The last week has been a bad one for human monstrosity, or at least obvious and individualised examples of it. The sad discovery of Blesilda Gotingco’s murder happened when we were still processing news of Elliot Rodger’s slaughter of 6 people in California. A few days later we learned of two teenaged girls in Uttar Pradesh, gang-raped and lynched because they had tried to find a safe place to relieve themselves. And yesterday the 60 year old father, a lay minister, pleaded guilty to 3 counts of incest with his adopted daughter who later killed the baby born of that incest. He is reported to have claimed he was under the influence of the Devil, when he offended against her. (http://www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/246328/incest-girl’s-‘oppressive-conditions’)
The families in all these cases will be searching for meaning and explanation for the terrible crimes committed. We all are.
In regards to Rodger, the internet is now alive with discussions presuming misogyny and rape culture and everyday sexism to be primary drivers of his actions, helpfully assisted by his video placing the blame for his isolation and unhappiness on those females who refused to allow him access to their bodies. No doubt that thinking holds some water. See for example, the Twitter hashtag #YesAllWomen. One of the benefits of this thinking is the line drawn between this single sociopath and his acting out of a misogynistic fantasy, and ordinary men and everyday sexism. I get that. The human monster is not just slavering over the helpless victim in the dark and stormy night of our imagination, he is on the couch next to you sharing your popcorn.
But in some ways this kind of analysis feels incomplete..misogynist monsters are formed to a large degree by societal pressures that demean and dehumanise women and girls, enabling and facilitating misogyny, and in Rodgers, its ultimate expression. Rather than Victor Frankenstein as the creator of the monster, the creator is patriarchy and its gun culture.
We crave explanation. We need motive, we need cause, we need rationale as if human monsters are the product of some fiendishly screwed up recipe that went horribly wrong. If only we could just find the gene, or the step-father or the poverty-stricken background that could enable us to see the perfect formation of the causal chain. Of course, mental illness, gun culture, caste hierarchy, misogyny, alienation, social disenfranchisement, lost moral compasses, can all explain in some part why people do bad things. But at the end of the day sociological or psychiatric explanations can only take us so far. This is because at the heart of all these kinds of events something evil has happened. In New Zealand’s secular society the notion of evil is unfashionable and a sign of a bygone and more credulous age. Evil, as an explanation for bad things, is now only really permissible in movies and books. Respectable commentators and analysts rarely speak of evil. But every so often the narrative of human experience of evil breaks through the strictures with which we have attempted to eradicate it.
I remember something one of the witnesses said at Mauha Fawcett’s trial for the murder of Mellory Manning:
“I could hear the crackling of tarpaulin or plastic,” he told the jury. “It was made to be done really slowly, you know what I mean, it wasn’t rushed, or hurried.”
A splash followed and was “pretty loud”, the witness said.
“I said it ‘aint Canadian geese or ducks or anything like that,” he told the court. “I couldn’t hear anyone talking, I couldn’t see anyone.
“I actually ducked under a canopy, some trees, to see if I could see any silhouettes moved.”
But before the man could see anyone he was stopped “dead cold” in his tracks by a feeling he described as horrible and cold.
“It was quite freaky, it was a lot of fear; I knew something was not right, I retreated rather rapidly to where [my partner] was.” Read more: http://www.3news.co.nz/Mellory-Manning-trial-Witness-heard-blood-curdling-scream/tabid/423/articleID/331794/Default.aspx#ixzz32iKvErpT
I don’t think what that witness felt would be unusual in such circumstances, and those feelings are what has kept Stephen King in clover all these years.
It’s tempting to think that Fawcett and his as-yet-uncharged co-offenders, Elliott Rodger, Mrs Gotingco’s killer, and the rapist-murderers in Uttar Pradesh are true monsters, or ‘mad’ or any other label that separates them out from us. In truth though, they are extraordinary only in the degree of harm they have caused. True, these perpetrators had, between them, created something evil, something greater than the sum of its parts. But in order to do so, they probably felt entitled to follow the only yardstick that mattered to them (for whatever reason): their feelings at that time. Nothing, no moral strictures, no societal restraints, no physical restraints stood in the way between these perpetrators and what they felt they needed or wanted to do. Above all people, they alone were entitled to do what they saw fit.
Now while it might not be easy to see ourselves becoming fully fledged ‘monsters’ and bringing evil into the world like Rodgers et al, we probably can imagine what we might be like if we had no limits placed upon us, no obstacles to meeting our our desires. And we all know the battles we fight on a daily basis within ourselves between what we want to do, and what we know we should do. This is a war as old as humanity. What was it that Paul said of his darkest struggles between what he knew he should do and what could not stop himself from doing?
Romans 7:14 So the trouble is not with the law, for it is spiritual and good. The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. 15 I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. 16 But if I know that what I am doing is wrong, this shows that I agree that the law is good. 17 So I am not the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.
That willingness to turn away from what is right to instead give in to our desires, (‘sin’ as Paul saw it) was not externally imposed, not purely the result of external factors such as poverty, or abuse, or loneliness. Of course our willingness to, in the words of Depeche Mode ‘give in to sin’ can be informed by all those things and other factors that make up our complicated selves. But the capacity to sin is within us all, and in this nothing really separates us from the more obvious human monsters that make the news. There is no devil on our shoulder. If only it could be that simple.