When we were in high school, my best friend Clint wrote a short story about a kid that snaps one day in school and begins creatively slaughtering his classmates. It was called “The Hero” and of course we all loved it. Had it been written in the post-Columbine era, we probably would have been dragged into the office of a psychologist or principal or detective. But when Columbine happened, the instinct of a lot of us was… understanding. We didn’t agree with what they did, but as Chris Rock said of OJ Simpson, we could understand it. Push kids far enough and see what happens! We found a degree of commonality with those ruthless killers. Of course, we find out years later that they were nothing like us. They weren’t misunderstood rejects… they were bullies. Their actions were not a response to their passive existence, but instead were the culmination of their aggressive one.

When I was in college, I had a professor that liked to talk about Mark Richard Hilburn and Larry Jason, two of the infamous cadre of postal workers that inspired the phrase “going postal”. In the Professor’s estimation, postal workers were the perfect example of what Marx was talking about when he discussed the alienation of man from his labor. He described the working environments of postal sorters in such grim detail that there seemed to be a sort of rationality to the response of going insane. In fact, I had the previous week applied for a job at UPS (they had a lot of night-time jobs that were ideal for college students) and immediately decided not to take the job. The Professor went on to say that this is what capitalism is doing to all of us. Leaving aside for a moment that the USPS is not a capitalist enterprise and that capitalism is especially good at automating tedious work of the sort that can drive a person insane, and leaving aside that we didn’t know that Hilburn and Jason were, in fact, sorters, a sense of understanding was required as to what is being done to us and how we are simply responding to the systems at work that we are forced to participate in.

One thing that a lot of people don’t do that they should is to take on the mantle of their ideological opponents and try to articulate counter-arguments to your own perspective. The ability to do so is one of my strengths, so of course I value it. But it’s important to try to take opposing arguments seriously even if you don’t end up buying into them. From a writer’s perspective it’s particularly important. Hollywood’s frequent failure to do so often results in a worse product because their characters take the role of preaching bowling balls knocking down straw pins. So I can very much appreciate Phi taking on the role of a liberal interlocutor on the subject of George Sodini:

Why is it that the Half Sigma / Steve Sailer blogging community, when confronted with, say, the murder of Lily Burke, or the crimes in Knoxville and Wichita and God-knows-where-else, we sound the HBD trumpet and rush to man the barricades? But when George Sodini murders an aerobics class, suddenly we get all root-causey and meta-narrative-social-justicy?

In this case, however, I think that his self-generated foil has a remarkably good point. It was actually something that I had thought about. Before I get started, I want to put the extent to which “root causes” as an explanation for urban crime is legitimate. I’m not arguing that it is or is not, but as longtime readers know I am somewhat allergic to race-based debates in Hit Coffee’s comment section. For the sake of context I will state that my personal take is that searches for “root causes” are of some, but limited, utility. If it can lead to realistic policy or social changes, it may be worth investigating (which, of course, we have been). However, there reaches a point where the countermeasures are so lofty and logistically impossible that it devolves into making excuses for behavior that a society cannot tolerate regardless of its causes.

There is definite value in trying to understand what contributes to substantially anti-social behavior. This is true whether we are talking about high school kids that snap or men that go around killing women. I have great respect for people who make it their career to get into the heads of people whose heads are very unpleasant places. I don’t always think that they’re right, but they go places where right-thinking people should fear to tread. But I am nonetheless quite bothered with the reflexive empathy that people extend towards people they perceive to be like themselves. Sometimes this empathy is a reflection of this person doing what they may secretly dream of in a visceral sort of way (Klebold and Harris to Clint and me, for instance). More frequently, though, it’s simply a matter of seeing more of yourself in the perpetrator than in the victims.

Despite his Internet presence, we don’t really know a whole lot about George Sodini. The big thing we know is that he was dateless and went off and killed some women. Suggestions that he had trouble getting dates because he was the sort of guy that would go off and kill women have largely been shot down. Because he has no severed heads in his refrigerator, we are less to assume that he was normal (if sad and lonely) prior to becoming lethal. People that are predisposed to believe that men are so frequently lonely because women withhold themselves for an ever-decreasing portion of the male population are inclined to give him more benefits of the doubt than not.

So yeah, it’s more than a little suspicious to me that people that are willing to write off 95% of crimes commited, that believe that searches for understand and root causes are a bunch of claptrap, are all of the sudden saying “Hold it there, cowboy, this may be more than a guy that just flew off his rocker. There are cultural aspects to consider here. No one approves of what he did, but it’s important that we take the time and effort to understand why he did it. And the role that women and feminist society played in that.”

But even aside from the murders, there are reasons to believe that he was dysfunctional. Despite appearing to be of above-normal intelligence, his academic career was winding. That he had a job doesn’t demonstrate much as we’re debating his emotional state and not his intelligence. He suddenly stopped drinking many years back (often an indicator for alcohol abuse). His sense of style was off-kilter. He may or may not have a kid. His social venues are ones typically not desired by single men and/or places where there is a presumption of acceptance (church). Even apart from a dearth of romantic options, indications are that he had trouble making friends. He expressed having difficulty emotionally connecting with people.

In a vacuum, it’s mostly harmless stuff. Now all of this could describe a lot of people. Indeed, a lot of it describes me. But, though it pains me to say it, I am a weird guy. So these can all be indications of an eccentric personality or the tip of an iceberg. But they’re not indicative of someone that can expect a whole lot of success with women. Or with friends. I’ve been able to get by in large part by gaining a stronger sense of appropriateness and a more chameleon-like personality than a lot of people with my personality abnormalities can muster. And if I ever did fly off my rocker and kill people, it would have much more to do with my personality than how society dealt with it.

When I was in early high school, to the extent that I was visible I gave out some unfortunate vibes about myself. More than one of Clint’s female friends thought I was a weird stalker sort. They expressed a completely ungrounded fear of me. It stung a little bit, but Clint and I were able to actually have fun with it. We came up with creepy ways that I could act around them to bone up my stalker cred. One day Clint shared this with one of the girls and she was horrified. The fact that I was well-adjusted enough to laugh it off (as opposed to react violently or with great hostility) apparently didn’t mean anything. I was, from the outside looking in to people (of both genders) that didn’t know me well, a weird guy.

Now, I could look at this and look at Sodini and take common cause. Actually, my reaction is something of the opposite. It is my personal similarities to Sodini that make me disinclined to give him much sympathy. Indeed, they’re the things that make me feel more contempt for him more personally than I do, say, Andrea Yates. It’s people like Sodini that give people like me a bad name. Weird people like him are why a lot of women were disinclined to date people like me. Why they feared me. Granted, few men will ever become a Sodini, but the inappropriate behavior can take a hundred different faces. A sense of safety can be understandably stripped by a lot less than physical violence actualized.

I took what I learned from the vibes I was giving out and I learned from them. I learned to behave in ways that were less off-putting. I gained a better sense of the appropriate. I learned how to be socially acceptable. I’ll never really be able to do what I would need to do in order to be a popular and really well liked guy, but I generally know how not to repel. Sodini was either capable of doing this and chose not to, in which case he deserves a degree of revulsion or he lacked the self-awareness or self-acknowledgment to know his role in the problem, which makes him less culpable but beyond what a good-lovin’ woman is likely to be able to fix. In neither case am I likely to look at him as someone that more (or less) deserves to be understood than Lorena Bobbitt, Lisa Nowack, Michael Lee.


Category: Courthouse, Newsroom

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15 Responses to Sympathy for the Devil

  1. ? says:

    It’s people like Sodini that give people like me a bad name.

    This is obvious now that you’ve said it. But for some reason, your reaction is atypical.

    I wonder about the extent to which our (or, more specifically, women’s) perception of men matching the Sodini profile (single computer nerds) will be biased downward (assuming it can fall any farther) because of his crimes. Was there really any general nervousness around postal workers in the 80s?

    A couple of other rambling thoughts . . .

    I’m trying to articulate the difference between the reaction to George Sodini on the one hand, and the defensiveness with which we greet efforts by the usual people to blame, say, Matthew Sheppard on James Dobson, or Oklahoma City on Rush Limbaugh. In those cases, we took pains to point out that we had no sympathy for or commonality with the perpetrators (and in fact, we didn’t, on multiple levels).

    There seemed to be a brief effort to pin Sodini’s crimes on the PUA community (because he once attended a seminar) or religion (because he wrote about attending church). But these efforts were so thinly supported and/or had such blowback potential that even feminists don’t seem to be pursuing them. They seem to be content to send Sodini down the memory hole as quickly as possible.

  2. PeterW says:

    I appreciate your more skeptical appraisal of Mr. Sodini, but I don’t think that your social status (or more generally the status of introverts with nonstandard social bearing) is much affected by his existence. I think that low-status behavior is looked down upon independently of whether it’s a risk to them.

    Not to pull a Roissy here, but many women are drawn to dominant men, some of whom are more likely to be abusive – the most extreme example being death-row criminals who get reams of love letters. The aversion to weirdos may also have some correlation with the Sodinis of the world, but I would argue that it’s more of an ingrained response. Your story of rational risk-aversion doesn’t seem to fit the behavioral facts, and I’m not sure that Sodini lowered weirdos’ status further, or conversely that an angelic anti-Sodini would raise public estimation of the socially awkward.

  3. Peter says:

    It’s people like Sodini that give people like me a bad name.

    Which is not without precedent. For some time after the Columbine shootings, kids who were often picked-upon were regarded with suspicion, as potential spree killers.

  4. trumwill says:

    Phi,

    I wouldn’t profile Sodini as a “single computer nerd”. He’s more like a lot of people I know in computers that went into it primarily as a career mechanism than out of genuine career interest. He doesn’t seem like the sort of guy that, if he had another career, would take a great interest in computers or technical things. He just happened to have the brainpower for it. I could be wrong about that, though.

    The profile I am referring to is his social awkwardness. His quiet (albeit somewhat crutched) thoughtfulness. His frustration with society and its social upper crest. There is significant overlap between that type of person and computer types, but I consider the latter to be a stronger focal point.

    I think the ambiguity of classification is one of the reasons why there isn’t the rush to distance. Tim McVeigh was a right nutbar so there was the natural tendency for people on the more reasonable right to say “Hey, he’s not one of us!” or at least “We’re not all like that!” I feel that way sometimes when confronted with more obnoxious people within segments of American society to which I belong. Sodini, on the other hand, isn’t immediately identifiable a social type except among people that more parse specific segments of society. In that vein, PeterW has a point that he specifically will not probably cause great harm to other awkward-types.

  5. trumwill says:

    PW,

    Sodini himself will probably not, but it’s people like him, the silent loner types that go berzerk… they have their effect. The association between socially awkward quiet types and serial killers exists because… well there are a number of high-profile socially awkward quiet types that turn out to be serial killers. I don’t think any favors are done by socially awkward types by saying “Hey! He’s like us!”

    You’re right that it’s not rational risk-avoidance. But people are often irrational creatures. The quiet sense we get from people is quite affected by social memes that we may not notice or may even consciously reject… but they affect how we see the world regardless.

  6. trumwill says:

    Peter,

    The Columbine Effect was on my mind as I was writing this post. Even if it doesn’t suddenly make people dislike outcasts (they were already, after all, outcasts), it adds a veneer of acceptability to it. It allows them to feel that their behavior is acceptable because the targets are screwy in the head. It can make a bad situation worse.

  7. john says:

    I think the reason we talk about these crimes differently is that we know what the usual suspects will say about them.

    George Sodini – angry white loser, probably racist and sexist, senseless insane murder.

    Lily Burk, Knoxville, Wichita – didn’t happen.

    By the way, I don’t think there is a lot of HBD-trumpet-blowing involved. It’s more about the fact that a run of the mill triple homicide is national news but gang-rape-torture-murders go unnoticed. You don’t have to believe that blacks are genetically inferior to notice the racial double standard here.

    And with guys like Sodini and Von Brunn in particular, you have to admit that there is more psychological background information to explore. I doubt that the ex-con who murdered Lily Burk wrote a manifesto explaining himself.

  8. thebastidge says:

    Can’t summon any sympathy or empathy for Sodini. Just a distaste and abstract regret for the people involved.

  9. Brandon Berg says:

    It’s people like Sodini that give people like me a bad name. Weird people like him are why a lot of women were disinclined to date people like me.

    I doubt very much that this is true. Yes, in retrospect some women will rationalize their distaste for a certain class of men by reference to Sodini, but how many women refuse to date football players because of O. J. Simpson? The real reason is that they weren’t attracted to you.

  10. trumwill says:

    Well sure, if you want to get all obvious about it.

    More broadly, the extent to which a person is attracted to another person are dictate in part by social externalities. If dating someone would make you look bad, you’re less likely to be attracted to them. If you don’t feel comfortable around someone (because of an irrational fear that they will, if not slaughter you, embarrass you by going on some tirade), you’re less likely to be attracted to them.

    People who fit into categories that have stigmas attached to them are more likely to have difficulty getting dates than they would in a different social settings where those stigmas didn’t apply. There are people that will date the type no matter and there are people that would never date the type regardless of social norms, but there are a lot of in-between people that rely on social cues.

  11. Brandon Berg says:

    I suppose that in theory it could matter on the margin; in practice I’m very skeptical of the idea that the effect is nontrivial. This kind of stigma only seems to get attached to people who are conveniently undesirable to begin with.

  12. Sheila Tone says:

    “Not to pull a Roissy here, but many women are drawn to dominant men, some of whom are more likely to be abusive – the most extreme example being death-row criminals who get reams of love letters. ”

    Wrong. Women are drawn to those men because they’re 1) notorious and 2) safe. A death row guy is the *last* person who could abuse a woman, because he’s never getting out. These are women who don’t want to deal with men in real life. I’ve seen prisoner letters — they’re very romantic. These dudes don’t have much to do but profess their love.

  13. Sheila Tone says:

    Phi makes a good point. I tend to focus a lot more on the sociological reasons behind the crimes of people who remind me of people I know (or myself), rather than those of people I’d expect to be criminals.

    Frankly, I’m thrilled to have “Sodini” as a label for that particular type of guy. Hopefully, out of this sad situation will finally come some cultural shorthand to describe that syndrome in which undesirable men get angry because desirable women don’t want to give them sex, and tell themselves they’re rejected because they’re “too nice.”

    The “Beemus” situation happened 11 years ago, and it’s been a struggle to describe it even to people who knew him and wanted to understand it. I had to explain detail by detail, from the ground up, what was so repulsively wrong with this dude everyone thought was a great nonsexual buddy. “Oh, so he’s upset because he doesn’t have a *relationship.*” No! “Oh, well, he flipped out because he fell in love with Mavis.” No! “With you, then.” No! “He just needs to be more confident and go for what he wants.” No!

    The idea of an unattractive, lazy, immature older man who feels angrily entitled to no-strings sex from young women was not in their cultural understanding. Maybe it is now.

  14. econoholic.com says:

    Weird people like him are why a lot of women were disinclined to date people like me.

    Trumwill, I think you are kind of attributing a little too much rationality to the attraction process. Even if this dude had been normal, I doubt that he would be used by women as a data point to use to determine who they should avoid. I don’t think it really works that way because by and large both women and men *don’t* learn who they should be attracted to. They usually make the same mistakes over and over again, not learning that they should avoid a certain set of people that they have been cursed to be attracted to.

  15. trumwill says:

    I’m not banking on rationality at all. Rather, it’s quite irrational to use Sodini as a reason not to date unconventional men. Rationally, you look for signs that someone is unhinged in the guy in particular.

    Rather, what people like Sodini do is provide high-profile cases which add an internal repulsion towards dating particular types. I think that there’s a sort of feedback loop for quiet, atypical people of weird-yuck-scary-weird-yuck-scary and people like Sodini add to that last part.

    He’s not so much a datapoint as an exemplar. A justification not to question one’s prejudices. A reason to go after the socially seasoned men that Sodini represents the inverse of.

    As Brandon points out, a whole lot of the time it doesn’t matter because they wouldn’t be attracted anyway. And of course there are people that are inherently attracted to weirdos and nuts. But I also think that there is a non-trivial number of people that could be attracted to unconventional people (often because they are unconventional themselves) but who respond largely to social cues. Cases like this reinforce the notion that socially unseasoned, unconventional people are freaky or scary.

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