About a year ago, I met a twenty-something man, whom I’m going to call Z, who talked to me about his rage. He was in a workshop of about a dozen students whose essays I was editing. I interacted with him often and found his expletive-laced conversation somewhat challenging to stomach. But I liked him, I liked his honesty even though it lacked the veneer of politeness and I liked his keen intelligence. And I persisted in reaching out to him, even knowing that he could be unpredictable.
I was a brown middle-aged immigrant woman trying to understand a young white man’s angst.
His story began with what he described as his tendency to obsessive behavior. As a preteen, he would stay up till his parents fell asleep and then browse GoPed and paintball forums till the early hours of the morning, even on school nights. In his early twenties he slid into an intense depression and began signing on to online anonymous forums like 4Chan. He talked about the hours he spent on 4Chan’s /pol/ or /b/ — the “politically incorrect” and “random” channels on the boards —, places where he found people like himself.
When it came time to submit his essay, he wrote a raw and deeply troubling account of his life, with few paragraph breaks, as though it had poured out of him.
“I spent about a year enveloped in hate, spewing bigoted post after post online to anyone who would read it,” he wrote describing how he “drifted further and further into the abyss.”
As I read the reports of the deadly carnage meticulously planned and performed by 24-year-old Connor Betts from Bellbrook, Ohio, Patrick Wood Crusius, a 21-year-old, from Allen, Texas and Santino William Legan, a 19-year-old from Gilroy, the three male shooters who killed at least 36 people in the last few days, it seems evident that our culture of political divisiveness, the schizophrenia of social media and the invective of paranoid demagogues has created strands of competing information and disinformation, which the vulnerable young are unable to process coherently, leading them to stumble into the clutches of plot peddlers.
Crucius’ manifesto blamed among others the “takeover of the United States government by unchecked corporations,” “letting millions of illegal or legal immigrants flood into the United States,” “decimation of the environment,” “automation of jobs,” increase in the number of “foreign workers that will take American jobs,” and the “cost of college degrees has exploded as their value has plummeted.”
These were all issues that were discussed during the recent Democratic debates and by members of the Congress, and many of these were actual phrases that have been bandied about in order to press home a point.
Z called it a “red pill delusion,” a term that originated in a scene of “The Matrix.” In the film, Morpheus holds a blue pill and a red pill in his open palms as he tells Neo, “You take the blue pill and the story ends. You wake in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill and you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”
Nihilists take the red pill, Z explained, rejecting the vile falsehoods and fiendish lies that distract and disrupt society. The red pill shows the way out of this seething quagmire of disinformation by actively seeking out the truth about the world.
And, in far too many instances, that truth is rooted in conspiracy theories propagating racist, misogynistic, supremacist agendas by concocting bizarre doomsday scenarios and evidence of oppression by the “Illuminati.”
As Z put it, on online forums, hateful things were being said, but when he began looking into them, he found “many contained kernels of fact, which made them seem believable.”
Z was able to snap out of the hold of his delusions when he served time in a county jail on an old warrant. He called it the turning point in his story.
He confessed to bearing “a hatred toward those I deemed to be degenerates” prior to his experience in jail. He described degenerates as immigrants, people of color and those of minority faiths, among others. As I read this, I registered the fact that I checked all of those boxes.
While in jail, he spoke of police brutality. “I was treated as a subhuman by the majority of the officers, who were predominantly white, and was treated fairly by fellow inmates, most of whom were not,” he said.
Listening to him, and reading what he’d written, I wondered if rage can be comforting. For Z, it seemed to be the most consistent emotion, showing up on cue, and keeping at bay all those painful, hidden vulnerabilities that added up to declining self-worth. So, too, for mass shooters who frequently seek out and encounter the virality of anger and rage — it can end up being self-affirming.
It was an interruption of his regimen of anger and distrust that helped Z recover. Z wrapped up his story by saying that once he was released, he “reintegrated back into the real world, interacting with neighbors and friends of all ages, ethnicities, sexual identities, and religions, eventually returning to complete sanity.”
Jaya Padmanabhan’s guest column runs biweekly in the SF Examiner and the point of view of the writer is not necessarily that of The Examiner. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan