Fame, media and mass shootings: Culture plays a role in creating these tragedies

Guest Opinion: We can no longer ignore the role of our media-obsessed culture in shaping the attitudes of vulnerable young men toward crime.
Seattle Pacific University

Seattle Pacific University Rob Ketcherside

The crime scene inside Seattle Pacific University's Otto Miller Hall.

The crime scene inside Seattle Pacific University's Otto Miller Hall. SPD

As the details unfold in the mass shooting on the Seattle Pacific University campus less than two weeks after the mass shooting at the University of California Santa Barbara, the proximity of these two events is alarming. Details on the motivation of the shooter in this most recent incident are still coming out, with reports indicating that the accused gunman, 26-year-old Aaron Ybarra, was obsessed with the Columbine High School shootings, had visited Colorado to see the murder site, and wanted to shoot up a school.

It would have been difficult for anyone, including Ybarra, to miss the news coverage on the University of California Santa Barbara mass murder committed by Elliot Rodger — yet another tragic incident that points to the need to examine the complex and potentially lethal interaction between media technology, culture, and violence.

For months before he committed mass murder on the University of California Santa Barbara campus, Elliot Rodger, son of the assistant director of the Hunger Games movies, posted a string of publicly available videos on YouTube and his Google+ account.

Through online anti-women and bodybuilding groups, he communicated his views about “sorority girls,” who were his monstrous enemies and who deserved to be destroyed. And in the 141-page manifesto that he circulated to friends and family, he referred to himself as an addict of the World of Warcraft online games. Apart from the much-circulated “Retribution” video in which he warns “stuck-up blonde sluts” and “sexually active men” of utter annihilation, he made other videos, including one in which he talks about how jealous he is as he watches a couple kissing on a waterfront bench. In one video, he drives his car along palm tree-lined streets while winking at the camera and dancing to the Whitney Houston song “How will I know?” Elliot Rodger’s final “Retribution” video is a hauntingly grandiose rant in which he sits in his BMW with a latte and refers to himself as “the perfect guy,” “the true alpha male,” “the supreme gentleman,” and “God” as he describes the rejection he experienced as a 22-year-old virgin. He refers to his victims as “animals” who treated him like a “mouse.”

The incident raises questions about the unprecedented use of the Internet to publicly share videotaped narrations and communication of his motive, thought process, and omnipotence. The killings of seven people (including himself) and the wounding of 13 others force us to examine aspects of our culture that could have contributed to the nature and dynamics of the crime he ultimately committed.

What made this young man believe that he will go down in history as a hero for publicly spewing misogynist hatred, verbally and systematically articulating the mental mechanisms of a psychopath, and acting on his displaced aggressive urges to destroy in a violent rampage?

Elliot Rodger’s behavior was media-mediated to an extent we have never seen before in human history. It is difficult to watch Rodger’s videos without being reminded of the Columbine killers’ “basement tapes,” the Virginia Tech gunman’s photo diary, the BTK Killer’s Academy Award-inspired sentencing speech for his crimes committed in Kansas between the 1970s and the start of the ’90s, and The Dark Knight Rises theater mass murder by a gasmask-clad killer proclaiming he was the Joker. There was also 18-year old Devin Moore who murdered a police officer and dispatcher in Alabama after playing hours of Grand Theft Auto Vice City and told police when he was caught, “Life is like a video game. Everybody’s got to die sometime.” Natural Born Killers-inspired copycat sprees were committed by multiple teenage couples in the United States and Europe. A wrongful death lawsuit against Stone asserted that the film incited violence and that Stone and Time Warner intended the violent effect of the film. The case was remanded to the Louisiana court and eventually dismissed; but this case was the first of its kind in which a Supreme Court ruling let stand a state court's rejection of 1st Amendment free speech claims.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Jun 9, 1:10 p.m. Inappropriate

Ms. Helfgott's recognition the acts of mass murderers are expressions of a morally imbecilic celebrity culture is probably an important theoretical breakthrough in clinical psychology and is undoubtedly an essential step toward devising strategies and tactics for preventing such atrocities.

Meanwhile Dan Mahle argues elsewhere in today's Crosscut that patriarchy's taboos against the healthy expression of male emotions also cripple our gender's ability to empathize with others, which underscores a key and probably pivotal deficit in the psyches of mass murderers.

Perhaps significantly, Mr. Mahle's text, which I think is weakened by over-use of human-potential jargon, has evoked a lengthy and somewhat contentious comment thread, while Ms. Helfgott's work – which I suspect may eventually prove as cutting-edge as Marshal McLuhan's was during the 1960s – has seemingly been ignored by every Crosscut reader save myself. (Could it be Seattlites are hereby once again exhibiting their notorious disdain of intellectuals?)

In any case, while both writers have contributed useful insights, each has failed to acknowledge the atrocities committed by today's mass murderers – particularly those who attack students (or any other group of people who are rendered defenseless by statute) – are merely acting out an extreme form of the predator/prey dynamic that is central to capitalism.

The relationship between capitalism and mass murder comes into sharp focus when we recognize how the core coda of capitalism is – exactly as Ayn Rand makes clear in her boardroom fictionalizations of Mein Kampf – the elevation of infinite greed to maximum virtue. The essence of capitalism is thus revealed as the conscious rejection of every humanitarian principle our species has ever articulated -- a subset of which is the very lack of empathy Mr. Mahle decries.

Moreover, in the U.S. public schools of today, dominated as they are by Big Business, Rand's texts are typically required reading. This often means the first effectively assertive ideological advocacy encountered by impressionable adolescents is the lavishly rewarded moral imbecility of Rand's heroes and heroines. Here, of course, is a point at which the violent celebrity culture Ms. Helfgott rightfully indicts can readily be transformed from (passive) context to (active) exemplar.

As a (now semi-retired) journalist who has covered violence ranging from the love-triangle shotgun murders characteristic of the South to the ghetto rebellions and police-riots of the Northeast (but never -- thank whatever deities might or might not exist -- a massacre like Columbine or Sandy Hook), I am well aware of the unofficial, unwritten decrees of censorship that define capitalism as sacrosanct.

I also recognize how these same mandates severely punish anyone who dares so much as even obliquely imply capitalism might be at the root of our dystopian disorders, mass murders among them.

But perhaps someone somewhere in the United States will be brave enough to do what David Smail has already done in Great Britain – that is, connect the psychological dots between the moral imbecility of the capitalist aristocracy and the kindred behavior that too often erupts amongst the rest of us.

Posted Tue, Jun 10, 11:26 a.m. Inappropriate

lorenbliss states:

"Moreover, in the U.S. public schools of today, dominated as they are by Big Business, Rand's texts are typically required reading."

Are you serious? Do you have any documentation? In what school districts etc is Ayn Rand required reading?

I don't doubt that many people would like it to be so. But you say that " Rand's texts are typically required reading". Do you have any facts?

Posted Wed, Jun 11, 12:59 p.m. Inappropriate

If by "capitalism" you mean a system of exploitation of the weak by the strong, and the powerless by the powerful, I somewhat agree, although our current economic system is an outgrowth of industrialism, which may already be defunct in a post-industrial era. Power, however, is eternal. Money, as an expression of power, is just some tomorrow's scrap of paper. On the other hand, in the cybernetic era, information is power.

Last I checked, "mass murderer" is a term that should be reserved for the Eichmanns of this world. Attaching the word "mass" to these guys' acts gives them way to much credit and only encourages emulation, copycatting, and one-up-ism (I can kill more than you), if not also contagion.

What they are is "spree killers", and they often fail at doing even that. What we are seeing here are the petulant acts of the murderously childish. They are the last desperate acts of not just the powerless, but of the scorned, ridiculed, and belittled. The bottom of the heap, the less than zeroes. Don't mistake empathy for pity, which is the epitome of contempt.

That there are more and more of them might mean something, but don't expect the vapid musings of academics such as Ms. Helfgott to even scratch the surface, let alone get to the bottom of it. For that you need to leave the platitudes behind.

Posted Mon, Jun 9, 1:13 p.m. Inappropriate

No sense of being valued, no sense of personal responsibility for actions, and no sense of future for these individuals. No wonder escape via whatever means, seems more desirable than the dead end existence they are living. The system or as the good Dr. says, the culture, failed these guys a long time ago, and bad seeds have no germination or incubation time limit.

Djinn

Posted Mon, Jun 9, 10:35 p.m. Inappropriate

Dear Professor Helfgott.

What are you suggesting?
(I wrote a long preface and then deleted it.)

One direction you might be suggesting is censorship of media. Is that your intention?

You say, in plain words, that Rodger was "under the influence" of the media.
"He was operating under the influence of mass media, celebrity culture and the glorification of psychopathic values."

To a layperson that sounds like Rodger did not -- as with, say, alcohol -- have the capacity to act on his own. And having grown up in media, he did not even have the choice to voluntarily drink "the media" -- it was given to him with his baby bottle.

Which means he is not guilty? That society is guilty? Media institutions in particular?

And thus the remedy is to put the truly guilty party -- media -- in jail and control it i.e. censor media and control access to it and further media creations?

Is that where you are going? Or do I completely misunderstand your meaning?

Posted Tue, Jun 10, 12:48 a.m. Inappropriate

David - Thank you for your comments and questions, No, I am not suggesting censorship as a solution. Nor, do I think that understanding Rodger as under the influence of mass media means that he did not have the capacity to understand the nature and consequences of his acts. However, from a criminological perspective, mass media technology can be a risk factor for criminal behavior in a subset of violence-prone individuals that becomes intertwined with MO and crime signature. There are all kinds of stories that can be told. Increasing the number of stories that have prosocial versus antisocial consequences and understanding how changes in media technology affect subsets of violence prone individuals does not have to mean censorship. Increasing knowledge and discussion about how certain stories presented in particular ways influence violence prone individuals provides insight into the nature of these sort of offense behaviors. What I am suggesting is that we engage in a deeper dialogue about these issues that moves beyond the oversimplified idea of censorship as a response and that we need to examine the ways in which cultural transmission of stories of grandiosity, fame,and omnipotence through mass media technology contribute to and characterize crimes like those committed by Rodger and Ybarra.There are complex interactions between individual, cultural, and media factors that contribute to these sorts of criminal behaviors and few empirical studies on the copycat effect and media-mediated violence. However, we do know enough from multiple lines of research in media effects, criminology, psychology to be able to speculate and design research to further examine what kinds of cultural features and media sources have the potential to exacerbate the copycat effect. For example, there is a potentially lethal combination when you mix violence-prone individuals with mental health problems with media that blurs boundaries between fantasy and reality through specific techniques with cultural glorification of omnipotence, celebrity, and violent masculinity. So a first step would be to engage in a movement to culturally deconstruct the notion that omnipotence, entitlement, devaluation, fame, and violent masculinity are positive values.

Posted Tue, Jun 10, 8:06 a.m. Inappropriate

Thx Jacqueline.

It sounds like the core "action statement" is, as you write, "So a first step would be to engage in a movement to culturally deconstruct the notion that omnipotence, entitlement, devaluation, fame, and violent masculinity are positive values."

"Culturally deconstruct" is a term of art and not widely understood by the vast majority. (In fact "omnipotence, entitlement, devaluation, fame, and violent masculinity" may also be special terms in your expertise so elaboration there might be helpful.)

And since this is a very important topic -- prevent crime -- could you please explain what it means and how to "culturally deconstruct the notion that omnipotence, entitlement, devaluation, fame, and violent masculinity are positive values"?

Please bring it down to simple stuff with examples. In plain English. Thx very much.

Posted Tue, Jun 10, 10:13 a.m. Inappropriate

David - Point well taken. What it means to culturally deconstruct the notion that omnipotence, entitlement, devaluation, fame, and violent masculinity are positive values is that more individuals, groups, and non-profit and for-profit organizations need to work at increasing the nature and number of images, messages, and stories that celebrate humility, empathy, kindness, and conscience to successfully compete with the oversaturation of images, messages, and stories that celebrate omnipotence, entitlement, devaluation, fame, and violent masculinity. Each and every one of us need to make decisions everyday to not validate language, actions, behaviors, or messages that glorify these negative values in our everyday life, in our children's schools, in our conversations with our children, and in our interactions with our neighbors. Of course as the author of the previous comment mentioned, much of this - what messages we are all exposed to is dictated by the marketplace and consumer culture. It means listening hard to Richard Martinez the father of the Santa Barbara incident victim Chris Martinez when he says "Not one more" instead of throwing up our hands and saying that violent crime and these mass shootings are committed by madmen who are uncontrollable and unpredictable and there's nothing we can do about it except to hunker down and hope for the best. Of course the issue is complicated and not just a matter of mass media technology and culture -- it is a matter of examining potential reform from every angle --- mental health, gun control, criminal justice and threat management, and accepting that yes, we have a 1st amendment and limiting free speech is not the answer, however, making responsible, informed, evidence-based decisions about the "stuff" that saturates our culture, and at minimum having knowledge about how this cultural stuff affects people, especially violence prone people, is what I am talking about. There have been many groups working toward this -- MissRepresentation, Jackson Katz's work on changing the culture of violent masculinity, The Cultural Indicators Project to name a few. We need more of this, and we need it to come from every angle, along with Richard Martinez's attitude on a widespread scale of "Not One More."

Posted Wed, Jun 11, 12:15 a.m. Inappropriate

"Each and every one of us need to make decisions everyday to not validate language, actions, behaviors, or messages that glorify these negative values in our everyday life, in our children's schools, in our conversations with our children, and in our interactions with our neighbors."

Thx, though I didn't think that Derrida et al were known for doing for Parenting/Life 101.:)

Posted Wed, Jun 11, 10 a.m. Inappropriate

Ultimately, if you can't see yourself as the star of your own (action) movie, you can only see yourself as an "extra" (a non-speaking part). Mass anomie (or alienation) is the flip side of celebrity worship.

What I'm not seeing in your analysis is any attempt to understand why, for instance, sex and violence sells, and not just to males. Culture is reflective of broad social, psychological, and economic forces. Blame-shifting all fault onto one sex is not going to solve the problem, and could be making it worse.

Posted Sat, Jun 14, 9:07 p.m. Inappropriate

The fact (pretty indisputable by now given his life history and his parents' constant attempts to help him) that Rodger was mentally ill and yet he was able to legally register for the purchase of guns means that our culture needs a bit of revision. However, it doesn't demand such an improbable if not impossible shift as suggested by Mr. Helfgott. It would simply mean a revision in the involuntary commitment laws of whatever state has tightened to the point where an individual can't be committed unless they are in the act of attempting to kill themselves or someone else. If that involuntary institutionalization doesn't happen, gun purchase is legal in both Washington and California (and probably other states I'm not aware of). Those laws must be revised or these deaths will continue.

sarah90

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