By Mia Nakaji Monnier
Rafu Online Editor
In the week since Elliot Rodger killed six people and himself at UCSB, cultural critics have jumped, as they always do in the immediate wake of events like these, to attribute motives and root causes to his behavior. Most of the possibilities raised are valid and likely— misogyny, lack of awareness about mental illness, entitlement, and inadequate gun control laws among them. But in the manner typical of editorials, most responses seem myopic, dedicated to a clear, catchy thesis at the expense of thoughtfulness, big-picture thinking, or empathy.
Empathy may seem like a strange word to use when talking about a murderer, and please don’t mistake me—I have no desire to make excuses for Elliot Rodger. Yet this school shooting has hit me closer to home than any of the others reported in my lifetime—and I’m part of a generation (just finishing elementary school at the time of Columbine) for whom school shootings are all too common. For one thing, I’ve spent time in Isla Vista and have a couple of close friends who could easily have been in the line of fire had this happened just three or four years ago. And for another, Rodger is hapa, mixed-race Asian, like me.
What does race matter when it comes to identifying with another person? Ideally, it shouldn’t matter at all. But because we make up such a tiny portion of the population, when another hapa makes news, I pay attention. Usually the news is somewhat positive and very humble: a role in a Kindle Fire commercial (Jay Hayden), or a main character in a Naomi Hirahara mystery. When Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being was nominated for the Man Booker last year, that was as major as it gets on the scale of hapa news.
It’s not that I prefer members of my own race by any means, but because I grew up in predominantly white neighborhoods and can pass as white—and because white faces dominate the media landscape—there’s something encouraging about seeing people who look a bit like me. Certain things make more sense in this context: the texture of my hair, the proportions of my body, the strangeness of having a name and a face that don’t fully reflect my identity as I feel it.
So when I saw Elliot Rodger’s face, I saw all of these things and my heart sank. He looked a bit like me, and worse, he looked a bit more like my brothers. Who wants to have something in common with a murderer?
But of course we all have something in common with them. Part of the desire to immediately find a motive, a cause, an explanation when a tragedy like the UCSB shooting happens, comes from a need to make sense of chaos and to reassure ourselves that we live in a kind, orderly world where violence is an aberration: uncommon, easily explicable, and most importantly, distant from who we are as good people who would never think of hurting one another.
So we begin to explain away Rodger’s violent behavior, attributing it to his privileged background or Asperger’s, calling him a sociopath and a narcissist, blaming his parents for negligence or poor moral education. When an article pegs the crime to misogyny, or gun control, commenters arrive predictably and en masse to dismiss the analysis. “This isn’t about misogyny, it’s about gun control,” they say, or “It’s not about mental health, it’s about racism.” “It’s about my issue,” in other words. “Just shut up and listen to me.”
People aren’t fighting about cause simply out of self-righteousness. At its best, this kind of argument is an attempt at raising awareness about serious cultural problems so we can begin to solve them. We call out our concerns in a public forum because we’re scared that these culturally prevalent issues will continue to result in violence and death, that men will continue to feel themselves entitled to women’s bodies and dangerous people will continue to have access to guns.
But if mass killings like this one can teach us about our social illnesses, the dialogue that follows them can be just as revealing of our tendencies as Americans. Why do we continue to push against each other in impacted debates? Why must we simplify what is complex? Deep down, don’t we all realize that the UCSB shooting is about a vast array of issues that came to a boiling point within one particular individual? That view isn’t as satisfying, it isn’t as prescriptive, and, frankly, it’s terrifying. If there’s no single cure, what guarantee do we have that this won’t happen again, and again?
Think about Elliot Rodger’s state of mind for a moment. Whether or not he was clinically insane or a sociopath or anything else medically rooted, he held a grudge against the women who rejected him and the men they chose instead, until eventually he had simplified the world around him. The people he killed, apart from his roommates, had no personal connection to him. They merely represented what he hated. Stripped to an archetype, they ceased to be deserving of thought or empathy.
Apart from the impulse to kill, Rodger’s feelings were universal human ones: loneliness, frustration; the desire to be loved, have nice things, and be noticed. Reading his lengthy manifesto, though, he seems not to know that other people shared his feelings and experiences. Others needed to be punished for having a better life than he did, he claimed. But who hasn’t been bullied or teased as a child? Who hasn’t been rejected romantically or sexually? Who hasn’t wanted more than they have?
I can’t say that with better emotional tools Rodger may never have become violent. I, like everyone else writing about him, have no idea. But one thing that he and the rest of us share is the fact that we live in a world that doesn’t always meet our hopes and expectations. We will be rejected and dismissed. We will experience tragedy. We will feel angry about the society in which we find ourselves, and we will, to varying degrees, for varying proportions of our lives, feel indignant and desperate. And sometimes we will find that we have something in common with a person who has committed a truly repugnant act.
What’s important, I think, is that we acknowledge these bad feelings rather than pretending they don’t exist, or presuming that nobody else feels them in the particular way that we do. And these bad feelings include the discomfort of recognizing a situation, person, or phenomenon as complex. That’s not the same as giving up on an issue, rather a way of opening up to more holistic solutions. Nothing is simply an archetype; not even a murderer.