Jason Henriquez | Contributor
Editor’s Note: This article was written and edited prior to the Tree of Life attack. Sadly, the recent spike in anti-semitic rhetoric and hate crimes against the Jewish people is yet another facet of socialized violence at both the American and transnational level.
The most recent spate of white supremacist and misogynist terrorism displays depressingly consistent patterns. The perpetrator carefully selects and commits to an ideology. He rationalizes a reality that justifies violence. He thoughtfully plans havoc. He hurts people to further his cause, and he often collaborates with or supports others like him by doing so. The media then call him crazy, one of a kind, a brain with fried wires. Yet in the cases of white supremacist Dylann Roof, incel terrorist Alek Minassian, and a host of other young white men threatening public safety, media and political figures place mental illness at the root of the problem. Explaining extraordinary violence in this way is more than a psychiatric inaccuracy; it’s a systematic oversight that emboldens supremacist movements.
In June 2015, Dylann Roof murdered nine black worshipers in South Carolina after they welcomed him to their bible study. The evidence that his bigotry compelled him to incomprehensible violence is abundant. Witnesses close to him reported that he often spouted racially charged language and expressed support for racial segregation and violence. He owned and wore a jacket adorned with two white supremacist flags. He made a website with a cache of photos posing with the Confederate Battle Flag and the Neo-Nazi code number 1488. Roof himself admitted that he intended to start a race war. By the time he had walked into the Emanuel AME Church, he believed the country needed someone to address black-on-white crime, an issue that dominated his mind after scouring white supremacy websites. He believed he was a brave and socially responsible citizen.
Likewise, Alek Minassian got behind the wheel this April and effected the deadliest vehicle-ramming attack in Canadian history. Minassian did not hide his intentions. He identifies as the member of the incel community, a group of “involuntarily celibate” men who believe women are obligated to sexually gratify them. He hailed Elliot Rodger, an incel icon who murdered six people after recording a monologue justifying it, and he feigned being a recruit in an incel military. He warned of an “incel rebellion” on Facebook shortly before killing multiple people.
Despite the flamboyant allegiance both had for famous hate groups and movements, society opted for a more palatable narrative. Media outlets swiftly began publishing articles regarding Dylann Roof’s mental health diagnoses — Social Anxiety Disorder, Mixed Substance Abuse Disorder, Schizoid Personality Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, and a possible Autism Spectrum Disorder — in an attempt to justify his actions. No credible psychiatrist would claim that any disorder, let alone the ones with which he was diagnosed, has typical symptoms of bigoted or violent behavior. Notwithstanding his fervent claims to the contrary, the subtle implication that Dylann Roof acted as he did because of insanity was perpetuated ad infinitum. Similarly, Alek Minassian was construed by the media as influenced by his Asperger Syndrome, regardless of the reality that autism has no correlation with violence.
Both of these men may or may not have been mentally ill, but that did not cause their murderous behavior — white supremacy and toxic masculinity did. Neurodivergence, the quality of being mentally ill, being blamed for unrelated negative behaviors occurs in a process called “pathologization,” and it is one of greatest antagonists of intersectional feminism. In fact, the most commonly pathologized behavior is bigotry. The science is clear: no form of sexual assault is caused by mental disorders, no form of murder is caused by mental disorders, and no form of violence is caused by mental disorders. Violence — including sexual violence — that is carried out for any reason beyond self-defense is overwhelmingly socialized, as backed by many sociologists who study the concept of “toxic socialization.” To ignore this reality is to lift responsibility from fanatics as well as the violently inequitable society that made them.
If neurodivergence is not responsible for bigotry or the violence it precipitates, then what is? Such ignorance is facilitated societally and instilled socially. It originates with fear that, through reactionary forces — e.g. cisheteropatriarchy, dictatorial government — is redirected at a marginalized group with the goal of fomenting division. Presumably, this fear would otherwise be aimed at the real causes of the threats presented, such as patriarchy or authoritarianism. Therefore, intersectional feminism is predicated on ending bigotry and its sources directly. To deny the responsibility for violent acts, including harassment, assault, and so on, with a veneer of mental illness not only falsely and unjustly demonizes a vast group of people. It avoids culpability for the people and entities responsible, empowering them to act again.
Bigotry will continue to be a malignant drain on our society if left unchecked. Toxic masculinity will continue to instill in men a sense of entitlement over women’s bodies. White supremacy will thrive on its engine of self-righteousness. These prevailing cultural norms result in violence that constitutes regrettably normal — not aberrant, and certainly not mentally ill — behavior. To believe otherwise is an insanity in itself.