The reaction to the massacre in Isla Vista on May 23rd has been characterized by a myriad of responses. Some news media took the license of stating that Elliot Rodger murdered six because he felt deprived of female sexual attention. This provoked outrage from those who pointed out Rodger's lengthy manifesto included such overt, over-the-top misogyny as the suggestion that women be put in concentration camps. On Twitter, women tied Rodger's extreme misogynist beliefs to the misogyny inherent in stalking and street harassment behaviors. This movement was met with a considerable protest from people who claimed the resulting hashtag was derailing attention from the murders. One victim's parents made an anti-gun appeal to the media; commentators were quick to note that several of the victims had been stabbed to death.
Is there anything that we can agree on about Elliot Rodger?
Yes. We all agree: Elliot Rodger killed because he was crazy.
Elliot Rodger had a diagnosis before he had a name. Before police even confirmed Rodger's identity as the spree killer, his family's lawyer made a statement which included the facts that Rodger had been diagnosed with Aspberger's syndrome and had sought psychiatric care in the past. These facts were released by Rodger's family directly after his death, implying association. There remains a widely-held assumption that Rodger's supposed mental health issues were a major contributing factor to his criminal behavior.
Most people accept, implicitly, that some sort of hybrid of the legal, medical and cultural definitions of "crazy" exists, and that Elliot Rodger was the living embodiment of this diagnosis.
The problem is that Elliot Rodger repeatedly demonstrated that he doesn't fit any of our diagnostic criteria for "crazy."
1) Rodger wasn't legally crazy.
Three weeks before his murderous spree, Rodger neatly quashed any future contention that he acted in a state of legal insanity. Rodger was visited in his apartment by sheriff's deputies performing a welfare check on behalf of his parents, who had alerted local health authorities that they were concerned about the young man, reportedly because of his internet posting behavior. The deputies found Rodger polite and compliant. After the killings, a police spokesman confirmed Rodger successfully "downplayed concerns" during the visit and that the police left his apartment confident he was not a danger to himself or others. We now know at the time of this friendly visit, Rodger was already hoarding guns and ammo for his attacks just a room away from where he spoke to the sheriff's deputies. Rodger responded shrewdly to this close call with the law; he increased the secrecy of his planning process by limiting his habit of gloating about his plans on the internet.
In order to be considered legally insane, Rodger would need to have been experiencing "mental illness of such a severe nature that a person cannot distinguish fantasy from reality, cannot conduct her/his affairs due to psychosis, or is subject to uncontrollable impulsive behavior." Rodger knew what he was doing was heinous and criminal, he planned his affairs with aplomb, and he easily abstained from displaying illegal behavior when he felt at risk of detection by law enforcement. Just like countless mass killers before him, from the Columbine shooters to the Unibomber, Rodger conducted himself in a fashion which doesn't even approach the legal standard for insanity.
2) Was Elliot Rodger "medically" crazy?
Admittedly, the legal standard for insanity is the highest standard. What of medical standards?
A quick look at the "DSM-5," the authoritative text on mental health diagnosis, is impossible; the text is as labyrinthine and technical as the impenetrable acronym suggests. Critics of the paradigm of the DSM-5 state that the manual labels many normal behaviors such as grief or aging as illnesses, and still does not reproducibly, accurately describe the kind of severe impairments that would lead a person to be declared legally insane.
If a net is so small you catch things you don't want, but too big to catch the things you do want, is it even a net?
Physicians are used to the sort of diagnosis you can hang your hat on. They diagnose conditions based on measurable biological characteristics such as high blood levels of a certain enzyme, an enlarged organ, or a damaged tissue. Physicians typically care little for the vagaries of the DSM-5, and instead often diagnose patients with whatever is needed to treat them in a fashion which is covered by private insurance.
So even if we dig into the DSM-5 and find the autism spectrum disorders, of which Aspberger's syndrome is arguably one of the least pervasive, what are actually catching hold of? In defiance of the DSM-5, many people with "autism spectrum disorders" laud the category as a completely functional and distinctive "neurotype," noting the happy lifestyles, dutiful work habits and cognitive acumen of many autism "sufferers." And even in the dusty depths of the DSM-5, there is absolutely no association between autism spectrum disorders and violence.
All we know from Elliot Rodger's family is that historically, a doctor gave him this fairly innocent "diagnosis" in order to get him into some sort of treatment program. Based on existing public knowledge about Rodger's mental health, we can conclude either that there was nothing medically wrong with Rodger, or there is something medically wrong with all of us.
Those who protest that certain highly stigmatized corners of the DSM-5, such as the famed "personality disorders," "schizophrenia," and "bipolar disorder" do have a meaningful, unified characteristic, a true craziness, should observe that physicians and psychologists have utterly failed identify to find any such unifying "craziness" criterion in the last dozen decades.
Pay very close attention to the fact that violence itself is not the unifying criterion of "crazy." Neither in law nor in medicine is it reflected that mental illness is inherently violent. In fact, for the last 30 years, it has been accepted by the mainstream psychological and medical communities that mentally ill people are no more likely than other citizens to commit violent acts against others. Additionally, it is thought that only a tiny fraction of all violent crimes are committed by mentally ill individuals. [Link to Google Scholar.]
3) Crazy narratives: can we still call Elliot Rodger crazy?
Let's take a hard look at our cultural construction of mental illness.
Do you feel that someone who killed six people must have been crazy?
Do you feel that there had to be something "wrong" with them?
When you use words like "sick," "mentally ill," or "disturbed" regarding Rodger's behavior, how does that line up with the fact that mentally healthy individuals commit violent acts against others at the same rate as people who are actually diagnosed and treated for mental illness?
If you speak politely about people in treatment for, say, anxiety, and reserve a word like "crazy" for people who violate your social expectations, how are you not using "crazy" as a slur?
In the case of Elliot Rodger, how are you not using "crazy" as the worst slur?
The cultural construction of "crazy" is a word we use to describe people who steal, cheat, lie, rape, and murder. But we already have terms for those behaviors: unethical, illegal, immoral. We don't need this damaged, damaging cultural construction of "crazy."
When you call a murderer "crazy" because he killed, you're lying. You're telling a lie that's been told a million times, and a lie you still believe. You're repeating the falsehood that mental illness causes violence. You're perpetuating the stigma that keeps mentally ill people from seeking help.
Full disclosure: the scholarly papers I linked above describe the consensus that having mental illness makes people more likely to harm themselves, and — this is critical — makes people more likely to be harmed by others. Again, with the vast majority of violence in society being attributable to people who aren't mentally ill, that means that statistically, we're seeing a trend where the mentally healthy are being violent toward the mentally ill.
If you're contributing to the stigma against mental illness by using "crazy" as a slur, you're promoting a culture that puts mentally ill people at a great risk of being victims of violence.
If you want to describe how different Elliot Rodger is from how you are, how you feel, the way you act, speak up! If you abhor violence, detest weapons, or reject hate speech, speak up! We have words for what Elliot Rodger did. "Murder," "misogyny," "illegal discharge of a firearm;" hell, we even have etiquette books and speed limits. Speak up, and say what you mean.
I leave you with a hypothetical. If Elliot Rodger was crazy — if he had a diagnosis that sounded more dodgy, if he went to treatment and took pills and had counseling sessions — well, so what?
If Elliot Rodger really was mentally ill, so what?
Even if it comes out tomorrow that Elliot Rodger had a diagnosed and treated mental illness, that has absolutely no bearing on the fact that he murdered six people.