Santa Barbara Tragedy: No Easy Answers

flowersThe massive response to Santa Barbara shooting shows how the immediacy of social media increases emotional involvement.  The resulting conversations around the shooting—moving quickly from the tragedy itself to the larger topic of misogyny–also shows how much we are driven to engage with something more concrete to make sense out of senselessness.

It’s hard do deal with senseless acts of violence.  Seemingly random events that kill innocent people, especially the young, are particularly terrifyingly.  When such acts occur, we are compelled to understand how such a thing could happen, find something to blame that allows us to make sense out of uncertainty and to try to prevent the unpreventable.

Elliot Rodger, the troubled 22-year-old perpetrator, left a trail of digital documentation – blog posts, YouTube videos and manifesto – describing his isolation, anger and plans of revenge.  He projected his pain, anger and feelings of rejection externally—a common cognitive defense mechanism.  In Rodger’s case, he blamed women.

Because Rodger used social media as a platform for sharing, his misogynistic perspective was discovered, shared, and spread across the globe, reaching more people than would have been fathomable prior to the Internet. All at the speed of a tweet. The content sparked responses, dwarfing the event. Conversations flowed quickly across the now artificial boundaries of online and offline, like all information today.

It is worth noting that the media activity around the Santa Barbara shootings reflects a new social norm.  News and events aren’t containable like they used to be. Back in the day, we would have had to wait for breaking news on scheduled TV broadcast or in between the weather and traffic on talk radio.  We wouldn’t get analysis until the nightly news through the traditional artfully compiled interviews, a bystander, police, victim’s relations and social expert.  The full summary and additional details would reach us the next day on the front stoop or from the newsstand at the corner.  Impact is dulled over time, distancing most of us from the intensity experience of fear and other emotions.  The distance created by the timing of traditional media distribution, therefore, diminishes the compelling need to understand and make sense out of what happened.

Today, we hear all the voices, those enduring the tragedy close up and those trying to understand what happened far away.  It hits us all hard and instantly, with no polish or analysis.  We see reactions immediately.  We see responses to reactions.  For better or worse, these messages have no tidying-up or mediation by professional media packagers.  Social media posts, and Twitter in particular, are raw and immediate.  Angst shows.  Speculation and opinion pours out, often drowning out facts, but perhaps providing a more accurate view of the fissures such events create in our vision of the world.

The ourpouring on social media can’t solve the mystery of ‘why,’ but we try in the best way we know how.  So out of the cracks pour subjects we don’t talk about very much because they make us uncomfortable.  They are more satisfactory than having no answers.  In this case, Rodger’s actions, writings, and videos, in which he vilified women and wanted retribution from what was ‘owed’ him, unleashed torrents of experiences and emotions that now had meaningful context. #YesAllWomen has gone from a hashtag event to a movement, providing a platform to express frustration and anger and to vent over what it feels like to be on the receiving end of misogyny.  There was a staggering outpouring covering the range of experiences, from everyday harassment, fear of violence, double standards of behavior and other current manifestations of misogyny, to rape and physical abuse. We’re also hearing from people who can identify with the isolation and frustration of being bullied and rejected and the temptation to resort to retribution.  In The Daily Beast, Arthur Chu wrote a particularly thoughtful piece about the “nerd culture” and the social stereotypes of how the nerd never gets the girl that perpetuates a “the rape culture.”

This is important stuff.  Nevertheless, the shooting in Santa Barbara is being translated into a completely different issue.  In the context of unfathomable pain and uncertainty with no hope of answers, tackling issues we can articulate makes it more manageable.

As we continue to look for answers, however, we should beware of simple solutions. Rodger was not just a normal guy with Neaderthal views of women and society.  He was ill.  Mental illness is difficult to get your arms around and the fact that we don’t address it much speaks to the stigma that it still holds that makes getting help all the the more difficult. It also doesn’t give us anyone to blame. It doesn’t give us anything to talk about.  In fact, there was little commentary on Rodger’s mental history, perhaps in part because of the ethical double-bind it presents.

Society always looks for an easier villain to restore order and cognitive peace of mind. With Sandy Hook, blame quickly fell on video games rather than taking up the messy issue of mental illness.  Misogyny lets us blame society or, easier still, men.  This is not to say that there are significant problems in the social construction of gender issues.  These problems are real and significant.  In fact, we see a familiar pattern in Chu’s article when he points out that people have already begun looking for the girls that bullied Rodger to explain his increasing rage.  The ‘blame the victim’ approach underscores much of the problem we face in sexual harassment, abuse and rape in society today, but it also gets us pretty far afield from the current tragedy, the lost lives and agony of senselessness in Santa Barbara.

Rodger’s misogyny wasn’t the driving force behind the tragedy.  It’s a mistake to so easily point the finger.  No matter how badly we want one, there will be no answers, and certainly no easy ones, to what makes a person disconnect from reality, to harbor so much anger and hatred, and to willingly harm others and himself.  No matter how important a topic it may represent, it is much easier to talk about the content of a YouTube video than to sit with the futile guilt, as those close to Rodger must be, wondering if they should have done something.  The real answers will come from understanding the complexity of mental health issues that allow beliefs, however misguided, to turn to violence, so we aren’t always wondering how we were supposed to know if an intervention was needed and what it was we should have done.

Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Chu, A. (2014).  Your Princess Is in Another Castle: Misogyny, Entitlement, and Nerds. The Daily Beast. Retrieved from: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/05/27/your-princess-is-in-another-castle-misogyny-entitlement-and-nerds.html

About Dr. Pamela Rutledge

Pamela Rutledge is Director of the Media Psychology Research Center. She consults on a variety of media and marketing projects bringing together the ancient art of storytelling and cutting edge science of human behavior.

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