The Elephant In the Santa Barbara Shooting

There have been many excellent articles written on the role of misogynist (and patriarchal) belief systems in the recent massacre. You can read some herehere, here, and here. However, a very important, central matter has been missing from every article I’ve read. Speculation centers around what made Elliot do it – mental illness is always implicated, some hypothetical events of his childhood are sometimes implicated, and the MRA and PUA community are implicated or absolved.

We are asking the wrong question and we’re asking it deliberately, to avoid the most frightening aspect of the situation: a relatable young man, with friendly and likeable social interactions and no known diagnosis of mental illness, chose to slaughter innocent people. That bears repeating: Elliot chose to do what he did. A human being made a conscious decision to kill other humans, but I’ve not seen this fact not mentioned anywhere, even in the most progressive of articles. Even the most progressive of writers appear to feel obligated to say that on top of his being misogynist, ‘of course he was also mentally ill’.

It appears taboo to speak of the frightening possibility that perhaps he was not mentally ill. We know he believed that the women of the world owed him something, and he was frustrated, upset and angry that he didn’t get it. He decided that the thing that would make him happiest would be to take revenge on his enemies. He also decided that the consequences of his actions would be worth that moment of revenge. We need to look square in the face the very real and tenable possibility that he made a calculated, rational choice according to the beliefs and feelings that he had. He didn’t need to be mentally ill. He just had to hold the beliefs that he had and the experiences that led to his feelings.

This reality is frightening because it forces us to confront the fact that Elliot is not that different from any one of us. That our own beliefs can, in fact, have real world, life or death consequences. And it raises that uncomfortable possibility that we ourselves might hold destructive, false beliefs unawares. That some of the decisions we may have made, and may make in the future, were and will be based on false beliefs, and may be very wrong, evil actions though we believe them to be right and justified.

As frightening as it is, it is in our best interest to face this reality head-on. Being consciously aware of the destructive potential of our own beliefs empowers us to choose not to do evil, rather than simply assume that we ourselves, and any actions arising from our current beliefs, cannot possibly be evil. And it tempers our adamance that substantial decisions arising from our beliefs be made unexamined.

I first faced this reality at the age of 18. I was raised in a far-right-wing fundamentalist cult. I had been raised to have absolute certainty in each precept of the set of beliefs I’d been taught, and to not allow myself to question them. That all changed when actions I took in strict adherence to my beliefs on how to show love to my closest friend ended up wounding (metaphorically) her deeply and causing her situation to deteriorate instead of improve. How could deep love, combined with faithful adherence to true beliefs, have such a destructive effect? Perhaps I had believed falsely. Perhaps some of my beliefs were not true. I couldn’t allow false beliefs to drive me to such destructive action ever again. I needed to find out what was really, actually true about myself, God, the world, and my place in it. I needed to suspend some categories of decisions, judgements, and actions until I knew more. I couldn’t afford to make such a mistake ever again. This path has led me to a more nuanced understanding of the world and my place in it.

The reality that beliefs can kill must inform our decisions as a culture and as a nation. Can we admit, as a nation, that we have been wrong? Can we open our minds to the possibility that some of our embedded cultural beliefs could be incorrect, even destructive?

The Santa Barbara shooting is not the first time misogyny has killed. Misogyny kills and injures daily in the form of domestic violence. It systematically disempowers women in the workplace. It deprives us of political representation. We need to face the fact that misogyny isn’t simply the whining of a few ugly women with bunched up panties. It’s a systemic, destructive force that pervades American culture and law.

The champions of patriarchy are coming out of the woodwork in the aftermath of the shooting. Patriarchy has been exposed for what it is. This revelation threatens to weaken the freedom of men to use lesser amounts of violence to control and oppress women in their daily lives. Every time an individual ridicules the idea of a rape culture, or ridicules the idea that American culture is patriarchal and misogynistic, they are choosing to defend a system they like. They are choosing to defend systematic misogyny – that is, to protect their freedom to use overt and covert force against and upon women.

To reflect on, evaluate, and modify our beliefs is not a weakness, but a strength. Let’s face, head-on, our own potential to hold incorrect and dangerous beliefs. If you don’t think misogyny exists or that America has a rape culture or that our nation is structured with inherent patriarchy, this is your opportunity to examine, research, and re-evaluate those beliefs. For the rest of us, let’s not think of ourselves as immune or as having ‘arrived’. An attitude of conscious questioning of the potential of our own beliefs empowers us to grow and lead. And, ironically, it also gives us a degree of compassion and understanding for perpetrators of violence. Their choices are not okay, their beliefs are not okay, but maybe, as Norway has proven, they can be helped via appropriate rehabilitation. If we, as a culture, recognize our own capacity for individual and societal evil, we will be rewarded with a safer world with less evil in it.

Note: do not defend kyriarchy in this comment thread. Any and all violating comments will be deleted.