No Lesson Plan: notes on a shooting

As something people experience and express, sexism is intensely variable. For some, systems of hate and fear are never more than a background hum. For others, those systems manifest themselves as discrimination in the workplace, police violence, and worse.

People with the Isla Vista killer’s suite of disorders (a cocktail of schizo-paranoid-psychotic thinking mixed with who knows what disorders) will tap into the grid of hate and fear. Sexist thinking seems to have given a shape to his persecution complex. It seems to have legitimized a God-like complex. This is to say that aspects of this person’s writings are surely sexist, but they are also hallmarks of certain kinds of paranoid/psychotic formation. Supremacist logics are grounded in these paranoid/psychotic/schizo formations. History does not suffer from want of evidence on that score. What to do with the coincidence (the happening-in-the-same-time-and-place) of the crazy and the real? With the singular (the “shooter”) and the systemic (“sexism”)?

Not all people who go on murder sprees leave an accessible archive of their psychosis behind them – this seems to be more and more common, however, as social media gives people new ways of expressing those thoughts. How should we read them? In fact, why does the public read them at all? What do they tell us that his murder spree doesn’t?

I’ve had the unfortunate fortune of working with detectives who specialize in threats, stalking, and intimate partner violence. They have an interesting way of looking at things. They are concerned by the way that a person’s tilt into violence is generally accompanied by a suicidal not-caring about what might happen to others, or to themselves. These detectives have a chance to prevent murder. What makes a person violent – as a question – concerns them deeply.  One scary scenario involves the projection of the death-drive onto the object of a campaign of harassment – in which hate/fear/desire drives a fantasy of mutual destruction – the object of their hate/fear/desire (the person who is the object of attachment but also rage) is absorbed into a suicidal mission. A person might dream of that cataclysm, but an awareness, a certain grip on the sane – a desire to live, a desire to stay out of jail – might keep them from acting that fantasy out. When that awareness falls apart – when that sense of a modest future of not-murder/not-suicide fades – that is one place where murder happens.

Women victims constitute a vast majority of their cases; perhaps because in disordered thinking the consequences of harassing and threatening women feels less serious – easier to get away with. That is, indeed, one shape that sexism takes. And, statistically, men are more likely to act out these murder/suicide fantasies – one of patriarchy’s signatures is its naturalization of a man’s impulse to harm and destroy. (A bitter twist: socially, threats of violence issued by women are taken less seriously; threats between men may also be taken less seriously as men are imagined as less vulnerable. So same-sex intimate partner violence may be ignored, minimized, its murderous potential disavowed or absorbed into a homophobic narrative.)

Sexism circulates as an explanation and as a fertilizer and as a foundation for all kinds of misery. It explains everything and nothing.

What made the people murdered by that guy vulnerable to his violence? Sexism is a part of that story, but there are other things that escape that word. One might meditate on sex and its relation to power; one might consider this historical moment as one in which things feel pointless, when life within the US feels pretty desperate – like living in the middle of an egomaniacal and embittered monster. What makes the world so chaotic, what makes the college campus and the female student such a compelling target? That’s sexism but it is also, say, a distortion of class warfare.

What makes someone want to burn down not only their life, but the world? To shoot up a sorority or deli, to drive his car into a crowd, to murder men while the sleep (one theory as to how he killed his roommates). To mainline the worst of everything?

I will not read that guy’s text or watch his video – I refuse out of respect to his victims, for, in fact, the broadcast of those messages – some kind of master-narrative – was surely one of his desires – but I do not need to read them to know what they say. Master narratives are always sexist and racist, self-serving and, at their core, crazy.

Sexism gave a sense of legitimacy to his psychotic narrative. And yet he didn’t only murder women; he started off by murdering his male roommates and one of their friends. He did not only blame women for his unhappiness; he blamed the men around him, too. Yes, we can understand that as part of sexism’s logics. We might also understand heterosexual culture as fucked up – the designation of women as the obstacles to sexual happiness is one of the heterosexuality’s worst features. He started off killing the people closest to him, however – these men (whom we can guess he was also harassing) were murdered with a knife. He murdered two women, four men. Most of his victims were men of color.

Sexism is such a powerful narrative structure – it gave him his “reason” – should it also give us so much explanatory force with regards these horrific events? People are compelled by his own explanation for his actions. But how much more do we need to know in order to understand that racism, sexism and class warfare were part of his life, and are part of ours?

Of course it is a good thing that so many people are thinking and talking about the relationship of sexism to violence, especially if that conversation unfolds with an awareness of how proximate discourse on “protecting” women from violence is to racist expressions of violence, especially if that conversation unfolds in the interest of maximal sexual freedom and happiness, and less carving up of the world by gender. As a queer theorist, however, I notice that the state of sexual emergency which we encounter in and around today’s campus makes advocacy for sexual freedom, for sexual generosity more difficult. More confusing and strange.

That this killer – a man – drove to a sorority seems to give this story some kind of shape. But does it, really?

Last week, in Santa Barbara, a profoundly distressed young man took all the pain and all the misery of his experience and loaded it into a gun. He enacted a murderous fantasy in the name of his desire. Whatever his rationale, he was an equal opportunity killer.

The knife, the gun – the act of violence – what meaning it bestows on the world is itself a brutality. What is there to think from such a place?


  1. One point you don’t mention. When is the US going to change its gun laws? There are sexist and racist idiots everywhere – including the UK – but when we had the Dunblane massacre we changed our gun laws. Eevn our Olympic shooters have to train outside the country. While this guy is clearly an idiot how did he get guns? In the UK it would have been a lot harder (maybe impossible) for him to get guns leagally.There are far too many events like this in the US .So much so I’m afraid to say as a Brit they don’t really shock me anymore. Obama needs to man up and bring in gun control. it will upset the gun fanatics but so what? If it stops even one massacre it would be worth it. He needs to be brave like the UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron who legalised same sex marriage against the majority of the homophobes in his own party.

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