A week ago Hugo Schwyzer (a man of whom I have a history with) penned a work claiming that the Colorado shooting and several other mass murders in the past were the result of “white male privilege”. This opinion by him I see as being completely wrong and denies an analysis of the objective situation. There are causal factors that went into the incident as well as others that are not taken into account by Schwyzer. However before I get into why his theory is wrong, I do want to start by clarifying that I am not making the case that “white male privilege” doesn’t exist. It very well does exist.
His contention is that “white male privilege” is the source of most of the mass murder shootings caused by middle-class white males. He does acknowledge that there are exceptions to to this and that not all mass shootings are carried about by white males.
“Perhaps the greatest asset that unearned privilege conveys is the sense that public spaces “belong” to you… White men from upper middle-class backgrounds expect to be both welcomed and heard wherever they go. When that sense of entitlement gets frustrated, as it can for a host of complex psychological reasons, it is those same hyper-privileged men who are the most likely to react with violent, rage-filled indignation. For white male murderers from “nice” families, the fact that they chose public spaces like schools, university campuses, or movie theaters as their targets suggests that they saw these places as legitimately theirs.”
Essentially his argument is that white middle-class men have a sense of entitlement, that they have a perceived right to be automatically accepted and taken seriously as though their opinions are always informed and legitimate. If this sense of entitlement is rejected, the anger and frustration of rejection manifest themselves in a violent act.
On the surface this would appear to very plausible. However I feel that if this were so then those of even greater “hyper-privilege” (as Schwyzer puts it) were rejected in such a sphere, their retaliation to a perceived injustice would be much more violent on a much larger scale. We would see the Koch Brothers or the Rockefellers opening fire on Congress or walking into an Occupy movement and begin acts of retaliatory violence. This is obviously not the case. However, one could argue that the actions of people like them and their class driving the society towards war (Iraq, Iran and Syria for example) could be a manifestation of it. I disagree with such a sentiment because of the magnitude and motivating factors behind it.
There is a monumental difference between organizing a multi-billion dollar media campaign to convince the public to go to war, buying out politicians and working out contracts for defence dollars; and simply walking into a public space and begin risking your own life in a battle. These actions are driven primarily by a profit motive not by a perceived slight to their privilege.
This, I believe, shows that the mass murder shootings were not based on a sense of privilege. It could have been a triggering factor for the violence that took place, but not the source of it. The white mass murders he refers to as examples are Charles Witman and Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.
Charles Witman consulted a therapist about issues he was having with his mental health. One wonders how bad it was if a man in 1966 was willing to admit there was a mental health problem. It was likely more severe than we think it was given how mental illness was perceived at the time. Most likely the mental problems he was suffering from was Post Traumatic Stress Disorder given that he was a Marine. His choice of the public place where he committed his killings (University of Texas at Austin) were probably symptomatic of his own failed attempt at academia which is why he was called back to active service in 1963. Not to mention his abusive father which caused him to leave home early.
Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold, better known as the Columbine Killers, were also mentioned specifically by Schwyzer as white (almost) men who committed their crimes because of a rejection of their white privilege. In truth both young men had tremendous mental illness and extreme anti-social behaviour that was clearly evident in the video tapes they made and from investigations that were made after their deaths. They reacted to the physically and emotionally brutal treatment they received, not that someone challenged their white privilege.
Given all this, he seems to make a 180 and completely changes what he previously said:
“…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.”
His previous contention was that they did the shooting because of “white male privilege”, now its the place they chose that is the result of it. Its seems he’s changed the cause of their actions part of the way through. Perhaps I’m reading it wrong, but he does claim the shootings came from “white male privilege”, and now claims it is only attributed to the location selection and no longer the cause.
Even then, their selection of the locations doesn’t correspond with any kind of white privilege. Both incidences took place where the shooters had suffered failure or abuse. Charles Witman had academic failure in his past, the only time it seems he suffered failure. His military and Eagle Scout record show him to be a success. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold attacked their school because that was where they suffered at the hands of their peers. They targeted students and faculty for wrongs and perceived wrongs that had been committed against them. Schwyer’s conclusion on why these “white male privilege” shooters chose their particular location to attack is simply wrong and does not correspond to the objective facts.
Both the Columbine Killers and Charles Witman carried out their killings because of the mental illness they suffered and was triggered by the trauma or incident they experienced. There are people who have the same mental illnesses who never kill anyone and there are people who suffer the same triggering events and don’t kill anyone. The “white male privilege” is not an explanation as to why these individuals carried out the acts that they did.
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In addition to this, there are other factors that also led into this shooting and the possibilities of it happening as well. For example, gun ownership is higher among white males than any other demographic in the United States. Mainly in rural areas, but over all in the county the people with the highest rates of gun ownership are white males. As well as to be expected they are also more common among conservatives. I’m not saying the Colorado shooter was conservative, I don’t think anyone has identified his political beliefs yet. So this would naturally be less likely from a liberal because they have a lower rate of gun ownership.
Accessibility to mental heath services is also a tremendous factor in these shootings. Even the middle-class have a difficult time in accessing any kind of mental health service. Insurance companies find it completely worthless and in the capitalist economy it is extremely expensive. As opposed to socialist societies which make it more publicly available. Social attitudes toward metal health contribute to it as well. The stigma against those who seek it is still pretty bad. I cannot even imagine how bad it was for Charles Witman back in 1966.
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In attempting to explain the shooting and its cause, Hugo Schwyzer has hyper-focused on his area of expertise, gender studies. This has lead to a narrowing of understanding and focus that has disregarded other factors that went into the event and what venue for it was chosen. Most notably the history of mental illness among all the shooters.
I on the other hand have taken into account several factors. Gender, class status, political ideology, mental health, accessibility of guns, etc. Schwyzer has over simplified a situation, that needs a much more in-depth investigation.
Hugo Schwyzer: Why Most Mass Murderers Are Privileged White Men
James Holmes was seeing psychiatrist before massacre
Charles Witman’s mental health