Elliot Rodger and the cult of image

Two Steps Forward

Elliot Rodger lived in a world where the way you looked, your entourage and the size of your house defined your worth as a human being. The 147-page rant left behind by the UCSB shooter makes it clear just how important status and beauty were to him — anxious about the future, he writes, “I wanted to be a millionaire, so I could live a luxurious life and finally be able to attract the beautiful girls I covet so much.” This theme recurs over and over — so often that it forms a constant undertone in the piece: Rodger believed that becoming wealthy and famous would salve the loneliness and social rejection that plagued him until the end of his life.

We live in a world saturated with images. Airbrushed models stare from billboards; fantastically rich bachelors cavort on television. It becomes increasingly difficult to remember what is reality and what is projection, and we start measuring ourselves not just against the people around us, but against their fantasies. This problem is magnified by the prevalence of social media, which gives us little windows into the lives of others — windows into landscapes that have been meticulously crafted by their owners, filtered to a sheen and posed at just the right angle to inspire jealousy in the watcher. Social media makes us sad. When combined with celebrity worship and media beautyscaping, the world becomes an awfully big, shiny, unachievable place.

This melee of images, intense even to the most balanced among us, was especially damaging to Rodger. Add to this the ease and fluency with which he saw his peers socializing, a skill made more difficult for him by hazy mental health issues, and it is clear why Rodger’s image of himself was so skewed. Denied access to the world he saw so clearly around him, he became increasingly angry at it. His pride and faith in his own superiority, clearly visible in his references to other men as “brutes” and “animals,” closed off any possibilities of acceptance. In his mind, society had rejected him because of its own inferiority. Making an effort to fit in would be stooping to their level; instead, he had to remain what he saw as “a beautiful, magnificent gentleman.”

The Rodger case is a tangled one. Sexism, racism, gun control, mental health and bullying all play parts. So many issues blend together that the picture becomes confused: Richard Martinez is making a valiant stand against “craven politicians” caving to the NRA’s demands; Zerlina Maxwell’s #YesAllWomen has harnessed feminists’ outrage; the New Yorker and other publications have analyzed his data trail on the poisonous sites he visited.

The best way to prevent atrocities such as the Santa Barbara massacre is to cure the disease at its source. Rodger was sick, exposed to the compounding societal poisons of celebrity worship, media saturation, misogyny and materialism. He was a wealthy, straight, white male who felt so slighted by the world that he scarred it as deeply as he could. He was a monster, but our world created him. His terrible, sad psychosis might never have arisen in a world free of the constant scrutiny of iPhones; seven people might be alive if Rodger had not been taught almost from birth that beauty, wealth and possessions are the markers of a good person.

Rodger was indoctrinated at birth into a cult as dangerous as any Jonestown. Trained to believe that his unearned wealth and status made him deserving of more, he rebelled when his faith rang false — his family’s wealth did not bring him love; all his magical thinking was for naught. But, like members of historical cults, Rodger could not leave when he realized his errors. Suicide was his attempted resignation from the cult of the image, but instead of escaping it, he became its face.

Many of us are members of the same cult, though most don’t want to admit it. We have our ritual objects of iPhone and camera, we have our social hierarchy and complex set of rules, and above all, we have our celebrity idols. The cult teaches superficiality and materialism, shunning discourse and independent thinking.

To loosen the grip of this social machine, we have to learn to look past the image and see the truth beneath it. Beauty should be a facet of a person, not his or her entirety. Social media should be a means of communication, not of window-peeping. Celebrities should be applauded for who they are: exceptionally talented or lucky individuals, not deities. Only by seeing things for what they really are can we move past the poisoned culture that created Rodger and emerge scarred but safe on the other side.

Jacob Straus writes the Monday column on progressive issues. Contact him at [email protected]