Elliot Rodger and the Culture of Narcissism
Here’s a thought experiment: Pretend for the moment that Elliot Rodger had not gone on a killing spree in California. Put it out of your mind, to the extent that you can. Then watch his last YouTube performance. It’s about seven minutes long.
Up until the point he started talking about storming a sorority house, the words “whiny punk” came to my mind. Really? Sitting there in his shiny BMW complaining that the popular kids wouldn’t play with him? That he was, gasp, a virgin at 22, as though casual sex was a natural right? And all those pretty girls who wouldn’t pay him — an undiscovered god among men — the time of day! He’ll show them. He will annihilate them all.
It would all be a tragi-comic farce if he hadn’t acted out, killing six others, and wounding 13 more, before turning a gun on himself.
So we’ll endure now another round in the debate about guns vs. mental illness. On one side, those who abhor gun violence, and therefore guns — the position to which I am most drawn: We’ve more guns than people in the United States. The weapons aren’t used to keep us secure from government. We’ve no militia to turn against tyrants. Instead, we kill one another, often for trifling reasons, as in the Rodger case.
But guns don’t kill people, the National Rifle Association and its minions will respond. Consider carefully the carnage left in Rodgers’ wake: he stabbed three men as part of his rampage. Are we calling for a ban on cutlery? Of course not; the issue is mental illness. We need better mental-health treatment. Why the police were even called to Rodgers’ home in April when his mother grew alarmed at his online ranting. If only the police had acted.
And hence one of the great ironies of the gun debate: We need weapons to protect us against government. Yet we need more government to protect us against the mentally ill. Let’s empower the very beast we need to keep at bay.
The only real winners in this debate are gun manufacturers.
It is not at all obvious to me that mental health explains why some people snap. The Rodger video is certainly chilling. But the young man is not delusional: he knows exactly what he is going to do, and why. He was deprived since puberty the pleasures of the flesh. He couldn’t find a seat at the table of self-indulgence. So he was going to destroy those who had rejected him. He looks and sounds like a self-indulgent little creep.
While there is no doubt the nation needs better mental health service, I’m not sure the Rodgers case has anything to do with serious mental illness.
Indeed, I worry that making his late adolescent rant and deadly tantrum a case study of the need for better mental health treatment will trivialize mental illness.
Rodger looked and sounded like a great number of unhinged souls who haunt the comments sections of online publications. There is great rage and anger in the world at large: If you’ve never received an anonymous email wishing you a virulent case of rectal cancer, you’ve not yet achieved the minimal level of cultural gravity.
We used to call ordinary human weakness sin: There’s envy, greed, rage, to name but a few. Certainly, Rodger is envy writ large. The young man was almost a caricature of envy — “No kisses for me! Ah, the injustice of it all.” To what rung of Hell would Dante have consigned this loveless loser?
But mentally ill?
In the weeks to come, we’ll read thousands of words about Elliot Rodger. Childhood friends, teachers, observers of all sorts will sift through their memories of the young man looking or clues, for signs, that it would all come to this — this deadly, rage-filled end. Isolated symptoms will define how we come to view him. We will push our image of him as close as we can into a recognized form of mental illness, and then seek to make sure something like this will never happen again.
But what if Rodger wasn’t mentally ill? What if a permissive society, a culture without the confidence to assert a vision of the good life, is the real issue?
Consider Elliot Rodger, an apparent child of affluence sitting in his BMW complaining that pretty girls won’t kiss him. That he went to college and did not get to have sex. That the popular kids wouldn’t pay him any mind.
Where did he ever get the idea that he had a right to these things? Who taught him that his desire was the measure of all things? At what point do we stop saying that one must be mentally ill to snap?
What, finally, if Elliot Rodger is merely the prevailing cultural norms taken to their logical extreme? What if Elliot Rodger is simply you on a bad day, acting out the vagrant nightmares of a culture without restraint?
Somehow Elliot Rodger got it into his head to think that producing a video of his life’s sorrow was a good idea. He sat in his luxury car whining about the injustice of it all, complaining that his self-indulgent right to every decadent pleasure had been denied him.
The next day, he sought immortality by going on a killing spree. Then like cowards everywhere, he opted out of facing the consequences, apparently putting a bullet to his own head — the equivalent of the anonymous hate message posted online: Look, look, everyone at my rage, my sorrow, my grief, my inadequacy — just don’t require me to own what I have become.
Elliot Rodger looks less like a victim of mental illness than he does the Culture of Narcissism coming to its logical extreme. If all we are is the sum of our desires, then desire frustrated is the apocalypse. We should worry less about this young man’s mental illness and more about the social malaise that made him possible.