Sexism Did Not Turn Elliot Rodger into a Mass Murderer

by Benjamin Studebaker

Elliot Rodger, yet another mass shooter, left behind a manifesto in which he claimed he was taking revenge on womankind for its collective lack of sexual interest in him (though 5 of the 7 people he killed were, illogically, men). In recent weeks, the sad tale of Elliot Rodger has become a standard under which hashtag activists have rallied, venting their collective displeasure with the role of women in western society under the banner #YesAllWomen. They claim that our society is culturally hostile to women and that its values led to Rodger’s shooting spree. I’m not convinced by this argument. Here’s why.

 This is Elliot Rodger:

Elliot Rodger, like me (and Shailene Woodley), was 22 years old when this terrible tragedy happened. Like 15% of American males in their lower 20’s, Elliot Rodger had never had sex. Unlike almost all of those 20-somethings, however,  Elliot Rodger responded to his sexless life with murder. Why? It helps to observe an important conceptual distinction:

  1. Sexism–having expectations (be they positive, neutral, negative, or some combination thereof) that the people we meet will observe gender norms, that they will act “male” or “female”, whatever behaviors we associate with those terms.
  2. Misogyny/Misandry–hatred of women or men, respectively.

All misogynists are sexists, but not all sexists are misogynists. Elliot Rodger was a sexist, but much more importantly, he was also a misogynist. Almost everyone in our society is sexist to some degree, and it has been the task of feminist scholarship to fight sexism by exposing it to scrutiny. By slowly but surely making ourselves less sexist, feminists hope to make individual men and women less subject to gender norms and expectations that they act “like a man” or “like a woman”. While feminism is anti-misogynist (and anti-misandrist), you don’t have to be a feminist to oppose irrational hatred of one of the sexes. Ayatollah Khamenei, who is a first-order sexist, joined in on #YesAllWomen to oppose misogyny:

Khamenei believes that strong observance of gender roles, in which women are modest and men observe familial responsibility, is the most effective way to protect women from unwanted sexual advances from men. This is a terribly sexist position, because it forces men and women to observe gender roles and reduces their ability to choose independent lives for themselves undetermined by their sex, but it is not misogynist, because its explicit goal is not the subjugation or persecution of women, but their protection. The mistaken premise of Khamenei’s position is that protecting men and women from unwanted sexual advances is only possible if men and women observe strict gender norms prescribed by a very traditionalist strain of Islam. He’s wrong and he’s sexist, but he’s not a misogynist. Misogynists knowingly and deliberately abuse women because they hate them. Almost everyone is a bit sexist, but only a small number of people are truly misogynist. Most of the men in the United States who are in their lower 20’s yet have never had sex are not misogynists, though they are likely all a bit more sexist than they should be.

The conflation of these two concepts causes hashtag activists to treat Elliot Rodger like a symptom of a “rape culture”. Most American males will never commit rape, have no desire to commit rape, and abhor rapists. A 2002 study shows that 6.4% of the men on college campuses commit all of the rapes. The average rapist commits 4 rapes. We are dealing with a small subculture of violent misogynists, not a mass rape culture that subsumes all men.

These misogynists have far more in common with those who commit other violent crimes due to hatred of some race, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation than they do with everyday sexists. In recent years, we’ve been seeing a lot of mass shootings in America, a lot of explicit, violent expressions of hatred for society or for some particular group within society. We know that a big part of this story is the proliferation of guns in this country–I ran the figures on that shortly after the Newton, CT shooting:

But while countries like Britain and France don’t see this hatred express itself via gun violence like it does in the United States, hate has been rearing its head more publicly over there too–in the recent European Parliament elections, xenophobic parties hostile to Muslim and Eastern European immigrants prevailed in both of those countries (UKIP in Britain, National Front in France). And meanwhile, in other parts of the world, explicit state hostility to homosexuality has reared its head in places like Russia and Uganda. In the Middle East, Sunni and Shia fight one another in places like Syria and Iraq. The response of those of us who oppose all these kinds of hatred has been to focus on sexism, racism, ethnocentrism, the various “isms” the hatred goes by, but in so doing we’re missing something.

There’s no rational, logical reason to hate women, or black people, or Muslims, or Eastern Europeans, or gays, or whoever happens to be the flavor of the month at the hate carnival. The people who hate these groups cannot be persuaded not to hate them by a rational argument because their hatred was not learned rationally. It was nourished and developed in response to social alienation, mental illness, and a sense of hopelessness.

Thinking back to the Holocaust and the World Wars, we often ask ourselves why so many of our grandparents and great-grandparents hated each other so much. We often claim that they lived in a different time, that if they had just been able to hear the arguments we make today against hate, they would have seen that they were in error. But there were plenty of people who argued against militant nationalism, racism, anti-Semitism, all the hateful isms that scarred the early and mid 20th centuries. People didn’t listen. People hated because they lived in frightening times, times in which jobs were often scarce, growth rates were often low, and hope was in short supply. They scapegoated the “other”, the people who were different, and their leaders aided and abetted them in this because it let them off the hook.  If you’re a German in the 30’s and you ask, “Why don’t I have job? Why am I no better off than I was 5 years ago?” Hitler had a litany of answers for you. It was the Jews, the British, the French, the Russians, the racially impure, the gays, the Roma, the Catholics, whoever was convenient. It was never your fault. It was never the government’s fault. If you just voted for Hitler, and he promised he’d make all those people go away, and Germany would rise again.

We think we’ve learned from the 20th century, that we’re fundamentally better people, but when faced with a global economic crisis, the threat of global warming, and the uncertainty and fear that these things have brought to all of us over the last several years, many of us show ourselves to be no better than our grandparents and great-grandparents. And under democracy, the political parties are happy to attach themselves to hate to win our votes rather than undertake the destabilizing and potentially highly unpopular policies that might generate growth and stave off the climate threat. Voters are happy to deny that the economic and political systems have real problems, happy to believe it’s all the fault of some group or other, and parties are happy to win elections with their help.

Elliot Rodger killed people because he was alienated and mentally ill, and he was alienated and mentally ill because of our society’s failure to create the kind of society in which all people have opportunity and hope for better lives for themselves and for their children. He just happened to hate women, but he could have hated Jews or Muslims or blacks or gays or anybody. It doesn’t really matter who he hated, what matters is why–because in the wake of the 2008 crisis, our society, our political system, our economy, even our environment is broken, and we are collectively unwilling to confront these facts and deal with them.