When Words Become Bullets: Elliot Rodger and the Patriarchal Id

Rodger’s actions have a chilling rationality to them in the terms of our gendered society, which makes objects and possessions of women, and rapacious, status-conscious animals of men. Whatever else Rodger’s crimes are, they are not unintelligible; they merely wrote in blood what too many of us hear, see, and say every day.

Elliot Rodger lacigreen / YouTube

In the wake of the mass shooting in Isla Vista this past weekend, which claimed the lives of seven and injured 13, a flood of feminist commentary has issued forth, offering a strong corrective to the business-as-usual cycles of editorializing that usually follow such atrocities. The usual handwringing about whether “guns kill people” and the “state of mental health care in this country” has been shocked by the forceful reminder by many—women and men alike—who refuse to downplay the role of misogyny in the killing and who have drawn attention to the profound hatred of women that caused the 22-year-old Elliot Rodger to feel that women’s rejection of his sexual advances was casus belli for slaughter.

Why did this shooting stir up such a critical mass of comment? It might have something to do with the way this case sits at a terrifyingly violent intersection of sexism, racism, ableism, and a universe of online commentary that stalks far too many women, cis and trans, queer and straight, and of all races. It was a case of cybersexism made real—along with cyberracism, if one wants to be accurate about it. It is a patriarchal id, online, that voices all the often hidden subtext of gender and race relations.

The hashtag #YesAllWomen has sprung up in response to the plaintive wailing of those who claim that Rodger is neither representative of all men, nor that he is anything but a “mentally ill,” “deranged” “madman” who is solely responsible for his actions, by elaborating on the daily realities of womanhood in this society.

But with all mass killings, “insanity” becomes the go-to ableist fairy tale that our society uses to brush its pathologies beneath the rug of ceremonial angst. We say that the killers were clearly crazed, and that only the “mentally ill” could commit such crimes—the revelation that Rodger may have been on the autism spectrum has been seized upon greedily by a media hungry for exoneration and collective catharsis. Never mind the slander this perpetrates on the millions of people who are somewhere on that spectrum.

If he’s “crazy,” it’s nobody else’s fault; furthermore, this ignores how Rodger and many other mass killers were raised in a society that exalts violence as the epitome of masculine expression.

Such acts only enter a person’s universe of possibility at all because of the culture in which they stew. They do not spring suddenly from fevered dreams and alien logics. As abhorred as many of us are, Rodger’s actions have a chilling rationality to them in the terms of our gendered society, which makes objects and possessions of women, and rapacious, status-conscious animals of men. Whatever else Rodger’s crimes are, they are not unintelligible; they merely wrote in blood what too many of us hear, see, and say every day.

This is why this crime horrifies us to the extent it has, why it prompted a mighty surge of comment, particularly from feminists—men and women alike. We looked at the news and found ourselves peering vertiginously into a black hole of intersectional ruin. We looked at Rodger’s actions and saw a thousand tweets and online comments take life and murder men and women for all the reasons that flood YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and news website comment sections on the daily. We saw the terrifying apotheosis of online racism, sexism, and raw hate, as it assumed a profoundly physical reality that was woefully impossible to meet with the whimper of “but it’s just words.”

We saw the patriarchal id assume a shape and actually kill.

We saw words become bullets.

It isn’t that Rodger’s murders were especially unique. Mass shootings have been committed before, often as a form of masculine protest—a terrifying symptom of what sociologists Rachel Kalish and Michael Kimmel call “aggrieved entitlement”—some have had explicitly racist dimensions, as we saw in Wisconsin with a neo-Nazi (who was fond of online rants) targeting Sikhs, or in Kansas when one man (also a frequent forum ranter) killed three people at Jewish centers. Other killers wore their sexism on their sleeves, like Anders Bering Breivik’s murder of 77 people—mostly teenagers—because he saw himself as an anti-feminist, anti-Islam, anti-immigrant crusader who would save Norway by slaughtering some of its brightest and most civic-minded youth.

This is not new.

But Rodger’s atrocity shook us from a torpor because of how unambiguous he was—a Southern Poverty Law Center research team was not necessary to draw the link between his online rants, so thoroughly indistinguishable from that of many other anonymous, faceless men, and the mass murder he ultimately perpetrated. It also frightens us because it drew a panoply of prejudices together.

Much ink has been spilled, thankfully, on the misogyny of all this, but less attention has been paid to the role of Rodger’s racism in his crimes. One cannot make sense of the misogyny without the racism, and vice versa. His self-loathing as a biracial child in a white supremacist society, and the way he externalised that hatred onto men of color who he viewed as “inferior” and “lesser,” whose existence doubly affronted him when they dated the white women he so longed for, are all important elements to note here.

As writer Jeff Yang notes at Quartz:

Rodger’s murderous rage was rooted in an obsessive self-hatred, born from his belief that he was entitled to, and thwarted from obtaining, a trifecta of privileges: Race, class, and gender. He saw himself as not quite white enough. Not quite rich enough. Not quite “masculine” enough.

This is, whether we as feminists own up to it or not, part of why this case has so frightened us: To look into it is to see an abyss where racism and sexism are a double helix binding us all together, painfully. It is everything all at once; it tells us why four young men of color died along with two white women.

Ask yourself honestly what Rodger meant when he lamented that he could not be a “normal, fully-white person”—then hear the anguish of countless people of color who learn to loathe the hue of our own skin, our eyes, our hair, and how biracial people of color are often made to feel rootless or exoticized.

These notes provide, at best, fitful outlines of what we may call “the patriarchal id,” but Rodger’s crimes have, in much the same way earthworms surface after a rainstorm, revealed so many people willing to fill in that sketch for us.

The never-ending rivers of chatter comprising the Internet’s infinite tributaries are polluted with the most vile kinds of racism, misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, xenophobia, and on and on and on, leading ever onward like the River Styx into Hades’ depths. Rodger’s killings have drawn that commentary into sharp relief.

Four comments left on the YouTube video of Rodger’s now infamous rant-cum-manifesto, filmed in his BMW:

“Well girls, keep that in mind next time you friendzone somebody!”

“See girls, this is what you get for treating nice guys like shit.”

“I hope you women see this as a lesson stop being so stuck up an give that one kid some pussy who never gets shit and you might save a life…”

“I don’t blame guns, I blame blondes for this one.”

It should not surprise us that the website Strategic Dating Coach also commented on Rodger’s video. With an ad. “Don’t let this happen to you,” it seemed to say.

These comments grant utterance to the cultural subtext that has been etched into every successive generation of women: We must either fuck men or incur their wrath. If we do not sleep with a man, he may kill us. Or he may kill our friends. Or his friends. Or people we don’t know.

Such comments, and thousands of others like them, are the cultural swamp out of which a mass killer like Rodger will arise. They can take a lonely and troubled young man and give him an ideology that justifies mass murder as an antidote to his maladies.

But then there are those with somewhat less sympathy for the killings. You’ve all seen them, I’m sure. Men and women alike posting something to the effect of “well no wonder he couldn’t get a girlfriend!” Comments abound about his appearance, or about the fact that, in truth, his heinous killing proves he’s a “beta male” or even “omega male,” not the macho pack leader he envisioned himself as. Each, in different ways, turns the implements of Rodger’s own misogyny back on his ghost, using the same tired sexist logic he employed so that they might revenge themselves on his corpse in a Huffington Post comment.

What links them is that such comments do not challenge the economy of women’s bodies that underscored this crime. They do not challenge the very notion that a man’s worth is judged by the number of women on his arm, or that women are obligated to “hook up” with “good guys.” Instead, they seem to say, “It’s OK ladies, he’s clearly terrible. But you’d better sleep with an actual nice guy. Just sayin’.”

The comments on a different reposting of Rodger’s video make for equally sobering reading:

“Full blown autism.”

“LOL what a faggot.”

“it seems that this is likely a psyop to gain more ground for gun confiscation. I don’t believe this for a second. they should have involved race so it could distract more….HA.”

“don’t know if any of you femicunts are aware of this but 5 out of the 7 victims who died from this incident were men and two were women. So I am not sure how this correlates to the mens rights movement to be blamed for this.”

Each, in its way, tries to discipline this tragedy into a comforting cultural legibility, making sense of what happened in a way that does not disrupt existing beliefs. Each comment sloughs off some bit of collective responsibility, each tries to push Rodger into the realm of the alien and monstrous. The latticework of ableism-fired denial and macho defensiveness is terrifyingly impressive.

This is merely a brief sampling of the different genres of commentary occasioned by this shooting. But the ordinary world of women and people of color online is just as toxic. Elliot Rodger is frightening because so much of what he said looks suspiciously like things that are said to us or about us on a regular basis by many more people, mostly men, than can be reasonably counted.

This is why these crimes are acts of terrorism.

They are the supposedly “one in a million” events that keep us all fearful of which Twitter user or Facebook commenter or hate-mail-sender will be “the one” who makes good on their vile threats—if not to us, then to someone else. Rodger is the empirical reminder that this is possible.

Whether it’s feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian being called an “ovendodger” for critically commenting on video games; fantasy writer N.K. Jemisin being called a “half-savage” by a white male sci-fi writer who resented her challenge to racism and sexism in genre fiction, and whose defenders proceeded to send Jemisin racist/sexist threats; writer and feminist activist Laurie Penny, who receives heaps of rape threats as part of the occupational hazard of being a woman who holds her opinions publicly; or someone like myself who has had to deal with stalkers, transmisogynists, and hate mail from people using similar kinds of language.

Getting my first rape threat was a terrifying rite of passage I shared with almost every other woman I know.

But a crime like Rodger’s, or George Sodini’s or Marc Lepine’s, remind us that sometimes a man means it when he says he wants to kill us. Or, we see too often nowadays, that men mean it when they say they want us to kill ourselves. The river of the patriarchal id overflows its boundaries regularly.

That Stygian flood gets into all of our lives eventually, desensitizing us, robbing the world of its color and life, deadening us. For too many of us, it feels like only a matter of time before it consumes us whole, another sacrifice to an eternally vengeful socio-structural god.