By Rebecca Hewer (Editor)
It is always shocking when an individual maliciously intends to, and succeeds in, ending the life of another: if nothing else it reminds us of our own frightening fragility. But there is something particularly disturbing about the kind of wanton spree killings witnessed in California on Friday 23rd May 2014. Elliot Rodgers, a 22 year old man and son of a Hollywood director, murdered six people (two women and four men) and wounded another eight before turning his gun on himself (1). Prior to doing so Rodgers had made several YouTube videos detailing his intentions and expressing a deep seated and passionate resentment for women. He was, by all accounts, obsessively fixated on his virginity and incensed by his inability to find a woman willing to engage in sexual intercourse with him: “I don't know why you girls aren't attracted to me”, he spat, “but I will punish you all for it.” (2) Whilst Rodgers seemed to kill indiscriminately, turning his aggression against any individual unfortunate enough to cross his path, he nonetheless seemed focused on punishing the objects of his desire – women. Whilst the uncontrollably brutal, and unpredictable nature of Rodger’s actions are inarguably shocking, the rampant and explicit misogynistic notions underpinning his motivation introduces a deeply disquieting dimension to this event. This, in turn, leads us to desire explanation: to better understand the things which drove him to do as he did, to identify causes, to contextualise the episodic and momentary, in the permanent and systematic. There are plethora of academic theories available regarding violence – theories which attempt to explain why certain individuals engage in acts designed to hurt others and what they hope to achieve by doing so (3). In what follows, I will consider but a handful.
Within popular discourse psychological explanations for violence appear to be given the most attention – much has been said of Rodger’s state of mind, his mental illness, and his Asperger’s (1), though it remains unclear how these factors play into his behaviour (just because someone suffers from an illness, does not necessarily mean said illness is a causative factor in their behaviour). Such theories focus on the individual – on mental wellbeing, physiological make-up, childhood trauma. Much credence is certainly given to the notion that murderers are mentally ill: over a third of the British public believe people with mental health difficulties are likely to commit acts of violence (4). In actuality such individuals are more likely to be victims of violent crime than perpetrators of it, and most unlawful killings are committed by those without any known mental health diagnosis (4). Individual level explanations which are more credible include the effects of substance abuse on behaviour and the consequences of witnessing familial physical/sexual violence during childhood (5).
Perhaps psychological explanations are popularly accepted because they allow us to imagine that violence is exhibited by deviants alone, that we can recognise the atomized aggressive and guard against their impulses, that the murderous do not live among us but rather exist on the periphery. As comforting as such a concept might be, it is not always necessarily sustainable, particularly when it comes to violence perpetrated by men possessing misogynistic belief systems. Research has shown that men who kill their intimate female partners exhibit very few of the socio-demographic characteristics we would associate with violent offending (e.g. a criminal history, social exclusion) and appear rather to be upstanding members of mainstream society. Such men reportedly hail from a diverse range of backgrounds and are similar only insofar as they express derogatory misogynistic ideas about women (6). Perhaps, alternatively, psychological explanations are currently favoured because they fit in with contemporary political trends which argue that the individual is always and forever solely responsible for their state of being. Such discourses are currently used to support the idea that if we are poor it is because we are lazy, if we struggle it is because we are incompetent and if we fail it is because we are failures (7). This type of political narrative allows the social elite and the dominant to scapegoat the vulnerable, and defer responsibility for their role in creating and sustaining an oppressive and deleterious social structure. Of course, the individual aggressor should always be deemed responsible for his or her behaviour: if he had survived, Elliot Rodger’s should have been punished appropriately for what he chose to do, if it was deemed that he had capacity when he did it. But our retributive desires should not prevent us from interrogating the kind of external and social factors which may have influenced and motivated him to kill – the kind of factors some might be politically inclined to ignore.
Richard Martinez, father to Christopher, killed in Friday’s killings, was adamant when he proclaimed that irresponsible politicians and the National Rifle Association were in part responsible for his son’s death, in that they had failed to take any meaningful action in regards to gun control (8). Certainly this is one potentially valid explanation and, at the very least, Rodger’s plans would have been heavily stymied if his weapon of choice had been made less available. As readers will no doubt be aware, arguments regarding gun control are sophisticated and contentious – I will not therefore engage with them but rather focus on other, more diffuse, theories which seek to explain the phenomenon of violence. There are many. Rational choice theorists posit that people will use violence when the benefits outweigh the gain (3). Marxist theorists argue that the unequal distribution of property (e.g. money) creates an environment in which individuals become violent because they have few other resources available to achieve their ends – such as educational qualifications, symbolic power, and material possessions (9). Other academics have suggested that sub-cultures within society create environments which venerate and reward violence, thus encouraging individual members to indulge in aggressive behaviour (3). All of these theories likely have some merit, but it is unlikely that they are applicable here. If nothing else, they fail to provide any elucidation regarding what appeared to be Rodger’s primary motivation – a hatred of women. Whilst Rodger’s killed individuals of both genders, whilst he took the lives of both men and women, and whilst his hostility clearly extended to a diverse range of individuals beyond those who had purportedly rejected him sexually, we cannot disregard the content of his verbal threats and the motivation he offered for his behaviour. We should, therefore, turn our attention to theories which consider the role of ‘gender’ in the perpetration of violence.
Feminist theories, for instance, put gender at the forefront of their explanations of violence (10). Such theorists would argue that violence perpetrated by men against women is frequently the consequence of a society infused by rampant gender inequality. They would argue, for instance, that different gender roles and expectations are imposed on individuals dependent on their sex, and that said individuals internalise these expectations and behave accordingly (11). So whilst men might feel pressure to be dominant or physically powerful, women might feel they should be submissive or egalitarian. And whilst men might feel compelled to use available resources to maintain power and control, women might be more inclined towards adopting a caring and nurturing role. What juxtaposes this theory with the psychological or rational choice theories discussed above is that whilst gender differences are thought to be observable on an individualised basis, they are not deemed to originate in the individual nor are individuals thought to make a self-conscious choice to embody their socially prescribed role. And of course, the extent to which a person, picked at random, conforms to standard gender roles will differ dramatically. Such a theory appears sustainable when one looks at crime statistics. For instance, in the UK: 80% of violent crimes are committed by men (12), 95% of sexual violence victims state that their abuser was male (13) and men represent 81,266 of the 85,158 prisoners in our jails (14). The important thing to note about feminist theory is that these kinds of gender disparities are not thought to be enshrined inherently, biologically, or immutably – men are not thought of as being inevitably violent, but rather social structures are blamed.
In regards to violence against women, feminist theorists would argue that gender roles not only dictate how we relate to society as a whole, but how we behave in our relationships. Thus, our encounters are thought to be, to some extent, scripted like a play, our gender dictating the roles we are asked to take: dominator or dominated, submissive or powerful. Violence, in this context, is viewed as either an expression of dominance or as a way of protecting the distribution of power-roles (3). Research supports this proposition, suggesting that violence against women often occurs when individual females possess material or social capital which exceeds that of their male partners (15) – violence, in this context, is used to express anger at the inversion of gender roles and re-stabilise gendered power relations. Thus violence against women is understood to be both a consequence and cause of gender inequality. Of course sexuality often plays a role in the encounters heterosexual men have with women, and such relationships are by no means deemed immune from systems of oppression. In actuality, some would argue that sexuality is one of the primary areas in which women are subject to experiences of inequality and violence (16). Arguably, this kind of inequality is expressed and supported by cultural messages which, when articulated and reiterated, support and encourage certain kinds of undesirable behaviour. Examples abound – for instance, the frequently espoused idea that young girls should dress modestly in schools to ensure young men are not distracted by their arousal, supports the notion that females are the gatekeepers to male sexuality and that men are not fully accountable for what they do if ‘provoked’ (17). Similarly, rape myths which blame women for drinking too much or behaving in a sexually suggestive manner remove responsibility from men and suggest that they are not to blame if they engage in sexual violence (18). Furthermore cultural phenomena such as pornography and prostitution create a world within which women are constructed as commodifiable sexual objects, unendingly accessible and perpetually consensual. And the list goes on. Before I move on to discuss how such a theory might elucidate Rodger’s behaviour, I have been prevailed upon to provide a caveat. So let me be entirely clear: no feminist is suggesting that all men are violent, just like no Marxist is suggesting all poor people are violent and no psychologist is suggesting everyone who drinks alcohol is violent – that’s not how theories like this work. All that feminist theorists are suggesting is that gender is one important factor to consider when looking at certain types of crime and that structural factors of inequality might provide guidance as to why this is the case.
In truth, we will probably never know exactly why Rodger did as he did. We will likely never be able to untangle the mess of causal factors which, when combined, create a murderer of his ilk. One could convincingly theorise that an amalgam of individual pathology, social indoctrination, and easy access to deadly weapons were all partially to blame. Saying this, the potential role gender inequality may have played should not be left unexplored. The hatred Rodger felt for my gender was palpable and made all too clear by his deeply misogynistic espousals. He claimed that he would kill “every single spoiled, stuck-up, blond slut” he saw, and that he would "take great pleasure in slaughtering” women. At one telling juncture he proclaimed: “If I can't have you girls, I will destroy you.” This language evidences hostility, possessiveness, sexualisation and a deep sense of entitlement. Later, Rodgers went on to claim that he was “the superior one, the true alpha male” (2), which – it could be argued - evidences his acceptance of the belief that society is meaningfully organised around gender roles: one in which men are powerful, dominant and do as they please. Where did these beliefs come from? It would seem unlikely that Rodger was a man so disengaged from society that he was not somehow influenced by its insidious, pervasive sexism, by exposure to an unending stream of visual and verbal messages claiming women should be entirely available and men always entitled, by socially prescribed ideas of masculinity claiming he should be allow to control women, exert power over them, and enforce his desire if he felt it necessary to do so. And even if he were ‘disturbed’, this does not exonerate sexist structures and messages which may well have informed, exacerbated and shaped his disordered mind. So whilst we should not desist from blaming the individual or holding murderers to account, perhaps in our quest to understand and ameliorate we should turn our attention to the world which contextualises the violent, the messages which inculcate them and the systems of subjugation under which they operate – all societal and structural factors supported and sustained by the dominant and the powerful. And why? Because that’s something we can change.
(1) Pengelly, Martin. 2014. “California Killings: UK-born Elliot Rodger Blamed for Deaths.” The Guardian, May 24. Retrieved May 28, 2014 (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/may/25/elliot-rodger-suspect-california-mass-murder-shooting-stabbing)
(2) Anon. n.d. “Transcript of the Disturbing Video ‘Elliot Rodger’s Retribution’.” latimes.com. Retrieved May 28, 2014 (http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-transcript-ucsb-shootings-video-20140524-story.html).
(3) Cavanaugh, Mary M. 2012. “Theories of Violence: Social Science Perspectives.” Journal of Human Behaviour in the Social Environment 22(5):607–18.
(4) Anon. n.d. “Violence & Mental Health.” Time To Change. Retrieved May 28, 2014 (http://www.time-to-change.org.uk/news-media/media-advisory-service/help-journalists/violence-mental-health-problems).
(5) Heise, Lori L. 1998. “Violence Against Women An Integrated, Ecological Framework.” Violence Against Women 4(3):262–90
(6) Dobash, R. Emerson, and Russell P. Dobash. 2011. “What Were They Thinking? Men Who Murder an Intimate Partner.” Violence Against Women 17(1):111–34. Retrieved May 28, 2014 (http://vaw.sagepub.com/content/17/1/111)
(7) Baker, Joanne. 2008. “The Ideology of Choice. Overstating Progress and Hiding Injustice in the Lives of Young Women: Findings from a Study in North Queensland, Australia.”Women’s Studies International Forum31(1):53–64. Retrieved August 9, 2013 (http://yadda.icm.edu.pl/yadda/element/bwmeta1.element.elsevier-572f9d86-0e21-33a3-9f98-b79a82d95854).
(8) Anon. 2014. “Stop This Madness!”: UCSB Victim’s Father Rails Against NRA. Retrieved May 28, 2014 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=can0-t86wfo&feature=youtube_gdata_player)
(9) Mooney, Jayne. 2000. Gender, Violence and the Social Order. Palgrave Macmillan.
(10) Rodríguez-Menés, Jorge, and Ana Safranoff. 2012. “Violence Against Women in Intimate Relations: A Contrast of Five Theories.”European Journal of Criminology 9(6):584–602. Retrieved January 27, 2014 (http://euc.sagepub.com/content/9/6/584)
(11) Reingardien, Jolanta. 2004. “Understanding Gender Based Violence Against Women: Toward a Conceptual Framework.”Social Sciences (1392-0758) 45(3):7–17. Retrieved January 27, 2014 (http://ezproxy.lib.ed.ac.uk/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=sih&AN=16434333&site=eds-live).
(14) Anon. n.d. “Prison Population Figures: 2014 - Publications - GOV.UK.” Retrieved May 28, 2014 (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/prison-population-figures-2014).
(15) Atkinson, Maxine P., Theodore N. Greenstein, and Molly Monahan Lang. 2005. “For Women, Breadwinning Can Be Dangerous: Gendered Resource Theory and Wife Abuse.” Journal of Marriage and Family 67(5):1137–48
(16) MacKinnon, Catherine A. 1989. “Sexuality, Pornography, and Method:" Pleasure Under Patriarchy.” Ethics99(2):314–46
(17) Valenti, Jessica. 2014. “Enforcing School Dress Codes Teaches Girls to Be Ashamed, Not ‘Modest’.” The Guardian, May 21. Retrieved May 28, 2014 (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/may/21/school-dress-codes-girls-shame-modesty).
(18) Anon. n.d. “Rape Crisis - England and Wales.” Rape Crisis - England and Wales. Retrieved May 28, 2014 (http://www.rapecrisis.org.uk)