Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Trying to Make Sense

The eruption of violence in Isla Vista continues to haunt.

Such senseless events always sicken us, but it hits a little harder when it happens in a place that you know well. I was an undergraduate at UC Santa Barbara, and for a few years Isla Vista was my home. I lived a few short blocks from where the killings happened and frequently passed by the various locations involved. All these years later I could still see them vividly as I heard the news a week ago last Friday.

One is horrified by the senseless violence and the unfairness of it all, and our hearts go out to the victims, their families and their friends. It defies our comprehension.

As a densely populated student community next to a Southern California beach, IV normally begs to be described with words like fun, carefree and party central. Part of the charm was a strong element of unabashed leftist politics. A few years before my arrival, the Bank of America branch had been burned down. I witnessed a mass party in the streets in honor of Vietnamese victory over the United States, and I recall locals taking pride in the (unfounded) rumors that Patty Hearst was being held captive by the Symbionese Liberation Army in the basement of a place called Das Institut.

Sadly, mass shootings happen often enough that there is a bitterly familiar set of rituals to be expected in the aftermath. In their sorrow and anger, survivors, commentators and individuals cry out for ways to avoid a recurrence. Usually, the loudest of these are calls for new gun control measures, and certainly the anguished cries of one victim’s father couldn’t help but move everyone who heard them. But I have heard surprisingly little media discussion about gun control in the weeks since—certainly much less than what followed the Sandy Hook school shootings. This may be a recognition that, at least for now, the gun control issue is settled in America. If it couldn’t get anywhere in Congress after Sandy Hook, then it’s not going to happen unless and until the country changes. As much as any of us would love to be able to pass a law and stop it from happening again, the inescapable fact is that California already has some of the strictest gun laws in the country. Gun control will only be effective if the government were actually to confiscate all the guns in private hands, as Australia did, and any political party that proposes that in the United States would be committing political suicide.

There has been some discussion about mental illness, but not nearly as much as there should be. This is probably because it is such a hard topic to get one’s head around. In the Isla Vista case, it is hard to fault the killer’s family (he was after all a legal adult and they were on their way to intervene at the time of the shooting) or the sheriff’s department (they reacted extremely quickly and effectively). Ultimately, we get to the conundrum of asking, when is an individual mentally ill and when is he simply evil?

One line of discussion that has persisted since the shootings and which has intrigued me is the one on misogyny. I had been aware of instances of women encountering abusive backlash in certain online forums, for example those having to do with gaming. But it was a revelation to hear of online forums styled as “men’s rights” engaging in extremely hateful discourse. Apparently the Isla Vista killer frequented such groups.

Working to get people with dodgy attitudes and wrong thinking to see the harm in their beliefs can be something positive that can be done to help avoid future violence. Having said that, it’s not clear to me that the IV killings grew out of actual hatred as opposed to mental derangement pure and simple.

My other question about the misogyny discussion is: how it will lead to some sort of solution or improvement? Personally, I am mainly aware of it because I heard an interview on National Public Radio with Laurie Penny, who wrote an article about it in The New Statesman. These are outlets where practically every reader or listener will already agree with her. What struck me about the NPR interview was these comments from Penny: “One of the most horrifying [reactions] has been the pushback that ‘not all men do this,’ ‘not all men think like this.’ Well, of course, not all men are killers, not all men are violent misogynists. But the idea that before we speak about misogynistic extremism we should take men’s feelings into account and make sure no man listening to that conversation feels threatened or has his ego bruised, that’s really, really dangerous.”

I’m sorry, but how exactly is that dangerous? If the discussion were about violence perpetrated in the name of Islam and someone pointed out that not all Moslems are terrorists, can you imagine someone else calling that dangerous? Or if, in a discussion of inner city crime, someone pointed out that not all African-Americans are criminals and was told that we shouldn’t be worried about bruising that group’s feelings? As I read the readers’ comments on the NPR web page with the Penny interview, I was amazed by how many commenters echoed that they felt angry when people pointed out that not all men are abusers of women because it wasn’t “helpful.”

Frankly, I was hard pressed to find anything in Penny’s interview that seemed to me to be helpful. Perhaps, if she listened to Bob Garfield’s interview with Forbes staff writer Kashmir Hill on On The Media, she might have taken some comfort in Hill’s finding that, on some of the forums where the killer posted anti-woman messages, there were fellow users actually pushing back on his attitudes. Or maybe she wouldn’t find that helpful either, since it doesn’t fit her narrative.

To be sure, violence against women is everyone’s problem. Beyond that, violence against anyone is everyone’s problem. Yes, the IV killings were spurred by a sick attitude toward women. At the same time, while it may not be “helpful” to point this out, let us not forget that, counting the killer himself, five of the seven people he killed were male.

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