This week a man walked into a community center and place of spiritual refuge with the means and intent to kill. He used a high-powered instrument of murder to shoot unarmed people, targeting women and children, as they ran. He shot the wounded at close range. He ended 49 lives and damaged many more.
This boggles the mind. As we try to understand his capability to do this the psychological understanding and empathy we might have for this awful person slips away. We think of him as a monster, an aberration. The whole thing seems like a break in normality, a freak occurrence or an act of nature. This line of thinking is comforting. But it’s wrong. The uncomfortable reality is that the killer is a person, someone with whom you share a common humanity.
It is not mental illness that tips the scale. There is a kind of rationality to his actions and a culture that informs his motives. As I type this post, on anonymous image boards, people are engaging with the logic of this hideous crime. Some, having seen the consequences of their trolling and the culture that spawned it are recoiling in horror. Others are doubling down, turning first person footage of his murders into memes by using video editing software to impose video-game graphics and score counters onto real life film of bloody slaughter.
How can anyone be this callous? The killer’s actions were the product of a culture. Cultures are systems of internal logic and meaning. This one combined division, purity and trolling to justify mass murder.
I ran into a version of this in 2012. It shattered my worldview. I’ve lived most of my life with a strong faith in the essential goodness of humanity. I thought that bigotry was the product of ignorance. I was wrong. What was broken by my field-encounter with naked hate was the innocent presumption that hate couldn’t be rational or deliberate. Hate has a kind of logic, and it exists in conjunction with an exclusive type of empathy and it is bolstered by an internal rationality. Just like humanism, the drive to kill can be cultivated through a type of learning. And it is constantly made, at home and abroad, from thought and feelings that are common to us all. Getting there is a matter of decisions.
What motivates mass murder?
As a scholar of human nature this revelation generated too many questions for me to ignore. The logic of hate pretended to be scientific. These people argued for racism, both the biological and cultural types, insisting that separation of people was a scientific necessity. This is scientifically absurd and easily debunked. But it proliferates. Not just among the ‘crazies’ and the radicalized, but on Facebook and Twitter, on the streets and in parliamentary statements. Racism is a kind of thinking with roots in simple division. Lines are drawn, over and over, between ethnic groups, subcultures, political tribes and preferences in consumer goods. The basis of racism is a simple as dividing the world into us and them. You’ve done it. I know I have. This is the unscientific and illogical rationality of division. It is the basis of discrimination. It’s a key ingredient to mass murder.
When I got back from Europe a thing called Gamergate was happening. In a nutshell, this was a cultural conflict between the progressive and conservative factions of the video game world. What struck me was how much the rhetoric of the conservative faction had in common with the rhetoric of the white nationalists I interviewed in Europe. There was a story of an invasion into their realm by an inauthentic ‘other’ – the feminists were coming to destroy the world of video games. As time went on it turned out that this rhetorical overlap wasn’t an accident. #Gamergate was a case study in radicalization. The lesson was that getting people to internalize a defensive mindset is key to activating action. The logic is as follows: good things are pure and static, and bad people are always out to destroy or change them. Virtue is defined by a person’s willingness to protect the good from the bad. This is a simplification of virtue. It redirects our empathy inside, to those we’ve categorized as good like ourselves and away from those who are bad and different. And good people need to act – to protect the good from the bad – to prove that they’re on the right team. This too is super ‘normal’. Look at your news feed, won’t take long to find an example. This is the logic of radical divisions between the left and the right, proponents of #metoo and its critics, vegans and meat eaters, spiritualists and militant atheists. This logic splits complex issues into black and white positions and turns humans with complex thinking into soldiers in a binary moral war. It’s also another key ingredient to mass murder.
The world is divided; the people in it are sorted into the good and the bad. Action defines character. Pieces are in place, but another thing is needed: The capacity to switch off empathy completely. To dehumanize the bad people until all remorse and hesitation is gone. This is where digital troll culture comes into play. Trolling is an expression of detached action. It allows us to turn people into symbols of things we hate about the world. Trolling also provides ironic distance, turning attacks into games and spite into humor. Finally, trolling feels good. It feels like action in the face of injustice, ignorance or challenge. It feeds the ego and offers a sense of power. As Ginger Gorman points out in her book Troll Hunting, trolling is a tool of power, used most effectively by intelligent people with deep wounds and dark tendencies. It is organized, it has a support structure, it has a logic and culture. It’s also linked to terroristic action.
What do we know about the shooter? We know that he was wounded by the death of his father. We know that his mother was a teacher. We know he lived online – a regular visitor to the anonymous chan boards. We know that he trolled, even as he wrote his manifesto. We know he saw the world as divided. We know he travelled and thought the ‘purity’ of each place threatened by migration. We know he saw Australia and New Zealand as white. We know he met people who lived in a culture of division. We know extremists and mainstream pundits alike inspired him. We know he measured virtue by action.
His ideas were radical, but the ingredients that created them were mainstream. Politicians around the world (notably in Australia) trade on division and virtue and engage in trolling with increasing frequency. And I’m not just talking about out-there backbenchers.
When I was in Europe interviewing white nationalists I didn’t see monsters. Listening to their stories, I found that these were people who found themselves at a series of crossroads. Driven by pain or the pressure of relatable circumstances they picked a path. Each turn would lead them away from empathy, consideration and community. A sign that offered ‘virtue’, ‘courage’, ‘truth’, or ‘power’ marked each of those bad turns. These were perverted versions of ideals we all share. They felt right to the people who made those choices at the time and they traveled those roads until an enemy was clear and violence was justified.
We are all at those crossroads, constantly making decisions about where we want to go. We use each turn to rationalize our world. We verbalize it. We do it online and we do it in real life. Even if we are joking, we internalize what we say and defend our right to say it. Our identities are socially constructed. The mass murder that occurred this week might seem monstrous to us, but the perpetrator was, in many ways, like us all. Each decision was the product of an inter-subjective interaction between his ideas and the ideas of the people around him. How we interact with the world matters. His actions were the destination of a journey of thought.
Chose your next turn carefully.