As a young straight man who is decidedly not ‘alpha’ in personality, my first reaction to the massacre in Isla Vista, California, last month was to wonder how widespread this attitude is among men a lot saner than Elliot Rodger. When I witnessed a morbid, shocking, and ultimately futile attempt to defend his attitude — if not his actions — by another man, the wonder turned to fear. I agree with feminist commentators like Rebecca Solnit who have placed these horrible crimes in the broader social context that tolerates sexism and violence against women. The fact that a man can consider sexual rejection an “injustice or a “crime” (to quote Mr. Rodger) presupposes a right to sex, and although I have observed this attitude in some men and have read that others consider it a part of “nerd culture,” I have never heard a woman express such views. This alone speaks volumes.
I will only add to the discourse that Mr. Rodger’s attitude has even wider implications. It is not only the toxic byproduct of misogyny in a country that emphasizes social equality — at least in the theoretical sense — but also the consequence of a culture of violence and fractured social relations. Regardless of whatever mental health afflictions Mr. Rodger suffered from, he was clearly responding to a perceived injustice, which sociologist James Gilligan argues is the true motive for violent acts. The question should be how to remove this false sense of injustice and stave off another grotesquely non-comedic ‘revenge of the nerds‘ — assuming Mr. Rodger identified with those who claimed to understand him.
Part of the problem is what self-described nerd Arthur Chu so eloquently lays out: There is a deeply rooted trend in our society, promoted by pop culture, for socially awkward straight guys to stubbornly pursue popular, attractive women considered ‘out of their league’ often against their will. Because these socially awkward guys are often presented as nerdy, dorky, geeky, and otherwise harmless, it is easy to miss the unsettling dynamic that ensues when the guy does not succeed in making his fantasy a reality. Rather than becoming a real friend to the woman, which she insists on — if she is nice — the guy more or less pretends to be her friend and goes out of his way to meet her every need — asking little in return initially — with the hope that some day she will fall for him as she should because after all he is the nice guy who is worthy of her (and the guy she is with or attracted to is, of course, a soulless, brainless asshole beyond redemption). Sound familiar?
Setting aside the seemingly obvious fact that sexual attraction is not something that can be earned, this dynamic is far more than an entertaining drama for those who cannot empathize with the actors and a grim reminder for those who can: it represents a breakdown in healthy human relations that consist of mutual trust, respect, and appreciation. Men not only devalue women when they spend their lives in pursuit of a quest or conquest instead of a person; they also devalue themselves by measuring happiness and success by the quantity and quality of their ultimately shallow and typically fruitless sexual pursuits. The real revenge of the nerds would be for them to approve of themselves before seeking the approval of the attractive, popular woman whose opinion has no bearing on their value as human beings and to seek a partner who loves them for who they are and not the cartoon hero (or villain) they foolishly emulate. I wish Mr. Rodger had learned this lesson.