In the wake of the recent tragic mass killing in Santa Barbara, I had promised followers of my blog that the only comment I would make on the topic of the killings in Isla Vista was essentially: ‘please read Christopher Lasch – particularly The Culture of Narcissism’. I hereby want to apologise in advance to all that I am going – sort of – to break this promise, because I really want to elaborate on this recommendation in the hopes that it will spur the conversation in a productive and hopefully more thoughtful and less reactive direction.
On the twenty-third of May, Elliot Rodger, the twenty-two year-old biracial son of a Hollywood director and filmmaker, stabbed to death his three Chinese roommates and then went on a killing spree outside a sorority house at UC-Santa Barbara that left seven dead (including himself), and thirteen others injured. Much has been made, and with good reason, of the ‘manifesto’ and YouTube videos which the killer posted online just before all this happened. Both featured rants against all women for failing to sate his frustrations, loneliness and sexual desires, and against Asians and blacks for their successes with women in spite of their ‘inferiority’ to Rodger.
In light of the violently misogynistic nature of his online leavings, the ‘Yes, All Women’ Twitter hashtag has gone viral, showcasing the vast scope of the banal sexism that ‘yes, all women’ have to live with every day. It has prompted several conversations – some helpful, thoughtful and carefully laid-out, several much less so – about how screwed up our culture is (very, it must be said) with regard to how women are treated. There has been some said as well on the topic of mental illness, and the inescapable resurfacing of America’s polarised gun politics in the wake of another mass shooting. But for every point each of these angles sheds much-needed light on, it seems there are another two that get obscured or brushed aside.
One of the big things that struck me about the entire case was the prevalence – particularly in Rodger’s chilling video and manifesto – of ‘the flight from feeling’, to borrow Lasch’s phrase. The entire culture, not just men and not just Hollywood, pretends to elevate sexual pleasure by casting it as something to be relentlessly pursued and attained and coveted. It does this by casting sexual intimacy, not as something good in its own right directed to procreation, proper childrearing and proper marital ascesis, but as the ultimate reward for proper participation in the capitalist-consumerist lifestyle.
In a society where celibacy is automatically subject to suspicion and virginity scorned (particularly in men), sex is weighted down beyond proportion with the demands of emotional fulfilment and of existential self-worth. Lasch notes these progressions inherent to the triumph of late capitalism and teases out their conclusion: an intensified form of ‘sexual combat’ in which all of the niceties and ‘courtly convention’ which had previously governed relations between men and women have been stripped bare.
Even, as we have seen in Isla Vista, to the point of literal bloodshed.
I have noted before that the feminist critique is on very strong grounds here and I continue to maintain that view. What Rodger expressed was literally the internalisation of a certain set of cultural norms, imbibed straight from Madison Avenue, namely: that sex is something college-age youths are expected to do; that men’s self-worth is and ought to be determined by their degree of sexual access to women; and that sex is a reward that girls ought to give to ‘well-behaved’ men. Feminists do seem to have a blind spot regarding how these exact same norms also affect social relations amongst women themselves, but they are indeed every bit in the right to show the misogyny in each and every one of these cultural norms, and to speak of the disastrousness of their consequences for, ‘yes, all women’.
Feminist critique is on much weaker ground when it comes to the history of these norms, however. The democratisation and capitalisation of the West led feminists to attack first those ‘courtly’ sexual conventions which, problematic though they may have been, nonetheless afforded women some measure of cultural-moral protection against male brutality, spanning from the heinous extremes of rape and murder to the more complex ground of the ‘male gaze’. In this, the feminists were merely following the spirit of the democratic revolutions which refused to tolerate any whiff of acknowledgement that social intercourse involves dialectics of difference – and ‘chivalry’ was nothing more and nothing less than just such an acknowledgement of that dialectic between the sexes. As it has fallen by the wayside, though, with no more useful and less problematic norms to take its place in the male ideal self-image, the ugly vestiges of male domination have begun expressing themselves around the edges of society (as, for example, on the Internet) through direct forms of barbarity against women: insults, threats, rape, murder. As Lasch astutely notes:
‘Democracy and feminism have now stripped the veil of courtly convention from the subordination of women, revealing the sexual antagonisms formerly concealed by the “feminine mystique”. Denied illusions of comity, men and women find it more difficult than before to confront each other as friends and lovers, let alone as equals. As male supremacy becomes ideologically untenable, incapable of justifying itself as protection, men assert their domination more directly, in fantasies and occasionally in acts of raw violence. Thus the treatment of women in movies, according to one study, has shifted “from reverence to rape”.’
Lasch notes also that the culture’s exaltation of sexual intimacy (which is made to serve as a stand-in for emotional, intellectual and spiritual intimacy) has been accompanied by its cutting or devaluing all the legal and psychological-cultural-moral obligations which make such intimacy realistically possible.
As a result, sex is approached not as the fruition but casually, as the precondition to a relationship, and the relationship itself is expected to fulfil all of the emotional and existential needs of both partners. Private relationships are forced to take on more of that burden as the public sphere atrophies and as work becomes ever more detached from its rightful meaning: the restoration to Sophia (to use a term from Orthodox theology), the participation in God’s work of loving creation.
At the same time, the pursuit of private relationships is burdened down with ever greater risks, ‘most obviously, because they no longer carry any assurance of permanence’ – either partner can break off a sexual relationship for any reason: especially when his or her demands, however excessive, are not met by the other. However ‘sexually liberated’ the society might be (and, indeed, to the degree it is ‘sexually liberated’), it forces both men and women to cultivate a defensive demeanour of detached indifference toward any potential partner and even toward their peers.
Rodger, the son of just such cultural elites (his father being an international film-maker and, tellingly, a divorcee), demonstrates exactly this sort of demeanour, taken to an extreme, in his videos, leading many to liken him to Patrick Bateman, the main character of American Psycho. Even Rodger’s self-hatred as a half-Asian man, and his blatant racism against all other non-whites, Lasch explains:
‘Whether or not the actual incidence of impotence has increased in American males— and there is no reason to doubt reports that it has—the specter of impotence haunts the contemporary imagination, not least because it focuses the fear that a played-out Anglo-Saxon culture is about to fall before the advance of hardier races.’
Lasch acknowledges and indeed endorses the justice of the goals of feminism, but finds that when it comes to resolving the tensions it sets out to solve, feminism inadvertently ends up adding to them when faced with the ‘flight from feeling’. The ‘defensiveness’ feminists decry in the ‘not all’ men who hasten to exclude themselves from what we, in our collective irrational anxiety about our own sexual status and adequacy, perceive as an existential attack cannot, for obvious reasons, simply be attacked and thereby made to disappear.
This is not to prescribe to women what they should do, how they should behave or dress, how they should protect themselves, how they should humour creeps and ‘take one for the team’. No, there’s been already far too much of that. We need to face it: Rodger was a bloke. As men, he (and others like him) is our problem, and we need to fix it. We need to bring back, if not chivalry, then at least some set of norms which approximate it, at least insofar as they are able to give men some measure of self-worth apart from prudential calculation, pursuit of sexual pleasure and brute conquest. Clearly, Rodger did not have this.
Traditionally men were supposed to base their sense of self-worth on their physical prowess, liberality of manners and moral courage. Men today are also given ideals of physical prowess and moral courage through popular culture, but are afforded with vanishingly few ways to realise them in their habits without first literally buying into the idea of self-worth through consumption. Physical prowess is channeled into a narcissistic ideal of ‘fitness’ for its own sake. Liberality of conduct has been watered down into a purely negative ‘tolerance’, which has been tailored specifically to the idea that even public morality is little more than a matter of consumer taste. And so rare have tests of moral courage become that many young men (and young women as well!) have failed to learn the difference between such a test and merely overcoming minor social or environmental obstacles.
What we need now is an ethic of resistance. We need to take the seething anger and frustration that underwrites our fragmented and hemmed-in existences as men, and channel it not into mindless violence against women or against society at large but into building, into gardening, into reflecting and writing, into deliberately refounding our social existences. Furthermore, we need to radically re-appropriate positive virginity – as in monasticism – as one of the two male ideals. For the other, we need to re-adapt norms from historical standards of chivalry as appropriate, and work to gain them broader acceptance.
And we do need to have a deeper conversation about gender norms that does not devolve into the usual one-sided denunciations. It needs to involve men being willing to listen to the just demands of women without hearing it as the entirety of their self-worth being under threat. But, in the end, men aren’t perfect. We should also invite women to try to tolerate at least some of the less-egregious coping mechanisms that we men tend to deploy in response. Lasch concludes his chapter about ‘the flight from feeling’ thus:
‘The abolition of sexual tensions is an unworthy goal in any case; the point is to live with them more gracefully than we have lived with them in the past.’
As a personal aside, Rodger’s case makes me feel particularly queasy, not least because not only have I heard such misogynistic comments and feelings about women spoken outright, but I have occasionally thought and given voice to them myself – particularly in college, after one rejection that I took very hard. I don’t wish to excuse or defend myself here; it’s a personal sin that I wholeheartedly wish to repent of and correct. And naturally, it goes wholly without saying that there can be no excuse at all, social or otherwise, for what Rodger did.
But I can understand the insecurity, the isolation, the loneliness and the desire for intimacy which give rise to such twisted projections. We need to change. And with us, a culture which fosters these desires and then exploits them in college libertinism, deodorant adverts and Judd Apatow films also needs to change.