresses throughout his manifesto is by no means unique to this undoubtedly disturbed young man. It crops up in various forms across the internet. Rodger borrows ideas, words and phrases that you encounter freely in a number of online subcultures: the Men’s Rights movement itself; so-called ‘pick-up artists’, who dispense advice on how to ‘game’ women; and the anti-pick-up artist faction. Daily Kos pointed out that Rodger was subscribed to multiple YouTube channels and discussion forums servicing these interest groups.

It’s a strange world to delve into, but when you do, you realise that Rodger’s sense of heartfelt injustice at not being lavished with attention by beautiful women is not isolated. There is an entire community of men who call themselves “incel” – involuntarily celibate. (One blog explains that “many men, incel or not, will tell you that it is impossible for a woman to be incel”.) Discussing the case of an incel called George Sodini, who ended up killing three women in 2009, the blogger terms him “the victim of a horrific condition”.

This condition is the fault of women who do not exercise their right to choose partners appropriately. “I simply don’t think women understand the costs men deal with having to be the one to shoulder the burden of serial rejection,” writes a “former” incel, echoing the self-pitying mantra of Rodger’s manifesto.

By rejecting men, it is women who bring misogyny on themselves. The same blogger explains: “Misogyny is not innate. It’s bred. And each new generation of overly indulgent, ego driven, overly empowered, and narcissistic crop of feminism indoctrinated woman who relegates the bulk of men to the sidelines of incel-ville while riding the ponies breeds it like mosquitos after the rain.”

Involuntary celibacy is “dangerous and needs to be resolved,” the blogger concludes. In Rodger’s own online contributions, he lays out some ideas how: “One day incels will realise their true strength and numbers, and will overthrow this oppressive feminist system,” Rodger wrote on a forum last November. “Start envisioning a world where WOMEN FEAR YOU.”

Pick-up Artist (PUA) websites rail against young men like Rodger, who are termed “betas” – as opposed to alphas – for their inability to bed women. Rodger reportedly followed these websites in the hope of collecting tips on “the game”. Many stop just short of endorsing rape: “Obviously rape is a poor decision because it goes against the personal freedom social contract we currently live by,” one commenter notes on a Reddit forum called The Red Pill. But non-violent forms of sexual coercion are encouraged; advice to men is offered on topics like “Manipulating Women in the Age of Social Media”.

“When you say crass things to women it separates you from the betas who can’t,” one counsels. “Have her friends reinforce her decision to f*ck you”.

These PUA communities discuss women – who are interesting only inasmuch as they sometimes inexplicably refuse to sleep with men – as if they were quite literally another species. “Subtlety is HUGE when dealing with women. You can’t just scream at a woman or try to overtly display dominance. It doesn’t work. It just scares the cat,” writes one contributor to comments on a website advising that men should adopt an attitude of “amused mastery” over women in order to bed them.

In the wake of the shooting, these websites are suggesting that if Rodger had only studied the “game” in greater detail, lives could have been saved. South Africa has its own PUA community, which even offers boot camps to young men looking to get laid.

“We teach ‘Natural Game’ whereby you can develop thorough, practical, field-tested tools and techniques to approach and attract almost ANY girl you want,” PUA SA’s website promises. “This is a foolproof system that allows men from any background to meet, attract, and build relationships with exceptional women of extraordinary beauty and quality”.

It’s an approach that assumes that women have little autonomous sexual agency in the face of certain “tricks”. When these methods prove not to be “foolproof”, as was the case with Rodger, it clearly provokes additional bitterness and resentment towards women.

Presumably for this reason, Rodger had begun to contribute to anti-PUA websites, where discontented young men gather to complain that the “game” hasn’t worked for them. The particular PUA-hate website where he posted has been removed over the past few days, but has previously been the subject of media scrutiny. “A large amount of threads revolve around how unfair it is that men have to resort to Pick Up Artists to get a girl to notice them,” reported Jezebel two years ago.

Uniformly, the contributors to such forums express disgust and derision towards women who do not meet Hollywood standards of beauty. They are not just entitled to any women; they are entitled to stunningly beautiful women, regardless of their own appearance.

These websites are not mainstream; you have to go poking down the internet’s dark corners to find them. But it’s important to note that certain aspects of their reasoning find expression in mainstream media too.

“A good-looking boy, it is impossible to say what caused Rodger’s problem with women,” wrote the Daily Mail in the aftermath of his killing spree – as if we didn’t have the evidence of several video journals and a 144-page manifesto to make it clear what a thoroughly unpleasant individual Rodger was. In their version, female behaviour is as seemingly inexplicable as in Rodger’s.

Multiple news outlets have also published spreads featuring the identity and photographs of a young woman blamed by Rodger for causing his hatred of women at a young age through her indifference to him. The fact that the young woman “doesn’t even remember him” has been foregrounded in such articles, lending tacit weight to a version in which girls are cruelly callous to boys and in some measure responsible for consequent adult misogyny.

Young men like Rodger do not exist in a vacuum. “The truth is that there is no such thing as a lone misogynist,” writes Valenti. “They are created by our culture, and by communities that tell them that their hatred is both commonplace and justified.” DM

Read more:

  • The pick-up artist community’s predictable, horrible response to a mass murder, on Slate
  • Your Princess Is in Another Castle: Misogyny, Entitlement, and Nerds, on Daily Beast

Photo: Students are reflected in the bullet-pocked window of the Isla Vista Deli Mart where one of the victims of the deadly shooting rampage was killed at the University of California at Santa Barbara college town of Isla Vista, California, USA, 24 May 2014. The suspect killed six people and wounded seven as he drove through the college town shooting as well as running over victims in his car before he died either in the shoot-out with police or from a self-inflicted wound. EPA/MICHAEL NELSON

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