The Chapel Hill Shootings and the Benefit of the Doubt

The ingrained bias that makes us see evildoers from a familiar culture as exceptions but evildoers from an alien culture as representative runs too deep to dispel easily.

Photo Illustration by Emil Lendof/The Daily Beast

It finally happened. The #ChapelHillShootings tag worked—the media actually paid attention to a “role reversal” story about a white anti-Muslim murdering three Muslims and covered it as a hate crime.

After all the “When pigs fly” jokes about how it would never happen we actually got to witness a miracle—educated white anti-Muslim atheists having to publicly, ritually denounce extremists in their ranks in response to negative press. They’ve so far experienced for one day what Muslims in this country have lived through for 14 years or longer.

I take a certain gleeful schadenfreude in Richard Dawkins acting surprised and bewildered when he has to answer for the actions of someone who happens to share his belief system. If it were repeated several dozen times within the next decade, I might even say that the world was becoming something close to fair.

And for all the snark about “hashtag activism,” I give the credit to Twitter.

In 2009, when George Sodini went on a misogyny-fueled killing spree at an LA Fitness in Collier Township, PA, the refrain heard from feminist activists was “Why isn’t this a bigger deal?” It was as clear an example as you could ask for of the seething cauldron of woman-hate in the “manosphere” exploding into violence, but almost no one characterized it as such. One columnist for a major publication, Bob Herbert at The New York Times, sent out an op-ed blasting the rest of the media for ignoring misogyny as a society-wide phenomenon. Feminist online communities seethed over the tone-deaf misogyny-apologetics that peppered coverage of the Collier Township shooting.

But they were ignored. The news media at large followed their predictable pattern of treating a criminal who happened to be a white man as a lone, tragic figure whose motivations were idiosyncratic and nuanced and totally ignoring his status as a member of a dangerous subculture—in a way the media conspicuously did not for a brown Middle Eastern man the same year. That done, the story sank out of the headlines rapidly and the toxic “manosphere” community Sodini represented was left to go on its merry way.

In 2014, it played out differently. Elliot Rodger, a native of the same digital subculture as Sodini, carried out a similar mass murder for similar reasons and left a similar mountain of electronic evidence as to his motivations. Feminist writers still stung by the media’s fumbling reaction to the LA Fitness shooting gave dire warnings against repeating said journalistic malpractice this time.

But this time people listened. Mainstream media outlets could no longer dismiss sites like PUAHate and Wizardchan as curiosities for the “Internet beat”; the manosphere became the center of the Isla Vista conversation. #YesAllWomen made headlines and primetime evening coverage. By 2010 most people outside activist communities had forgotten the names “George Sodini” and “Collier Township”, but today “Elliot Rodger” and “Isla Vista” are still on people’s lips.

So yes, hashtags matter.

For years, activist writers and bloggers have been attacking the “lone wolf” narrative about crimes carried out in the name of white male supremacy. They’ve been shouting about the disparity in police priorities that ensure white male mass murderers who don’t end their sprees by killing themselves get taken into custody alive and black men who’ve committed minor crimes do not.

But they didn’t get heard. The Chapel Hill shooting would’ve been just another “isolated tragedy” in the media if not for a concerted attempt to get #ChapelHillShooting trending. Tamir Rice, Mike Brown, Eric Garner—all of their stories would’ve likely stayed “local news,” the way Malissa Williams and Timothy Russell were just Cleveland “local news” two years ago, if not for #BlackLivesMatter.

Individual writers, no matter how eloquent and impassioned, can be dismissed by media gatekeepers as an “interesting take” that gets passed over in favor of the more familiar narrative. The cumulative effect of tens of thousands of anguished voices on social media is harder to ignore.

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So congratulations, hashtag warriors. We’ve created one high-profile exception to typical media hypocrisy. It’s a good first step, but only a first step—as evidenced by the urgent attempts at deflection going on as I type this, of people trying to make the shooting be “really” about a parking dispute. (As though prejudice has nothing to do with why one might get angry enough to kill over a parking space. Religious hatred playing a role in causing a territorial dispute to erupt into violence—when has that ever happened?)

But the ingrained bias that makes us see evildoers from a familiar culture as exceptions but evildoers from an alien culture as representative runs too deep to dispel easily. It took a threat of a school shooting over criticism of video games to finally drive a stake through the heart of smug nerds claiming to be harmless (while not-so-subtly threatening harm to people who disagree), even though those of us in the community have seen the terrifying rage of its “extremist” elements for years.

There’s several similarly smugly snarky cartoons about the harmlessness of “militant atheists” that don’t seem so funny anymore.

But the narrative that’s going to be deployed against the “Twitter outrage brigade” is that the Chapel Hill killer is just one guy, that we all know dozens of people on our own Facebook feeds from the same general subculture of vaguely-libertarian support for both gay rights, gun rights, and a cartoonish ideal of “the Constitution” and have for many years and this is the first one we’ve ever heard of killing somebody.

Well, here’s the thing. The single deadliest domestic terror attack in U.S. history, and the second-deadliest among all terror attacks? Was perpetrated by another random white dude, a libertarian-ish semi-nerd defined by classic American anti-authoritarianism and anti-institutionalism, who talked a lot about “liberty” and “the Constitution” and said “Science is my religion.” A guy whose Facebook feed, if Facebook had existed in 1999, probably would’ve looked pretty similar to the Chapel Hill killer’s; if Twitter had existed in 1999, he’d be hard to tell apart from the typical noise on #tcot or #tlot.

Angry White Males of this sort are thick on the ground in our culture. And obviously the vast majority of them don’t blow up federal office buildings, or there’d not be a federal office building left standing. (Although it’s not like there aren’t other high-profile white American mass shooters and bombers with similar views.)

But it’s not even the Oklahoma City bombing I really want to talk about. Three people died in Chapel Hill. 168 died at Oklahoma City. At least 200,000 died as a result of the pointless 2003-2011 Iraq invasion, an invasion that in part occurred thanks to respected white male “rationalists” and “skeptics” like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris cheerleading it. Rationalist skeptics like Hitchens waxed lyrical about the destructive potential of cluster bombs and lamented a too-low death toll in the Battle of Fallujah; champions of free thought like Harris called for racial profiling of Muslim-looking airline passengers and defended torturing prisoners as a necessary tactic.

When ideologies championed by foreigners to our culture start to champion death and destruction and advocate brutality and torture, we brand the whole ideology toxic, we name it “Islamism” or “radical Islam,” and we demand that all members of the second-largest religion in the world subject themselves to constant self-policing and intrusive external policing to make sure they’re not “radical.”

Meanwhile, the toxic, extremist elements in “mainstream” politics—the politics dominated by educated white men of the West—got to stay “respectable” no matter how much pointless slaughter they aided and abetted. When people try to push back they get slammed with calls for civility, for moderation, to give educated white men the benefit of the doubt. Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins shouldn’t be held responsible for the racist Islamophobic jerks who quote them on Facebook, and it’s the height of vulgarity to criticize them in the wake of one of those Facebook people actually killing someone.

Compare the torrent of abuse that Muslims go through after every instance of “radical Islamist” terror. Compare the difference in reaction to the second-deadliest terror attack in U.S. history and the deadliest. Compare the outrage at even the suggestion the IRS might be increasing scrutiny on any political organization, however “extremist,” composed mostly of “normal” white folks to the nation shrugging its shoulders at the NYPD becoming a massive spy operation against Muslim American citizens.

The essence of oppression is claiming the right to be normal, to be the default—to be outraged at the idea of condemning all white people or all men or all Americans for the actions of any individual white male American, but to demand that white male America retain the right to take aggressive, pre-emptive actions against any other group deemed to be threatening for the sake of self-defense.

Well, white male America doesn’t own the media anymore. The narrative is splintering rapidly and “normal” white-guy cultural gatekeepers have coined the term “call-out culture” to describe their discomfort at being labeled and judged by people who don’t trust them the way they have been continuously, automatically labeling everyone they don’t trust for hundreds of years.

The single greatest “privilege” of a privileged class is the benefit of the doubt. And the message that the “outrage brigade” is sending is a simple one:

Either, at long last, as Martin Luther King called for in the stirringly utopian climax to his famous speech, we finally achieve a culture where every hill and mountain has been made low, every rough place made plain, justice flows like a rolling stream and we all get the benefit of the doubt…

Or, in the meantime, no one does.