I write this Voice out of disappointment in The Santa Barbara Independent‘s coverage of the violent rampage in Isla Vista. The event deeply disturbed me and broke my heart, but I have also been dismayed by the direction the public discussion has taken in its aftermath. On the whole, the coverage in last week’s Independent sought to make sense of the killings by diagnosing their causes, speculating as to how they might have been prevented, and delving into Elliot Rodger’s persona, but it missed the mark by failing to put the attacks in their proper context: the culture of intense misogyny that dominates Isla Vista.
One piece was titled “Pondering What’s Preventable” and included a discussion of whether a proposed law, which would allow relatives to petition to have local government “order loved ones into treatment,” coupled with more stringent gun control measures might have prevented the attacks. I want say that I am absolutely in favor of stricter gun control laws and better availability of treatment for mental health patients. However, the piece’s treatment of this case did two things: It glossed over the particulars of Rodger’s circumstance that made him a threat, implying that he was dangerous simply by virtue of being “troubled,” and in the process it stigmatized others who struggle with mental health issues as powder kegs who are liable to “snap” if we fail to intervene first.
It certainly was necessary for someone to check in more closely on Rodger, but not simply because of a nebulous mental health problem (the piece stated his diagnosis remains unclear). He killed because he hated women, which he made undeniably clear in his YouTube videos and his lengthy manifesto, yet that detail reads as an afterthought in The Independent, receiving only a small blurb in the profile of the killer “A Killer Exposed” and a brief mention of the #YesAllWomen social media trend in the introductory piece. Rodger’s misogynistic attitude of entitlement to the bodies of women, and his utter contempt for women and people of color, were infinitely more dangerous than whatever mental health problems he dealt with. Frankly, I believe it is worth considering whether we might be so quick to filter these views through the lens of mental illness if Rodger was not from a wealthy white background, given how public discourse plays out about black, brown, or Arab mass murderers who cite motives of hate. Would he still be “crazy” or would he just be a sexist “thug” or “terrorist?” Where is the discussion of how to prevent violence born specifically out of this kind of hate?
The scariest part of Rodger’s misogyny is that it is much more reflective of Isla Vista culture than it is of mental illness. I.V. features a status-based party scene where men use women’s bodies to gain standing, and they often do so without consent. I have personally heard the same disrespect for women that Rodger’s videos featured, voiced casually in I.V. Isla Vista is far from monolithic, however. There is a vast, underrepresented, and routinely ignored portion of I.V. that recognizes the culture of sexualized violence in the town, and recognizes that is an unsafe place for women on a nightly basis. The occurrences of sexual assault, in many different forms, which this part of the community identifies as an ongoing and legitimate issue, are routinely dismissed, downplayed, or flatly ignored by the public and authority figures like the university and the police. Now, when I.V.’s culture of misogyny has produced a horrific act of violence worthy of national news, the long-overdue discussion it should spark has been stifled because most of the coverage has treated Isla Vista as a community victimized by a crazed madman, rather than as a contributing element to the attack.
The closest The Independent‘s coverage came to dealing with these systemic causes of this incident was in the piece comparing Rodger to another Isla Vista mass murderer, David Attias. But the piece misses a chance for a legitimate discussion of how systematic gentrification has allowed I.V.’s current culture to develop and instead makes a misleading (not to mention classist and downright insulting) comparison of SBCC and UCSB with zero apparent relevance to the murders. The piece describes SBCC as a “backdoor into the UC system for low-achieving” students and implies that the school’s recruitment of out of state/international students is the leading cause of I.V.’s “Darwinian rental-housing market.” Rather than a “back door,” SBCC is for many, as it was for me, the lone feasible avenue to an affordable education given UCSB’s steadily increasing tuition, which has allowed I.V. landlords to increase rent and evict families and the working-class population in favor of students with deep-pocketed parents. UCSB is public in its role in facilitating these changes; skeptics need only to google “Isla Vista master plan” to find information on the ongoing project to transform I.V. to resemble a State Street-esque shopping mecca for wealthy students.
The point here is this: The UC has been complicit in turning I.V. into what it is today — a slum, complete with slum lords and sky-high population density, but one with an astronomical cost of living, populated almost exclusively by college-age kids with access to money. The school may be publicly embarrassed by the town’s “party scene,” a term that often functions as a euphemism for “rape culture,” but it gains immensely from the creation of an environment where twenty-somethings are unchecked and on their own. So when we want to have a discussion about institutional factors that led to this mass murder or ways it should have been prevented, we need to include the university and its partnership with commercial developers in that discussion. These processes have created the culture that fosters attitudes like those expressed in Rodger’s videos and writings.
Violence against women happens with regularity in I.V. Stricter gun control may well have prevented that phenomenon from playing out in this new, horrific way, but that is far from the only or even the most important measure we must take to stop the pattern of misogynist violence that the attacks fall into in I.V. Isla Vista certainly must come together in the aftermath of this event, but part of coming together must mean dealing head-on with the fact that I.V.’s culture was not simply victimized by a violent anomaly: It was also a contributing factor to the murders. In working to prevent something like this from happening again, let’s prioritize changing the culture that allows for other acts of violence to happen nightly. And let’s hold every institution that facilitates, foments, or ignores I.V.’s misogyny accountable.