Once again, US President Donald Trump is scapegoating violence in entertainment and mental illness to downplay his own influence in far-right radicalization and the stochastic terrorism it often inspires.
Stochastic Terrorism is often defined as “lone wolf” attacks made for a political cause, personal gain or other motivation, they often appear random, but an incredibly resilient and complex system supports the entire process. And Trump is a crucial part of the system. The modular system of radicalization that the far-right is currently utilizing to terrifying effect starts with simple infection vectors. Whether it’s “edgy” humor playing against progressive politics, or whether it’s outright racist rhetoric amplifying manufactured rage, the violent result is always the same.
And the follow-up to this process is equally predictable. Media and political entities will rush to either capitalize on or distance themselves from the act themselves. And there’s no denying the inherently lopsided approach to trying to rectify the issue as well. Gun violence is often used as a scapegoat for policies aimed at disarming groups that arose to defend their communities from racist attacks. Such a thing infamously occurred when Conservative darlings Ronald Reagan and the NRA led a charge of gun control legislation specifically meant to disarm the Black Panthers.
And now, we’re poised as a society to engage in the same song and dance all over again. Donald Trump is pushing the same rhetoric once again, as he previously blamed entertainment for these issues the last time they reared their ugly head in America. And then you have Dana Loesch, the former NRA spokesperson saying shootings happen because “we have men without chests”. Seemingly making a very paradoxical argument about how only extremely “manly” men can resist the urge to commit mass-violence or put a stop to it.
This all comes amid a torrent of attacks on political opponents, many of whom are people of color, with the same style of racist rhetoric which directly influence the El Paso shooter. Though Trump stopped short of calling them invaders, the tone was clear. And it’s made painfully obvious that the administration knows it as they quickly began downplaying the information that links his words and actions to the manifesto released by said shooter. And his Twitter continues to contain more than a dozen tweets which directly utilize this racist rhetoric.
This whole thing has become a more common political tactic in recent years. As more and more shootings and acts of stochastic terrorism occur, the right-wing drivers of the majority of these attacks have to do something to avoid admitting culpability. And distancing themselves and scapegoating other issues is exactly how they do that.
The Dayton, Ohio shooter is another example of this, but the motivations are a lot murkier and subtle, so it’s easier for the far-right to escape blame and push more trouble onto gaming and entertainment.
The Dayton shooter was allegedly a left-leaning individual politically, as he professed support for certain causes found within the moderate left in America. It’s extremely important to point out that championing universal healthcare does not make someone a radical leftist, but his actions speak louder than his words, so one would be right to question his convictions. That charge of left-wing radicalism, one also expressed by Trump, is just another example of the far-right trying to treat their opposition like a monolith, but let’s get back to the point here.
The real reason, as far as we can see it at this time, behind the Dayton shooting was one of toxic masculinity. The consistent media narrative is that Connor Betts was a victim of bullying, although some who knew him tell a different story. They allege a person who made consistent violent threats and was often a perpetrator of bullying rather than a victim. This characterization of bullying victims is often used as a catch-all justification by both media sources and the perpetrators, and it’s dangerous.
Demonizing mental illness, video games and other ancillary issues allows the true problems to go unaddressed. In this case, Connor Betts seems a lot like a walking example of toxic masculinity gone way too far. And it’s made even more obvious when Dana Loesch argues that only a certain kind of masculinity is valid by saying that shootings are the fault of weak men. This is text book toxic masculinity, and it would be hilarious if it weren’t so dire. Why? Because this is coming from the same kind of person who loves to project and defend calls for violence from the right-wing when they target opposition or vulnerable communities.
Here’s the important explanation of toxic masculinity that’s relevant to the Dayton shooter.
In psychology, toxic masculinity refers to traditional cultural masculine norms that can be harmful to men, women, and society overall; this concept of toxic masculinity is not intended to demonize men or male attributes, but rather to emphasize the harmful effects of conformity to certain traditional masculine ideals can create.
The Dayton shooter was allegedly someone with a history of violence and feeling superiority. We don’t know all of the details, but it is important to note that his own sister was one of his victims. Misogynists will often target and victimize women in their personal lives, so it’s important to keep that in mind as more information comes to light.
It’s also vital to understand that the links between violence in media and real-world violence are contested. Violence in media often has an impact, but it’s a more pronounced and potentially violent one on people who already hold violent fantasies and beliefs. And the age and experiences of the consumer also have an impact. As one study pointed out, “. . .short-term effects of violent media were greater for adults than for children whereas the long-term effects were greater for children than for adults.”
These effects can and do manifest in violent behavior and aggressive thoughts, and those can be amplified by other environmental conditions. A child who grows up hearing a ton of casual racism could be more affected in a negative way by violent media, as could those who experience trauma that they may see depicted in entertainment. This is not a call to censor media though, it’s important to understand and explore these issues in-depth, and entertainment is often a lens for that, but it needs to be done in the right way. For a gaming-based example, look at the differences between your average Call of Duty and Spec Ops: The Line. Both are military shooters with tons of violence and heavy themes. The former sometimes reinforces negative stereotypes and plays on pre-conceived biases, all to craft a spectacle of violence. The latter takes violence and examines the act and those who perpetrate it, with an ultimate pay-off that’s far less about spectacle and more about introspection.
So as people continue to downplay the real influences of terrorism, it’s important to highlight the trend and do what we can to counter it, if we actually want effective and long-term solutions.