Students taking part in a candlelight vigil at UC Santa Barbara. Photo: Getty
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Laurie Penny on Elliot Rodger: Mental illness does not excuse violent misogyny

What does a rich, privileged young man have to do to get labelled a terrorist?

What does a rich, privileged young man have to do to get labelled a terrorist? On 23 May, 22-year-old Elliot Rodger killed six people in California, after recording a video and publishing online a manifesto explaining that the planned massacre was an act of “revenge”. The son of a Hollywood director was taking revenge on the “sluts” who had refused to provide him with the sex he deserved. It was an act of misogynist extremism but, as soon as the news broke, commentators rushed on to social media to explain that the Isla Vista killings weren’t about sexism at all – they were the product of a “lone madman”, a side effect of a poor boy’s social impairment, and as such everyone talking about sexism ought to shut up right away.

As I write, the athlete Oscar Pistorius, who is on trial accused of murdering his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, is undergoing a month of “sanity” testing to determine whether he has an anxiety disorder. If he does, this is likely to form part of his defence. In Norway, there was much debate over whether the mass murderer Anders Breivik should be prosecuted on the basis that he was insane, rather than simply “evil”. Those were the two options – Breivik was mad or he was bad. One or the other.

When wealthy, privileged or well-known individuals kill people while experiencing mental health difficulties, their psychological state is an excuse, a defence. This man was “just” crazy, so we don’t need to look at the reasons behind his actions, even if he has helpfully written a manifesto explaining those reasons (as both Breivik and Rodger did). It can’t be because he was a racist or a misogynist – it must be insanity and we should pity him.

By contrast, when immigrants and people of colour commit crimes while experiencing mental health difficulties – for example, the killers of the soldier Lee Rigby – their mental state is consistently ruled out as a factor. They are thugs, or terrorists, or both. They can’t be mentally ill – if they were, we’d have to empathise with them, so it must be their religion, or their race, turning them into vicious brutes.

Reading Elliot Rodger’s aptly titled manifesto, My Twisted World, one is struck by two things: first, that whichever way you hold up those 140 pages of sexist self-pity, you come to the conclusion that this was an extremely disturbed young man. This was a young man who had “acted out” before, who had severe social anxiety issues and whose family had clearly been concerned about his mental health.

The second thing that strikes you is that, as he grew up, Rodger’s delusions became more specific. He was obsessed with his sexual frustration and was determined to take his revenge on the women who had denied him the pleasure he felt he was owed and the men who had been favoured with their attentions. His hatred was racialised as well as gendered: he was consumed by fantasies about “pretty blondes” and wondered why “black filth” and “Asians” got to have sex with these “sluts” (he himself was half-Asian). The question is not whether Rodger had psychiatric problems. The question is why they took such a poisonous and, ultimately, tragic form.

In his book Going Postal, Mark Ames argues that the trend of office massacres and school shootings in the US is not a result of “lone madmen” but of social frustration, although both can be true. One can be lonely, furious and psychotic – and express that distress in a form that takes the existing savagery of society to its logical conclusion.

The way we talk about mental health is all wrong. For decades, the public conversation about psychosis and mental distress has resisted any analysis of social issues. If you’re depressed, or anxious, or hearing voices, it’s a chemical effect arising spontaneously in your brain – it’s the way you are. This might be considered convenient for those in power keen to overlook the structural causes of mental health problems – causes such as alienation, prejudice, poverty and isolation. That anyone can experience a mental health problem does not mean that mental illness is never political.

Mental distress is not an excuse for brutality. To suggest that does a disservice to the many millions of mental health patients who will never be violent or murderous. According to the charity Time to Change, one in three people believe that a person with a mental illness is a danger to others – but those with mental health problems are far more likely to be the victims of a violent crime than they are to commit one.

At any time, one in six people in the UK will be experiencing mental health problems and those people are chiefly a danger to themselves. I have an anxiety disorder but I have yet to attack any of my housemates or partners. The most terrifying thing I do in the middle of a panic attack is hide under a duvet watching Netflix, asking plaintively to be brought tea and perhaps a cuddle until the world stops spinning.

Yes, Elliot Rodger was mentally unwell. He was also a violent misogynist extremist. As with Anders Breivik or Lee Rigby’s killers, the question is not whether “madness” is a factor in human atrocity but why alienation, distress and psychosis take the form they do. In the case of Rodger, the sickness in our society is violent misogyny and claiming that he was “just” crazy is a convenient way to avoid looking at uncomfortable truths about the world.

Nobody is “just” crazy. To speak of mental illness and violence as if one can be either “mad or bad” is to obviate the true nature of evil, which is not the province of lone psychopaths but a product of structural oppression. Whoever we are, however we’re feeling, evil is what happens when we see other people as animals, or as things.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The elites vs the people

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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.