Fitting In: How the Internet Responded to the California Killings

The California shootings and the events preceding it were some of the most chilling things I have read about. It was encouraging that the reaction to it saw some positive discussions on issues that are so often overlooked. However, I have noticed that some online discussions have become very simplistic and threaten to take the debate in the opposite direction of its initial intentions.

I recently wrote a piece for the University of Warwick’s newspaper, The Boar, that examines this shift towards forcing the debate into one box. I should make it clear that it is by no means an attempt to discredit the#YesAllWomen tag, which I think has been one of the most positive things to have come out of such tragedy. If it does come across that way, I sincerely apologise. I just felt it was important to make sure that the perspective that was seen when the tag and the accompanying discussions were initiated is not lost because of the opinions of a vocal and misguided minority within the debate

 

It has become a tragically common part of reality that there is at least one violent mass shooting per year in the USA which becomes headline news. Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tucson, Sandy Hook – these names are now synonymous with unimaginable grief. Unfortunately, Isla Vista has now joined their ranks in infamy.

The facts of the incident are chilling. 22-year-old Elliot Rodger had been suffering from severe mental health issues, compounded by feelings of isolation. Blaming women for being rejected, most notably at a college event where he had exhibited some aggresive tendencies, he posted an online manifesto mapping out his intention to kill sorority members. He went on to kill 6 students using weapons legally registered to him before shooting himself through the head.

Immediately after the incident, messages of condolences flooded the internet along with a thorough examination of his motives. The video and written manifesto that Rodgers had posted before he went on his killing spree were easily available. When his statement became widely-known, it launched a significant debate on misogyny and the negative perceptions of “friendzoning”.

Commenters on multiple online platforms, most notably on YouTube and Tumblr, began a healthy debate on the unspoken acceptance of how men seem to “deserve” attention, and how this unchallenged culture of expectation creates a deadly environment for women to live in. A twitter hashtag “#YesAllWomen” was also launched to highlight the prevalence of daily violence created by supposedly harmless male-female interactions.

Amidst the heartache, it seemed that the world was ready to take notice of a greater problem and, while it by no means brings justice to the victims, it was a positive by-product of a horrific incident. Sadly, as is far too often the case, what started as a much needed discussion turned into an over-simplified and sometimes ugly blame game. The online comments and the Twitter hashtag brought vital attention to the abuse of women and the unfair societal expectations placed on them.

However, these same commenters became extremely aggressive when attempts were made to discuss the other aspects of this tragedy. While the discussions rightfully pointed out Rodgers’ feelings of rejection as the trigger of the shooting, they wrongfully painted all of the victims as female. The first three to have been killed were the attacker’s male roommates, alongside a fourth male victim later on.

Similarly, any mention of Rodgers’ severe – and reportedly violent – mental health history was brushed off, apparently because this was coming to his defence. The fact that many other mass shooters, regardless of their or their victims’ gender, have similar histories was quickly dismissed, an alarming reflection on how mental health care is perceived to be inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.

Not to mention the fact that the question of gun control and background checks, normally the first point of discussion, seems to have slipped under the radar, even though it is known that Rodgers had legally purchased all three of the weapons with which he carried out the killings.

The debate on women’s abuse that has been sparked by the Isla Vista killings is very necessary. While some have attempted to dismiss it, it is crucial that a usually overlooked feature of these alarmingly frequent attacks is delved into. It is doubly important in a case that was so clearly precipitated by feelings of emasculation and rejection. What should not happen, however, is for well-meaning commenters to then ignore the various other, equally relevant aspects of this tragedy.

Misogyny is a very real thing and should by no means be treated as irrelevant to the tragedy. The strength of the discussions has been using the tragedy as the impetus for further discussions on a wider, more problematic issue. The debate – specifically on social media, not the news – has seen some attempts, however, to try and make Isla Vista the focal point (as opposed to the starting point) of just one issue, instead of on a range of them.

Elliot Rodgers went on his rampage because he felt like he did not fit in. Let us now not try to fit a complex issue into one single box; it is a disservice to the severity of the incident and it risks misrepresenting what should be a deeply nuanced discussion.


After receiving some feedback, I added one paragraph to the original piece for further clarification of my position. For the original, please see here: http://theboar.org/2014/05/31/fitting-internet-responded-california-killings/#.U4n6-PldVFM

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