Elliot Rodger - When You're Strange
Why did he do it? Why did Elliot Rodger go on a killing spree that ended in his own death?
To the feminists, Elliot Rodger was a misogynist, and his actions were an expression of a misogynistic culture. But that doesn’t explain anything. Even if we did live in a culture of misogyny, which we don’t, that would not explain his actions. Elliot Rodger was an anomaly, a very strange case. The explanation cannot be something that affects everyone, such as culture or society. A strange case requires a strange explanation.
What made Elliot Rodger so strange?
I read his so-called “manifesto”. It is not really a manifesto. It is the story of his life, told from his perspective. He portrayed himself as a tragic figure, because the world stubbornly refused to revolve around him.
In a sense, that is the great tragedy of life. We are born into a world that, for the most part, doesn’t give a shit about us. For some reason, this universal aspect of the human condition was unbearable to Elliot Rodger. As he grew up, he gradually became aware that he was not destined for greatness, but was instead a loser. He viewed this as a terrible injustice. He could not live with this reality. Eventually, he decided to end his life by committing mass murder.
To explain his violent actions, we have to understand his strange worldview, in which he was a special, mistreated, and ultimately doomed snowflake.
Other than his killing spree, the strangest thing about Elliot Rodger was his apparent inability to understand how human relationships work. He had an attitude that can only be described as infantile. He didn’t understand that relationships are a matter of give and take. He didn’t seem to understand that other people have their own feelings, interests, and desires. He was very jealous of others for having what he did not have, but at the same time he always took advantage of any opportunity to look down on others. He viewed society as a zero-sum game of social status, and he believed that he deserved high status, not based on merit, but simply because he was Elliot Rodger. He had the same attitude toward sexual relationships. He believed that he deserved sex, and he was angry at girls for not giving him sex, but it seems that he never asked a girl out, or made any effort to personally connect with girls. He expected girls to throw themselves at him simply because he wanted them to.
We all want other people to do things for us, but most of us understand that we have to provide something in exchange. We want others to love us, and have sex with us, but we understand that we are not entitled to love and sex from others. Most people figure out that social and sexual relationships are based on give and take. They are exchange relationships. Elliot Rodger did not understand this basic principle of human relationships. He seemed to believe that the world should revolve around him.
How did he develop this bizarre view of reality?
Elliot Rodger had a mental deficit that prevented him from picking up on emotional signals, aka “social cues”. Emotional signals are very important to human development. They are the first form of communication that we use, before we acquire language. Babies use emotional signals to tell their parents that they are hungry, tired, or lonely and want to snuggle. Parents respond to those signals with care, and also signal back with their facial expressions. Babies are born with an innate focus on the human face, and bonding is largely a matter of gazing at a parent’s face, and synchronizing emotional states by emotional signaling. It may be that this empathic connection to the parents, especially the mother, is the basis for developing empathic relationships with other people later in life.
Language gives us a second channel of communication that is very useful, but it doesn’t replace the first channel. And in some aspects of life, especially sexual interaction, we rely heavily on the first channel. Anyone who can’t communicate on the first channel is going to have major problems interacting socially.
If Elliot Rodger was born with a limited ability to read and respond to emotional signals, that would explain a lot about his strange worldview. His mental models of other humans would have been largely missing the emotional component, because he was missing the information about inner states that emotional signals convey. We understand others by analogy to ourselves. If you don’t have access to information about the inner states of others, it is harder to develop such analogical models. Instead, you would see people as a special and important class of objects, but not as beings like yourself, not as subjects.
A person who isn’t aware of emotional signals wouldn’t know that they exist at all. It’s like the blind spot in your visual field — your brain fills it in. Elliot Rodger would not be aware of all the communication going on around him. He would always have been sending the wrong signals, and getting negative responses from others, without understanding why. Most of his social interactions would therefore be negative, and he would tend to withdraw from social contact or be excluded from it. Social isolation is a vicious circle, because it limits the opportunities to improve one’s social abilities.
The inability to read emotional signals partially explains Elliot Rodger’s infantile behavior and attitude of entitlement. As a child, he learned that his emotional states would result (almost magically) in his parents giving him what he wanted. We naturally induce models of cause and effect from experience. In particular we learn how to cause the effects that we want. Elliot Rodger would have naturally induced the model that his emotional states would lead to gratification by others. He learned that others would solve problems for him. This is a good model for a baby: you cry and you get what you want. It is not a great model for an adult, however.
As you grow up, you have to learn more complex models of interacting with others. You have to learn how to give and receive emotional gratification. Most people are strongly driven by emotional signals. Emotional signaling can make others feel good or feel bad. A well-timed smile can start a friendship or a love affair. Conversely, not smiling at the right moment, or smiling at the wrong moment, can push someone away. If you lack the ability to recognize and generate emotional signals, then you lack a critical faculty for manipulating other people.
Without the ability to interpret emotional signals, Elliot Rodger would not have been able to model the emotional states of others. At a conscious, theoretical level, he understood that other people have emotions, but because he could not perceive their emotional states, his models of human beings would have been largely devoid of inner states. He would have viewed other people more as objects than subjects.
Perhaps if Elliot Rodger had a tougher life, he might have learned skills to compensate for his mental deficit. He could not have simply withdrawn from difficult social situations. But Elliot Rodger was pampered, spoiled, and over-protected by his parents, especially by his mother.
He was prone to crying fits and temper tantrums, even into his twenties. He never developed an adult way of relating to people, or to life in general. In his so-called “manifesto”, he described his expectations of others, and his anger when they went unfulfilled. He did this in matter-of-fact terms, as if the reader would be sympathetic toward him, rather than disgusted by his entitled attitude. For example, he wanted his mother to marry a rich man so that he would be wealthy. Because she didn’t do this, he felt that she let him down. He expected his mother to completely subordinate her interests to his.
He was given expensive clothes and a BMW to drive. He had only two jobs in his life: helping a neighbor build a staircase, and a janitorial job that he quit the day he started because he felt such menial work was beneath him. He never had to overcome adversity, social or otherwise. Instead, he developed a pattern of withdrawal. Physically, he avoided people and situations that he found difficult. Mentally, he withdrew into a fantasy world. His greatest, and perhaps his only accomplishment in life was attaining high level characters in Word of Warcraft. He insulated himself from reality. By doing so, he became more detached from reality, and less able to act effectively in it.
But he could not withdraw entirely from the social world. He was aware that he had low social status. He tried a few things to change this, but they never worked, mainly because he gave up very easily. Perhaps, with his mental deficits, he never had a chance, but you don’t know until you try, and Elliot Rodger didn’t try. He eventually alienated himself from almost everyone except his mother. Even his one long-term friend, James, rejected him because of his attitude.
His decision to move to a college party town, Isla Vista, was a big mistake. Nothing could possibly have been more alienating and frustrating. He would have been much better off getting a menial job, and learning some basic social skills in a less sophisticated social environment. In Isla Vista, he was completely out of place. He spent most of his time wandering around and feeling left out. He didn’t make any real effort to connect with other people. He did socialize with a few other “loser” guys like himself, but he abandoned these relationships when they did not appear to be helping him in his quest to be popular and loved. Again, he wrote about this in a purely self-centered way.
During this time, he may have been developing schizoid tendencies. His attitude became even more grandiose and bizarre. At one point, he decided to get rich by playing the lottery. This led, of course, to yet another disappointment. Fitting the basic pattern of his life, he expected something for nothing. He expected to be rewarded by fate simply because he was Elliot Rodger. Fate did not deliver.
Frustration and jealousy led to anger. He began acting out in “revenge” at the young couples who represented what he could never have, or be. He began by throwing drinks at couples who enraged him with their public displays of affection. Later, he became more violent. On one occasion, he wandered into a house party, uninvited. Instead of trying to make conversation with people, he started insulting an Asian man who was talking to a girl. He was so drunk that they laughed it off and told him to get some water. He then became enraged when some guys and girls were hanging out on a ledge where he was sitting. He insulted the guys and tried to push some of the girls off the ledge. The guys pushed him off the ledge and the fall broke his ankle. Even with a broken ankle, he continued his arrogant and abusive behavior until he was beaten up.
At this point, he seems to have given up on making an effort to succeed socially, and instead began focusing on his revenge fantasy of torturing and killing people. He was willing to die for one chance at feeling powerful. If he couldn’t be loved, he wanted to be feared. He felt that he had nothing to lose.
He began planning his final solution. He would torture and kill people in his apartment, then go to a public place and dump their severed heads on the ground to show people his power. He would kill every beautiful blonde girl in a sorority house, then drive around killing people until the police cornered him, at which point he would shoot himself in the head, ending his life. His plan was delayed by a month due to unforeseen circumstances, but he eventually went through with it.
The way events actually played out were less dramatic than his fantasies. There was no bag of severed heads, and he only killed two sorority girls. I believe that the results were less satisfying, and more horrifying, than the fantasy, so he hastened more quickly to his death than he had planned. Something similar happened in the Columbine tragedy. After an initial killing spree, the killers wandered around for a while, without making any effort to kill more people. Then they finally took their own lives. I believe that, in both cases, the reality was so different from the fantasy that it disoriented and confused them.
Did culture play any role in this? Well, of course it did. It always plays a role. Culture is the context in which everything takes place. One of the relevant cultural factors is the strong association of male social status with sexual prowess. The ability to get laid is the ultimate proof of male power. The inability to get laid is the ultimate shame. The media constantly taunts men with images of sexual prowess that few men can attain. Elliot Rodger lived in southern California, and his family occasionally mingled with the rich and famous. He was immersed in a culture of status and sexuality that was beyond his reach.
Elliot Rodger had some similarities to other mass killers. I mentioned the Columbine killers. They were also motivated by revenge fantasies and feelings of social inferiority. The unabomber Ted Kaczynski also comes to mind. He was also a socially awkward loner and a life-long celibate. His violent revenge fantasies emerged directly from experiences of sexual frustration. Like Elliot Rodger, he had no ability to relate to others, felt that menial jobs were beneath him, and was supported by his parents for most of his life. Ted Kaczynski had a PhD from the University of Michigan and was a professor at UC Berkely, yet he could not get laid because he had no ability to emotionally relate to other people, especially women.
I suppose that if the serial killer is the archetypal psychopathic killer, then the mass murderer is the archetypal autistic killer. Both involve dysempathy, but different kinds of dysempathy. Of course, most dysempathic people are not killers. Various mental disorders can be contributing factors to homicide, including psychopathy, autism and schizophrenia. But most people with those conditions are not killers.
Who is to blame for the tragedy? The blame rests solely on one person: Elliot Rodger. We have to hold individuals responsible for their actions, or society breaks down. Trying to understand his behavior does not exculpate him. He is still responsible for his actions. We each get dealt a hand of cards in life, and that’s the hand you have to play.
Elliot Rodger killed because he was a stranger.