The Santa Barbara Shooter: That Guy Was in My Class

Oh. My. God. That guy's been in my class.

It was my first thought as I watched Elliott Rodger's youtube channel. All of those cry-for-help videos have now been seen by thousands since he went mad and took his legally purchased guns to try to prove what he thought was important: He was the "alpha-male."

No, I don't teach at UC Santa Barbara, and no, I've never met Elliott specifically, and yet, that guy's been in my classes on a few occasions over the years. And though he's a difficult student to teach, I'm always glad he's there because often, he's on the verge of doing horrible things -- maybe not murder, but things that show a sense of entitlement to what he perceives as "the good life." Usually that means finding a traditionally beautiful woman to adore him or have sex with him. He usually also want money and the respect of men like him. What else is there? He can't imagine that there's anything else worth wanting.

That guy's been in my class. And when the class starts talking about gender, he's usually baffled, incredulous at the fact that there are views other than his in the world. He reads and discusses with disbelief, and sometimes, I see him soften his bitterness a bit. Other times I don't see softening, but I know that at least now he knows: there are other ways to see the world. There are people who count human worth differently than the standards by which he judges himself.

I teach in sociology and women's studies and let me be clear: That guy is not usually in a gender or women's studies class. (Once I had that guy in such a class. Did you see that video Rodger's made where he is genuinely asking why women seem to hate him? Imagine having brought that question to a group of women in a college class, asking it in subtle ways, again and again, "Why do women hate me?" But with real people and a professor to explore answers to the question.)

No, that guy usually ends up in one of my other classes. At my university, we offer degrees in criminal justice and sociology and when that guy is in my class, most often he is a criminal justice major. I teach a Sociology of Education course, for instance, and it becomes clear that he's "that guy" when he starts to relive painful moments of his own schooling, of feeling inadequate, being targeted for abuse. It becomes clear when we start to talk about gendered expectations in schools and the way privilege is organized in school systems. That's when that guy reveals himself. And often, he realizes he's not alone and that systems have actually made it more likely that he he'll feel the terrible loneliness that Rodgers expressed in those videos.

Yes, that guy who feels entitled to attention from certain types of women is often a little scary. As much as he exhausts me and makes me want extra pay, it's a good thing that guy shows up in classes like mine. It's a good thing because reading and discussing views with which we don't agree can broaden our thinking. Coming into meaningful dialogue with people we wouldn't normally spend time with, over topics we wouldn't normally discuss can expand how we see the world. It can even make us more content with our small human lives because we come to take pleasure in learning. We feel power in our abilities to connect with and change one another.

Taking a women's studies class will never make that guy more sane. It can possibly change how he focuses his obsessions though. It may prompt him to seek help. And that might make him less likely to murder people as a way to teach women a lesson for not loving him.

The fact is, we live in a country where access to guns is super-easy. We could change that, but we haven't. So, every Elliott Rodgers who wants guns should be assumed to have them. We also live in a culture where people stay pretty segregated. We spend time with people who share similar views, are of similar social class and want similar things -- so every Elliott Rodgers likely has his feelings of inadequacy reinforced daily. Rather than meeting people who could help him see his life differently, he's likely to meet people who share his view that he is a social failure. He also has media telling him that if he doesn't have status himself, he can get it through his girlfriend's/lover's/wife's beauty. People who cross the line into violence can always slip through the cracks, but we also live in a nation where there is no clear system though which people can get help for mental illness. It's hit and miss whether a person will get help. Just like in a drive by shooting. Hit and miss.

I wouldn't dream of suggesting that guys like Elliott Rodgers just need an excellent professor in a women's studies class to sort them out. They just need to hang out with some feminists. That would be ridiculous. And wow, guys like Elliot have been in my classes. I'm glad they were because they seriously need to have their delusions interrupted and no one else seems to be doing it.