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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle