Elliot Rodger and the rise of hate groups online

[Image credit: Westside Today.]

In the wake of any major tragedy, often the first question that arises is, “Why? Why would this happen?” In cases where we can point to a person who is to blame, we question why they would commit such horrific acts against humanity. In the wake of the mass shooting in Isla Vista, people naturally want answers about the man who killed six and injured thirteen at last count, Elliot Rodger, who died of a gunshot wound to the head at the scene.

In answering this question of why the media has taken a few approaches, one of which being the overly simplistic answer of mental illness. Some have described Rodger as “a madman.” The attorney for Elliot Rodger’s father has confirmed Rodger “was being treated by multiple professionals”—further fuel for this media answer to why. The second overly simplistic answer is that Rodger was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. This is commonly lumped in with the mental illness theory, as autism is often misunderstood to be a mental illness.

I describe both of these answers as overly simplistic for the following reasons. First, people with mental illnesses are far more likely to be victims of violence than to be perpetrators. Simplistically linking mental illness to violence perpetuates the stereotype that people with mental illnesses are dangerous, where in fact, that stereotype is the real danger. The answer of mental illness is also overly simplistic, because it fails to ignore the lucidity with which Rodger planned his attack. A 140-page manifesto and several YouTube videos weeks before the crime show Rodger was in no way suffering from psychosis, and was therefore of sound enough mind that the decision he made to harm others could not reasonably be attributed solely to mental illness. Second, to place the burden of responsibility on another single characteristic about Rodger, that he was diagnosed with Asperger’s, is also unfounded. As many pointed out in the wake of the Connecticut school shooting in 2012, there is no link between autism and higher rates of violence.

A third, and well founded explanation for Rodger’s motivation is the shooter’s misogyny. In his final video Rodger rants against the women he felt rejected by, calling them all “blonde sluts” and saying, “If I can’t have you girls, I will destroy you.” The video clearly demonstrates Rodger felt entitled to sex and intimacy from women, and the anger he feels when he perceives himself as being passed up for lesser men when he believes himself to be “the ultimate gentleman.” As many have pointed out, Rodger’s language closely mirrors that used in the Men’s Rights Movement, and his reaction to rejection appears to be the final stage in the evolution of the “Nice Guy”. Indeed, Rodger was a member of PUAHate.com, an online forum that has since been removed, where misogynistic ideas run rampant, and where Rodger’s Internet trail provides more evidence that he undeniably shared these beliefs.

But to understand the why behind this shooting is more complex than understanding Elliot Rodger alone. Rodger was a member of an online community, very predominately white men between 17 and 20 years old, who shared his beliefs. To examine his motivations, we have to acknowledge, as the Southern Poverty Law Center has, the Men’s Rights Movement is an active hate group. We also must stop separating hate group activity into two categories—online or offline—and acknowledge that online activity is indeed taking place in the “real world.”

In a class I attended a year ago on the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, some students were asked to investigate the activity of white supremacist hate groups based in the United States. During their presentation, they pulled up several websites. One student laughed at the dated look of the sites and said, “These look like they were made in 1998.”

The professor, a leader in the U.S. solidarity struggle against apartheid, very sternly corrected this student. “But they weren’t,” he said. “The last post was made two days ago. And I wouldn’t be laughing if I were you.” He read a particularly vitriolic line from the latest post and pointed at the screen. “Someone sat down and wrote that. And all these people,” he said, referring to the dozens of comments on the post, “agreed with it. And we don’t know what these people look like. We don’t know their names. But they’re out there, and they’re very real, and right now they’re just writing, but soon they could be doing a lot more than that.”

It is easy to laugh at Men’s Rights activists (MRAs). I know. I’ve done it myself many times. It’s easy make jokes about fedoras and neckbeards, and snort at the absurd cognitive leaps it takes to so completely and totally misinterpret statistical data the way they do. It’s easy to see words on the screen and dismiss them as the ramblings of some lone pathetic guy with an Internet connection and an Axe Body Spray collection. Laughing is easy. It’s so much easier than confronting the frightening reality.

The reality is that Elliot Rodger was not a lone pathetic guy. He was one of thousands or more men who share his beliefs, some of whom are undoubtedly capable of committing a similar act of violence. To understand the why of Rodger’s attack we must understand the hate group he was a part of, and how it compares to other hate groups with strong online presences.

The Men’s Rights Movement can be characterized by several oppressive views: misogyny, heteronormativity, and white supremacy. The first, misogyny, is the most obvious. As previously stated, Rodger’s misogynistic language closely mirrored the language used by MRAs. From his categorization of women he felt rejected by as “sluts” to his division of men into beta males and alpha males, Rodger uses the same language used in online forums like The Red Pill on Reddit. MRAs often claim they are not misogynistic, but that they are merely pointing out the ways in which society oppresses men, and the ways in which feminists contribute to that oppression (have fun trying to follow that logic). They aim to restore society to what they perceive as its “natural” state where men and women follow patriarchal gender roles.

This defense is eerily similar to the one Varg Vikernes, a white supremacist neo-Nazi terrorist who was part of the early Norwegian black metal scene and was infamous for sparking church burnings and murdering his band mate, gives in a disturbing interview. When asked if he sees women as equals, he says, “Sure, women are equals but they are also different from men, and they should be treated differently and have different goals in life.” He goes on to say the old-fashioned view is best, and that while he has “only positive things to say about women” he believes modern women are destroying society. “Since most smart women are busy getting an education, the generally more stupid women get most of the children, and as a result of that the whole species is getting dumber.” If we compare this to specific posts on MRA forums, the similarities become even clearer. Vikernes was also allowed internet access from prison, where he was active online and continued to garner support for a hate group called the Norwegian Heathen Front.  After his release, Varg Vikernes was believed to have had contact with Anders Breivik, the man behind the mass shooting in Norway in 2011, and access to Breivik’s manuscript before the shooting occurred. After the shooting, Vikernes openly expressed his sympathy for Breivik.

Of course, in a society with strict patriarchal gender roles, there’s no room for people who defy or challenge those roles, one of which is the partnership or marriage of men to women. Thus, heteronormativity is a prevalent oppressive ideology in this hate group, and LGBTQIA people are ostracized and attacked. In the wake of the shooting, one friend expressed a horrifying realization on her Facebook: “Women died in a mass murder caused by the friend zone phenomenon. And it terrifies me that this took place about a week after another man claimed that as a lesbian I am friend zoning the entire male gender.” Her fears are not unfounded. Many MRAs see lesbians specifically as “a waste” as they’re not sexually available to men, and sexual availability is one of the few qualities MRAs value in women. Many members even doubt the legitimacy of lesbian identity. Again, this is similar to other reactionary hate groups, which grow in extremity and numbers as progressive gains are made in countries around the world.

The third oppressive ideology we should examine is white supremacy within the Men’s Rights Movement. Rodger was not, as many media outlets are describing him, white. He was mixed race; his mother was Chinese and his father was white. This does not mean he did not buy into white supremacist rhetoric or ideology. On online forums, he made disparaging comments about an Asian member who posted a picture of himself with two white women, and questioned a “full Asian” man’s ability to attract the attention of white women. He also made several other racially prejudiced remarks in his manifesto and online, and in the manifesto demonstrated a distinct pattern of anti-blackness. He described himself as Eurasian, and identified more with his “white half”. These are again similar to Vikernes’s racist views, which are present in the interview linked above, and can be compared to the views of Mongolian neo-Nazi groups, the leaders of which, despite not being white, have said they respect Hitler, and have internalized white supremacist ideology. Prominent members of the Men’s Rights Movement have made similar racist remarks.

Hate groups spring up as reactionary movements when significant progress and gains for human rights are made in a society. The Men’s Rights Movement is the reaction to significant social and political gains made by the feminist and LGBTQIA human rights movements, just as western neo-Nazi movements have sprung up in reaction to the end of fascism, civil rights, increased immigration and multiculturalism throughout Europe and the U.S., and various other human rights achievements.

The why behind these movements is the why we must examine in the wake of this tragedy. The easier why is to dismiss Rodger as a lone “madman” and to continue making fedora jokes about MRAs. But while we’re laughing, real people who are a part of real hate groups are gathering momentum online (which is in the real world), and we don’t know what they look like, and we don’t know who they are. Right now they may just be writing or making videos. But as demonstrated by Rodger’s attack, they are unfortunately capable of doing much more.

Cassie Sheets is a creative nonfiction and fiction writer. You can find her other work in Hair Trigger, Hypertext Magazine, and Broad!.
Credit: Hayden Yaussy, Research Assistant