I turned on the Intertubes today to catch up on stuff, and was disturbed indeed at the latest mass shooting story. They’re all awful. They’re all senseless. As I grow older and see more and more people coping with the death of loved ones, and as I acquire more experience of my own, each one chokes me up more and more.
This one, though, struck me to down my quick, as it occurred in the college student-dominated community of Isla Vista, next door to the University of California at Santa Barbara. Where I took my own undergraduate degree back when the first George Bush was President. One of the precise locations of the shootings across this generally happy college community was an apartment building across the street from a sorority house. I lived in that apartment building as an undergraduate at UCSB. (It’s been remodeled since then, but still.) And I’m hardly the only person at this blog with a personal connection to UCSB.
The shooter appears to have been a sexually frustrated man. A virgin at age 22, he left behind a video announcing his intent to seek violent and deadly retribution against women generally because his advances had been rejected, and against men for having more success then he had enjoyed. A transcript is available and it’s chilling enough; I’ll excerpt the part that stands out for me:
I’m 22 years old and I’m still a virgin. I’ve never even kissed a girl. I’ve been through college for two and a half years, more than that actually, and I’m still a virgin. It has been very torturous. College is the time when everyone experiences those things such as sex and fun and pleasure. Within those years, I’ve had to rot in loneliness. It’s not fair.
You girls have never been attracted to me. I don’t know why you girls aren’t attracted to me, but I will punish you all for it. It’s an injustice, a crime, because… I don’t know what you don’t see in me. I’m the perfect guy and yet you throw yourselves at these obnoxious men instead of me, the supreme gentleman.
(Boldface for emphasis added by me.)
Now, a part of me wants to say, “He couldn’t get laid at UC Santa Barbara? Hell, if I could find women willing to date me there, anyone could.” But of course, we all have dry runs from time to time and that is a frustrating experience. Another part of my thinks that whatever approach he was using, he likely wasn’t actually a “supreme gentleman.” When people who knew him are found and are interviewed, we’ll find out, I suspect, that he was perceived as kind of a strange dude.
He shot and killed at least nine people, college students like himself, the men for the “crime” of having had what he thought were more fulfilling social and sexual lives than him, and perhaps more chillingly, the women for the “crime” of not giving him sex that he seemed to think they somehow owed him.
I’m mindful that the shooter had a family, as did all of his victims. They will mourn the death of their son just as intensely as the families of his victims will mourn the loss of their daughters; it will be as senseless to them, and as they have lost their son they deserve compassion and not to have their son mocked notwithstanding his terrible crime, a crime that took the lives of at least nine innocent other people. Simultaneously, something was obviously gravely amiss with this young man.
His lack of success in the sexual marketplace was probably due in part to an attitude his rant attests to, one in which sexual gratification was something to which he was somehow entitled.
It’s easy for me now to say that getting sex in college is easy; college was more than half a lifetime ago for me. I’m in my forties now and I can say with the comfort of a man happily married for more than a decade that getting a woman to agree to sex is principally a matter of asking the right woman, and asking her nicely.
But to me-in-my-late-teens, attracting mates seemed a daunting challenge. This advice wouldn’t have made the least bit of sense to me. For a stretch of time back there, it seemed to me that uniformly, all the women I encountered were indeed amazingly selective and unwilling to consider me. During that time, I was frustrated and bitter and perhaps a step or two myself down a road that ended where this fellow wound up.
But for me, as seems to happen with most people, was a point when I asked myself if I wasn’t really the problem, and a platonic female friend said that if I wasn’t getting sex at UCSB of all places, clearly a big part of that problem was me. “Girls don’t like bitter guys,” she said, “Would you want a girlfriend who was uptight and bitter and angry at men all the time?” And that made sense.
Given that this conversation took place in the very apartment building where someone was killed by a guy for whom this lesson did not sink in makes that particular memory all the more poignant.
After having a splash of cold water thrown in my face by a friend, I found a way to change my own attitude and almost immediately began to enjoy success with women as a result. I stopped being focused on just how attractive a woman was and started looking for other kinds of attributes I liked, common interests and intelligence and wit and other sorts of emotional and personal qualities. Where post-pubescent uptight me would have said “you shouldn’t have to lower your standards!” me after taking that next step towards adulthood said “altering standards isn’t the same thing as lowering them.” Things worked out well for me; I found myself a nice girlfriend who even post-pubescent uptight me would have thought was attractive, and she and I had a very nice college romance.
There is probably not much different about my experience than happened for a lot of people at that phase of the maturation process. Perhaps for you it was more internal than mine, perhaps for you it took longer or was more painful, or perhaps you were fortunate enough to take that step towards adulthood relatively smoothly and painlessly. I suspect an experience about like my own is something fairly close to baseline for a large number of people.
So why couldn’t that have happened to the Isla Vista shooter? It’s what he said he was looking for; if he had found that with someone, would he have never been moved to go on his deadly rampage?* Surely he had friends and acquaintances who threw similar glasses of cold water in his face, who told him that he needed to look within himself and find the right attitude there before he could expect romantic or at least sexual success. What made him become a psychopath, as opposed to me (and lots of people like me) who got advice from a friend and found a way to act on it?
I suspect there were two factors at play for this kid that were not there for me, and I don’t like where these suspicions lead me to think about the future.
First, there’s a subculture of men out there who subscribe to “game theory,” the idea that women are attracted to men who treat them badly and eschew dating “nice guys.” In this world view, gender politics are an adversarial game with asymmetric advantages. Women are cunning manipulators of men, withholding or granting sex to gain advantage; and a man is an ‘alpha’ or a ‘beta’ depending on the degree to which he can bring ‘game,’ which is the ability of a man to psychologically manipulate a woman into submission to his seduction. The degree to which a man is sexually unsuccessful, these guys will tell you, is the degree to which he fails to assert himself and instead makes himself readily available (and thus uninteresting) to women. Men who play the ‘nice guy’ game are doomed to fail, or if they do attract a woman, have surely sold themselves short and subordinated themselves to rules dictated by these same women.
Women I know who have encountered men of this sort have invariably described them as “creepy” and “arrogant.” Take a read of “maxims” of one of the high priests of this particular cult and decide for yourself if they are right.
Now, I’m not going to convince anybody one way or the other; you either subscribe to “game theory” or you don’t. I’m not preaching that. I am preaching, though, that the women who report being creeped out by guys intentionally acting like assholes in order to get laid have probably sensed the seeds of what led this young man to go on his rampage within them.
What I’m saying is that the thought process that manifests in “game culture,” of “seduction theory,” dovetails into the evidenced attitude of being owed sex.
The second thing that I think is at play is that somehow, for some reason, we have a more narcissistic culture than we did a generation ago when I lived at the site of yesterday’s terrifying crime. Not that things weren’t narcissistic in the 1980’s! But it seems even more so. Something — and I think it’s the Internet — has germinated this seed, a seed that’s probably an unchanging and eternal part of human nature. We can all have our own blogs, we can all have our own twitter and facebook accounts, and slights and insults and disagreements seem to matter so very much on them!
A reason for that is precisely the reason that we enjoy them as much as we do — they are customized around each of us, individually, so that when we log on to all of our various electronic information services and social networks, everything literally does revolve around us. My tablet and my computer and my phone, at least one of which is always with me, all have a variety of information distribution applications, which filter out information from the whole world and give me just the stuff I care about, stuff that is about me, stuff that is about people I know. I am the center of my online universe, just as you are the center of yours.
Again, I have had the great good fortune to fall in with other online chums and agreeing to share space with them, here at this online magazine. It’s never been about just me here. And the things I’ve chosen to be interested in aren’t just about me; they’re about things like law and politics, culture and food and music and video games and books and puzzles and art and movies.
But if I were more narcissistic than I am (which might be a lot, might be a little), then an online environment in which it really was all about me would reinforce and build up that narcissism. Now, change that person from me, a guy who was a kid in the 1970’s and a teenager and a college student in the 1980’s who had to go to a physical library to look things up and read a dead-trees-and-ink newspaper for the first twenty years of his adult life to learn what was going on in the world, to a twenty-two-year-old who had never known a world other than one with a customized user-centered virtual world, streaming continuously to me electronic messages that subtly reinforced the fact that I was the center of the universe…
And change that person back to a very young man, sexually inexperienced, with hormones barely subsided after puberty, immersed in a culture awash in sexualized imagery, such that whatever messages broke through the me-centric bubble convey a message that sexual activity represents the achievement and pinnacle of masculine achievement.
Including online messages to the effect that the reason hot girls aren’t going for you is that you just aren’t being aggressive enough. That what you need to do is demonstrate more outward disdain for them. That they’re the ones in the moral wrong, because they’re assuming the mastery of a sexual game, mastery that is actually your birthright by virtue of having a penis instead of a vagina. So quit being such a pussy and go out and get some, go prove to yourself that you’re a man after all.
I can see how a college kid like that, a college kid maybe not so very different from myself at only a few years younger than that age, could so much more easily slip into a downward psychological spiral. It would, of course, be a hugely negative feedback loop: the more uptight about not getting laid the guy gets, the more important getting laid becomes, and of course being uptight about it is why he isn’t getting any in the first place, only he can’t see that because it’s so difficult to penetrate through the ego-protective bubble of all of the self-focused electronic information that seems so very very important…
With the results that the intensity of his frustration leaves at least ten families lose their promising young children; ten lives extinguished.
So this one strikes particularly close to home for me. Not just because it happened in my old stomping grounds. But because I can see the path that led the killer there. I can see how, while that place is a long way away from the insipidly common experience of late-teenage sexual frustration that was hardly a unique experience for me, someone might get there. Modern technology and modern culture aren’t to blame for this kid going all the way down that ugly road, no more than grease on a driveway is responsible for a car rolling out onto the street — someone had to put that car in neutral first; the grease just made it roll out that much faster. Maybe made it that much more difficult to catch and stop, or at least slow down.
Not a word of which is any consolation to any of the families that have been shattered. My condolences and sympathies to them all, which I’m sure are shared by our entire community here.
But maybe, if we’re not among the number of those immediately overcome with grief, we’ll each briefly put down our devices and spend some face-to-face time with people we love, people who might just give each of us the cold splash of water in our faces that inspire us to correct problems within ourselves, and keep the social dynamics upon which we all depend functioning properly.
* I’m prone to think not; relationships end, and sometimes badly, and that happens with great volatility particularly for the romantically inexperienced, and former lovers have long been the presumptive targets of many strings of violent behavior. A shooting rampage focused on an ex-girlfriend might be more readily understandable than this one, but would have been no less tragic and possibly just as deadly.
Burt Likko is the pseudonym of an attorney in Southern California. His interests include Constitutional law with a special interest in law relating to the concept of separation of church and state, cooking, good wine, and bad science fiction movies. Follow his sporadic Tweets at @burtlikko, and his Flipboard at Burt Likko.