The Isla Vista Shootings

I don’t usually write about political or social issues, but the shootings last Friday night won’t leave me alone. I think the worst part of it for me is that I am no longer surprised, shocked, or even outraged by such events; they have become something that happens, like thunderstorms or earthquakes. I have accepted this level of violence and hate in my supposedly civilized country as the norm. Because it sure as hell doesn’t seem like it’s going to change, does it?

My thoughts about the shooting are complicated and messy, so this is not going to be a very cohesive post. I think that’s okay. One of the things that happens after such events is a rush to explain, blame, and prevent, and that rush to restore order or make sense of the senseless gets in the way of experiencing how truly senseless it is. Isla Vista doesn’t make sense, and it shouldn’t. As soon as we start to make sense of it, we lose the horror.

When Fred Phelps died, I thought that for him to have so much hate, he must have been very full of fear, and I imagined how terrible it would be to live a life that afraid, that consumed by vulnerability. Something similar happened with the shooter here. (I am intentionally not using his name, so as to avoid feeding into the culture of celebrity that comes with such violence.) I should state clearly that in no way do I consider either of these men victims. They are accountable for their actions. But I think it is more accurate to characterize them as damaged or broken than as monsters.

A lot of the discussion of the Isla Vista shootings is focusing, as it should, on the shooter’s misogyny and the culture which fosters such misogyny. The thing I’m not seeing much (and I admit I’m kind of avoiding reading stuff) is that this is an example of how much patriarchal culture hurts men as well. Any culture that promotes the superiority of one kind of person over another does damage to the oppressor. By no means is it as much damage as is done to the oppressed – but oppression limits the human capacities for empathy, compassion, listening, and courage. People who oppress are always afraid of being toppled.

Men who say rape victims are at fault because “her dress was so provocative I couldn’t help myself” are men without the courage to face up to their own accountability, men without the courage to admit that their own weakness exists. In a less predatory culture, they would look for compassion instead of transforming shame to violence. In a less predatory culture, people would be there to give them compassion.

Being a successful male in our culture means having sexual prowess. Objectification of women occurs and continues because men feel defined by their virility, so they need ways to promote it. Other measures of success are wealth and power. We need to find ways of helping men feel that they are successful as people without needing to prove themselves by being “alpha males.” The shadow of entitlement is lack of self-worth.

Unfortunately, this message has been said for centuries and not been heard. I am not a Christian, but I do believe that a lot of the things Jesus said matter. “If you love only those who love you, what credit is that to you? . . . you must love your enemies and do good. . . . Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate.” (Luke 6:32, 35, 36.) “If, when you are bringing your gift to the altar you suddenly remember that your brother has a grievance against you, leave your gift where it is before the altar. First go and make peace with your brother, and only then come back and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24.) Compassion and peacemaking are as in short supply now as they were 2100 years ago. I think this is why I feel such futility.

The novel I am working on has a villain who is basically a high-functioning sociopath. He does not think in terms of right and wrong, good and evil; he thinks in terms of what serves his purposes. People, male and female both, are there for him to ignore most of the time and use or kill when they get in the way. He is capable of feeling neither guilt nor empathy.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last 16 months living in this guy’s head, because I don’t believe that 100% evil people exist (or make interesting villains). I try to see the world from his point of view. I see where he’s been hurt. I see where he is stunted as a person. He’s going to be defeated in the end not because the plot calls for it but because he has blinded himself so much to his own weaknesses that they will catch up to him. Because of this, I think I can imagine a little what was happening to the Isla Vista shooter. To the extent that he had inherent sociopathic tendencies, violence could not be prevented. But he apparently did not know how to feel compassion for other people or for himself. And at least some of that comes from living in a culture that rewards power over compassion.

Next time it won’t be misogyny that fuels the rage. It will be an unemployed MBA graduate mowing down customers in a bank. It will be a person who was turned away at an ER rampaging through a hospital. It will be in a church or a school or a mall or a theater or at a high school football game. The shooter will be young, male, white, and an outsider. The shooter may or may not have been identified by social services as mentally troubled. The shooter will blame others for his actions.

The cost of having a predatory culture is that innocent people die. If young white males see violence as the only way to resolve their loneliness, the culture is failing them too. But until predatory culture fails at the top, it will keep its clawhold.

I’m not going to say what we can do or must do or should do.

But what I wish we could do is practice mercy.


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