Isla Vista killings

I grieve for the victims of the Isla Vista killings. I can only hope that, in time, they will find closure and healing.

I am also angry about the mainstream media narrative that this was yet another killing by a lone gunman with mental health issues. I want to make it clear that I am not downplaying the killer’s mental health problems — from what I’ve read, heard, he had them. At the same time, I feel like the media narrative of this shooting as an isolated incident misses out on the fact that it’s part of a larger pattern of violence perpetrated by men in this country.

There have been some awesome and informative posts on this subject, especially here and here. For a more detailed problem of violence among men, especially young men, see here (Paul Kivel). I am not going to repeat what they say — please follow the links instead! I would like to add my voice on the subject because of my graduate training in sociology and cognitive science; however, I recognize that my voice is privileged (as I myself am a young white male) and there are many different perspectives on this issue.

Now that you’re back (or opened those stories in three other tabs, or just ignored them), here is my take. The epidemic of violent shooting sprees in the US is just one symptom of a larger problem of a culture of violence in the US. We, American citizens, won’t be able to stop or minimize these horrible events without addressing the larger problem. However, a particularly pernicious side effect of the culture of violence is that it makes it difficult to see itself as the real culprit; a necessary first step to addressing the deep issue is recognizing that it exists in the first place.

I am not here talking about conspiracy theories; the NRA, while very powerful and interested in selling guns, is not the villain in this story. Rather, the villains – the participants – are all of us, insofar as we live inside the culture of violence in the first place. Killing, attacking, hurting — especially by privileged groups (like men) over marginalized groups (like women, people of color, trans people, disabled people, etc.) — are so enmeshed in our subconscious that we can’t easily fight it. Our brains recoil from the horror of Isla Vista, but some part of them, I would wager, has become desensitized to these events; it treats them with the same level of alarm as news of a distant storm or an earthquake. Terrible, to be sure, but inevitable.

In fact, weather is a particularly interesting example to use, because, I would argue, the way we react to these killings is the way we react to extreme weather in the context of climate change. Extreme weather events are similarly horrible and violent. They, like mass shootings, are symptoms of a larger problem – a drastically changing climate due to human activity. Furthermore, just as with mass shootings, it is *impossible* to draw a causal link from climate change to a particular hurricane or mudslide. Nevertheless, no matter how good we get at building levies or early warning systems, the extreme weather events will keep taking (ever more!) lives until we deal with the larger problem. Finally, just as with mass shootings, we are so enmeshed in the changing climate – it is literally everywhere, outside – that it’s very hard for us to accept that there’s something wrong with reality most of the time, and it manifests as these occasional catastrophes. It is much easier for our brains to theorize that the real world is fine as it is – after all, we’ve spent so much time adapting to live in it – but occasionally, terrible things happen.

I could go on and on giving examples. The global financial crisis as symptom of extreme income inequality. Terrorism as symptom of imperialism and colonialism. Etc. I am sure there are many esteemed academics who have been / are / will be writing treatises on this issue. I look forward to their research. In the scope of this blog, however, I don’t want to formulate a grand scientific theory. I want to share the concept with a wider audience and hope that it will help us all, slowly, to become aware of and critical of our violent culture. Changing it is the next step, and it will not happen overnight. Only through the concerted effort of all us citizens in a wide variety of causes might the systemic problem finally begin to recede. To stop gunman violence we will have to better educate our kids about privilege. We will have to have more restrictive, and more respectful, rules on gun legislation — rules that make sure gun owners understand they are wielding a deadly weapon and keep such weapons out of the hands of those with a history of violence, drug abuse, and other issues. We will, yes, have to have a better mental health policy and an approach focused on healing and acceptance rather than on exclusion and othering for mentally ill people — but that is only part of the solution. We will also have to promote non-violent, or less-violent art and mass media, so that our movies and our books and our video games are not *mostly* about killing, stealing, and rape, but also about friendship, cooperation, and understanding. The list goes on.

The Isla Vista killer was a sick young man, and, thankfully, most of us will not follow in his path. That does not mean, however, that his actions, his attitude towards women, are not a little reflected in every one of us, especially in the privileged among us. We would do well to remember that, and to try to make a better, less violent, world together.

Update: Shakesville has a great post on misogynist culture and geek guys’ reactions to the Isla Vista killings here. I very much recommend it!

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