G.L.Piggy [at] gmail.com
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It’s one thing to notice the pattern that mass murderers are nearly always men. It’s another thing to point out that white men seem to be disproportionately represented among mass murderers (though Seing-Hui Cho, Omar Thornton, Colin Ferguson, Jiverly Wong, Nidal Hasan, and James Pough provide enough exceptions to ruin the rule). But it’s completely different to make the assertion while getting the causal factors completely wrong and making complicit all white men along the way.
Hugo Schwyzer’s latest piece is typical. What you first have to understand about anything that Schwyzer writes is that he’s attempting to alleviate his own guilt by painting every transgression of white men against others as a systemic issue in which we are all complicit.
Schwyzer has done a lot of screwy things in his life so he believes that it is now his job to throw all other white men under the bus. He avoids trying to deal empathically with white men by harping on “white male privilege”. The thing I’ll say from the jump is that I don’t believe that schizophrenics and psychopaths like James Holmes, Jared Loughner, Charles Whitman, or George Sodini were privileged in any sense of the word. Anders Breivik was supposedly well off, but he also had a sordid childhood which we can assume incubated his insanity. Schwyzer takes what does seem to be true – that if anyone is going to be the most well off in this society it would most likely be a white person and perhaps a male – and assumes that this splashes on every other white male like holy water. This is a very bulky understanding of privilege and pieces like Schwyzer’s show that the concept is in need of more rigorous thought. It doesn’t even pass the sniff test to say that there is one quality from which all members of a race uniformly benefit from. Some white men may benefit from their particular demographic (politicians or business executives) while some others may actually suffer from it (those pushed out by affirmative action)
But the thing is, as Bernard Chapin says in a recent video addressing Schwyzer, the most important fact about anyone who shoots up a public place is that they’re mentally ill. And more than likely privilege is not something that they’ve ever had. These people are not generally socially gregarious or popular; nobody holds open doors for them or hangs on their every word or cares about their opinion. They are almost always mentally ill or have mentally ill parents or come from an abusive background. Schwyzer’s is a ridiculous extrapolation of what whiteness entails. Schwyzer writes:
Perhaps the greatest asset that unearned privilege conveys is the sense that public spaces “belong” to you. If you are – like James Holmes last week, or Charles Whitman, who killed 16 people on the University of Texas, Austin campus in 1966 – an American-born, college-educated white man from a prosperous family, you don’t have a sense that any place worth being is off-limits to the likes of you.
Charles Whitman had a troubled family with an abusive father, and he was also discovered during autopsy (also, as Chapin mentions in his video) to have a brain tumor. Whitman and Holmes had seemingly failed in their studies. The common thread there is that both failed in the face of some sort of academic pressure. One theory, one that applies to Asian students who commit suicide because they fail in their studies or can’t find jobs, is that these people face such inordinate pressure that they lash out by committing mass murder. Our self-focused society, compared to Japan or Asia in general, directs that aggression outward rather than inward. And we have the arsenals available for anyone who’d like to go down that path. If this theory is true then it is something quite different than “privilege”. One could use a Marxist critique of Western society all the same, but privilege doesn’t seem to be the proper explanation. Schwyzer continues:
We don’t yet know what drove James Holmes to do the terrible things he did. We only partly understand what drove the likes of Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold, Charles Whitman, and the many other white men who have committed similar massacres. While each killer had a unique pathology that helped drive him to do the unthinkable, the fact that these white male mass murderers felt so confident choosing public spaces to commit their crimes reflects a powerful truth about the culture in which they were raised. Put simply, they did what they did because of an individual sickness — but they did it where they did it in part because of white privilege.
White men from prosperous families grow up with the expectation that our voices will be heard. We expect politicians and professors to listen to us and respond to our concerns. We expect public solutions to our problems. And when we’re hurting, the discrepancy between what we’ve been led to believe is our birthright and what we feel we’re receiving in terms of attention can be bewildering and infuriating.
This is a cute theory that is based in not one shred of truth. One would think that a white man who felt that his voice had unfairly been muted would have had to have had a voice in the first place. But the white men who have shot up public places don’t have backgrounds suggesting that their voices were ever recognized in the first place.
It’s not that white men are more violent. Rates of domestic violence, including homicide, are roughly the same across all ethnic groups…But while men of all ethnic groups kill their spouses, affluent white men are disproportionately represented in the ranks of our most infamous mass murderers. In other words, the less privileged you are, the less likely you are to take your violence outside of your family and your community.
Even assuming that Schwyzer is right, it is curious to me that he would only pen an article about racial components of criminal behavior when it is white men committing the crimes. There has been ample opportunity to cover the high rate of violent crimes committed by black men. We all know that they commit a very high percentage of murders – including the “out of your family and community” interracial crimes. Although we could argue that black men murder others because they feel that they have a right to another’s property or territory or a reclamation of their street credibility. But those could be seen as forms of privilege as well and that would completely dismantle Schwyzer’s theory.