Sunday, May 25, 2014

The UCSB shooting, PUAs, and hashtag activists

"Henley Gate, UCSB" by Ryosuki Yagi is licensed under CC BY 2.0
As the news has been quick to point out, there was a shooting yesterday at UC Santa Barbara, which started at the suspect's home. Wikipedia, as usual, has a decent compilation of the details. The suspect, who will remain nameless and formless throughout this post - it (not he, not she, not whatever) deserves no further identification or humanization and I will not be the one providing it any. I will be discussing its motives for a bit, though, because there are quite a few things about the incident and people's reactions to it that I find disturbing and, unfortunately, I can't discuss those without discussing the hostile object and why it claims it became murderously hostile.

I'm not happy about that, mind you, but things are what they are.

With that out of the way, let's begin by establishing something - sexual desire is the first instinct a child-adolescent has that, in order for it to be fulfilled in a socially acceptable way, requires consent. Shelter, food, and parental love are all usually given for free before the child has any idea they need these things, much less possess the ability to verbalize that need. Friendship and companionship among peers gets closer, but even then, that's usually a given - children naturally will play with other children. Just watch some at a park sometime.

Sexual desire, on the other hand, is different. It's the first instinct, the first drive, where, in order for it to be fulfilled, a child-adolescent has to ask for it to be fulfilled from another individual. Or, at least, they really should. There are ways to short-circuit that process, though, to fulfill the desire with asking, and we have a word to describe that short-circuiting - rape. Rape messes people up because, once you're raped, the idea that sexual desire and fulfillment comes from consent and mutual agreement is thrown out the window. Sexual desire becomes a source of danger. The sexual fulfillment of other human beings becomes something that is done to you, either through force (violent rape), mental manipulation (drug/alcohol rape), or emotional manipulation (child molestation and certain kinds of "date rape").

On the flip side, though - and before I begin, let me point out that I'm not equating any of this with the severity of rape or sexual assault - a lot of people have serious issues learning how to communicate their sexual desires with other human beings in a way that's mutually fulfilling. These individuals often had problems communicating with their peers before their sexual drive began to assert itself within them, but now there is a sense of urgency behind that failure to communicate that can, in extreme cases, become all-consuming and obsessive. Normally, this obsession manifests itself in the form of what we now call "nice guy" behaviors - they'll "be friends" with their object of affection for as long as it takes for them to become comfortable enough with their object of affection to take the risk of communicating their real desires with that object. In extreme cases, it can lead to stalking or, in this particular case, murder. Note that I refer to the desired individual as an "object" - this is intentional. In the mind of the afflicted, the person they desire isn't a person, an individual with desires of their own. Instead, the object of affection is something that must be earned or gained somehow. Indeed, those with this particular sort of communication difficulty often have trouble viewing people as individuals in a mature sense because their ability to communicate their desires to other people, and their ability to understand the desires of others when communicated to them, is sorely lacking. Worse yet, their ability to understand their own desires, in a mature sense, is hampered by this inability to communicate - their ability to communicate with themselves, to understand themselves, is every bit as poor as their ability to communicate and understand others. If you're feeling analytical, you can thank the Sapir-Worph Hypothesis for this - if you don't possess the means to communicate with others about how you feel or what your desires are, you probably lack the ability to communicate those feelings or desires with yourself.

I'm pretty familiar with this problem - painfully, intimately so, in fact. I haven't recovered entirely from it, but I can at least say that I'm on a path of improvement, partially by getting to know people and partially by exposing myself to material from people who are far more comfortable with expressing their emotions than I am and learning how to express emotions from them. One particular piece of material I'm rather fond of in this regard is Taste It Twice, a well-written if intermittently updated blog by Avens O'Brien. Go bookmark it.

To overcome this problem, many afflicted individuals will initially gravitate toward the Pick-Up Artist (PUA) community. Though there are many warranted criticisms of the movement - their response to the shootings, for example, leaves a lot to be desired - it can provide some legitimately useful advice and in a way that those afflicted with particular sorts of communication problems can understand and act upon. For example:

On top of that, the PUA community does an excellent job providing step-by-step instructions on how to act on this advice. Saying that you need to work out more is one thing. If you've never been inside a gym and couldn't tell the difference between a dumbbell and an elliptical, you're going to need some details and fast. This also holds true for communicating with women - or people - in general, especially when you're trying to learn how to communicate sexual desire to another human being. The oft-derided "cheat code"-style walkthroughs for "seducing" women are an aid - one that's meant to get a person comfortable enough to communicate sexual desire to another person in some fashion so that they can eventually develop their own communication style and pick up on others' communication styles. In that capacity, they can actually be useful with a little practice and common sense.

Where things go wrong, however, is when PUAs start treating their advice as a logically consistent philosophical framework for living one's life. It's best treated as a phase - a toolbox that can be used to learn how to approach "objects of desire" as human beings. The goal should be to become comfortable enough around women where you can actually have some conversations with them and learn that, yes, women are people, too. When the PUA community uses their limited mental model of the world to draw crude characterizations of evolutionary psychology, sociology, domesticity, politics, religion, and yes, even rape, that's where you know they've failed to recognize the limits of their particular mental model. When you hold a model hammer, it's tempting to see the world as a collection of model nails, and PUAs are not alone in this tendency. It's the same tendency that drives fundamentalism of all stripes; fundamentalism, after all, is merely the idea that One Particular Model can find the Solution To Anything Ever. Unfortunately, the universe is an infinitely complex place, one that does not lend itself to a Theory of Everything - models, by their very nature, must be limited in scope and must make simplifications to be useful. The PUA model of human behavior is no different in that regard.

Things brings me to my biggest issue with the responses I've seen to this shooting. Because of the purported motives and history of the assailant, it's attracted, like a lodestone, two particularly limited models of human behavior with limited, fundamentalist followers. One such model was the PUA community and its associated adherents, which I already touched on above - here's a good example of model fundamentalism in action. The other, meanwhile, is what I'll call the Women's Victimization movement. The Women's Victimization movement, in my view, is every bit as well-meaning as the PUA community, and I mean that both positively and negatively. Both communities are trying to establish how to communicate about sexual desire with other human beings, a complicated and emotionally fraught issue, and we need more of that. However, just as the PUA community relies on a set of potentially dangerous simplifications that, if taken too far, can lead to severe harm for everyone involved, the Women's Victimization movement relies upon the dangerous simplification that expressed male sexual desire should be feared. 

Case in point: #YesAllWomen

To be clear, many of the instances on #YesAllWomen are truly horrible. There are stories of rape, of sexual harassment, and plenty more. Women should not have to worry about whether their drink has been doctored. Women should not experience sexual advances from people in a position of power over them, whether those individuals are family members, religious leaders, employers, or teachers. Women should not have to worry about whether a jilted lover will beat them or kill them. When a woman rejects sexual advances, that rejection should be taken at face value and respected. In short, choices regarding female sexuality should be treated just as respectfully as we treat any other choice. 

However, we need to be clear about something here. The shooting is only considered a part of the pattern of behavior #YesAllWomen are highlighting because we're taking the assailant's purported motives at face value. We're actually assuming that a crazy, psychotic, dangerous thing unworthy of acknowledging its humanity is capable of enough self-awareness to successfully identify who its victims should have been and why it was choosing to eliminate them. In truth, more men have been killed than women so far - the current count is four men to two women, though the identities of the thirteen injured victims has not been revealed. We also need to understand that being shot at is very, very different from... well, how about this?

Or this:

Here's the thing - communicating about sexuality is going to be uncomfortable sometimes. Some people are better about it than others, and it's important for both sides of the issue - those communicating and those being communicated to - are able to establish boundaries with one another. However, demonizing either side of the communication is not helpful. It's important that people respect each other when they're communicating with each other about anything, really, but sexual communication is a particularly sensitive subject, one filled with vulnerability and longing, and it has the most potential for damage. Even so, it's important that everyone communicates and it's important for everyone to understand that complete comfort for any side of the conversation at all times is going to be impossible. Rejection is uncomfortable for both sides - nobody likes to be disappointed and nobody likes to disappoint - but it's an important part of communicating. Handling rejection is a learned behavior. Rejecting is a learned behavior. Learning something new, especially something as important as this, is oftentimes uncomfortable. But it's imperative that all people learn both of those behaviors if they're going to become mature adults.

Limited mental models have their uses. Discussing how some women are victimized is important. Discussing how to open communication with someone you find sexually desirable when you're not even capable of viewing yourself or that person as a human being is important. Finding solutions to these problems will help all of us become better human beings and help all of us suck just a little bit less. However, we all need to take a deep breath, step back, and realize that these discussions, and the solutions found from these discussions, have limited utility and meaningfully analyzing the acts of a psychopath falls well beyond the limits of their utility.


  1. I have another much shorter theory. I'd guess this thin came from a very wealthy family, likely a very broken one. This would go to back a few of your points above. Add on the expectations he had of women, and the men they chose regarding how he knew he was better than them. He felt he had a right to the women he desired . It was not happening fast enough and I can almost bet as you stated in a very wordy way above he perceived him self as a nice guy but I think his glorified picture of him self would contradic that when he actually spoke to women. Then when he failed to live up to his own perceptions he blamed the failures on the women and the men they chose, because he never really saw the real problem (as you also said...I think it's up their somwherel

  2. Actually, I was making it a point to avoid discussing its motives. I frankly don't care why inhuman trash does what it does, provided it's put down swiftly and mercilessly once caught.

    I was trying to focus more on some of the more egregious points and lessons I saw people take from this tragedy, along with - in my admittedly verbose fashion - some sort of an explanation of why I thought some of the lessons were a little ridiculous.