New Evidence Suggests Loughner Was Driven by Misogyny

New details about the primary suspect in the shooting in Tucson, Arizona that resulted in the death of 6 people and injury of 14, including Rep Gabrielle Giffords, suggest that Jared Loughner was driven, at least in part, by sexism and misogyny.

Jared Loughner, smiling with shaved head and black eye

A new NYTimes article describing Loughner’s personal history indicates that Loughner held sexist views and believed that women should not be in positions of power.

From the article:

“At a small local branch of a major bank, for example, the tellers would have their fingers on the alarm button whenever they saw him approaching.”

“It was not just his appearance — the pale shaved head and eyebrows that unnerved them. It was also the aggressive, often sexist things that he said, including asserting that women should not be allowed to hold positions of power or authority

One individual with knowledge of the situation said Mr. Loughner once got into a dispute with a female branch employee after she told him that a request of his would violate bank policy. He brusquely challenged the woman, telling her that she should not have any power.

Though everyone from the far-right wing to the “liberal elite” is clamoring to dismiss Loughner as a “lone wolf”, anomaly, or outlier, the truth is that his brand of resentful, angry sexist is nothing new. While no one would suggest that Loughner was driven solely by sexism, or that his profile aligns exactly with previous gunmen that espoused sexist or misogynistic views, it’s obvious that his views on women informed at least in part the decision to attempt the assassination of Gabrielle Giffords, a female Congresswoman who he had once complained to a friend was “stupid and unintelligent” according to the Times.

Even before details highlighting sexism in Loughner’s personal philosophy emerged, our very own Jessica Valenti published a piece in the Guardian arguing that “the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords highlights the ‘man-up’ culture in US politics.”

I believe that, given the evidence that has emerged over the weekend, we can take it a step farther and place Loughner as the latest in a list of violent perpetrators whose crimes were informed and motivated by hatred of women and anxious masculinity. As Jessica highlighted in a piece last year for the Washington Post:

Women are being shot dead in the streets here [in the U.S.], too. It was only last year that George Sodini opened fire in a gym outside Pittsburgh, killing three women and injuring nine others. Investigators learned from Sodini’s blog that he specifically targeted women. In 2006, a gunman went into an Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania; he sent the boys outside and opened fire on almost a dozen girls, killing five. That same year in Colorado, a man sexually assaulted six female students he had taken hostage at a high school before killing one of them.

Picture of George Sodini wearing plaid shirt
George Sodini, gunman in Pittsburgh gym murder that targeted Sodini’s ex-girlfriend and resulted in the death of 3 victims, all women.

Amanda Marcotte has also made some important points about the way that gender played into this shooting over at Pandagon. As Marcotte patiently explains, even though gender issues were clearly at play here, “there isn’t a single answer for why something like this happens. It’s a combination of factors…Many things can be true at once.”

I don’t have any interest in using this violent act as an occasion to wave around a feminist I-told-you-so card. In fact, the idea of doing so makes me feel disgusting. But I also don’t intend to sit by and let Loughner’s obviously sexist views be ignored or dismissed as irrelevant or somehow exceptional. Because as uncomfortable, confusing, and complicated as it may be to sort out the chilling musings of a murderer, the violence won’t stop unless we get past the political fallout and get real about the disconcerting prevalence of sexism and misogyny in our society.

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13 Comments

  1. Posted January 18, 2011 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    I think the first-and-last on this guy really needs to be related to his mental illness, whatever it was. Before you mention Sarah Palin or misogyny or his unemployment or his rejection by women and the military, you have to mention that he was clearly sick. He wasn’t rational. Are there prevalent themes in our culture that encourage men to be violent towards women? Absolutely. Did they play a role here? Hard to say, because he was mentally ill.

    Short of addressing mental illness, I don’t think there’s a thing can prevent these sorts of horrible events.

  2. Posted January 18, 2011 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    At what point was Loughner parroting prevailing trends, or was he of a rational mind to believe them? People who are mentally ill often pick up on things that they saw or heard from popular culture, but they may not have the cognitive ability to make it part of their belief system.

    This is why it’s so difficult to ascribe hatred of women to a severely mentally ill person. Similarly, one can also believe that people who are mentally ill, as you have argued, are pushed to do such acts because of the violence of anxious masculinity. This is also possible. If Loughner had been sane, then it would be much easier to argue conclusively that he was driven by misogyny.

    Many considered John Brown absolutely insane. Some considered him an abolitionist prophet. Some considered him the symbol of the destruction of the chattel slave system. What was he really? Depended on who you asked, but he still killed lots of people in cold blood. Was he merely parroting existing trends between anti and pro slavery factions, or did he genuinely have a desire to free the slaves by violent means?

    • Posted January 18, 2011 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

      There is a lot to unpack in this comment. First off:

      “People who are mentally ill often pick up on things that they saw or heard from popular culture, but they may not have the cognitive ability to make it part of their belief system.”

      Citation, please? How “often” does this occur in mentally ill people? How often do people who are not mentally ill “pick up on things,” but “not have the cognitive ability to make it part of their belief system”? I don’t know. I also don’t know if it’s any more common than in people who are not mentally ill. I think both of these comments above make the critical error of conflating “mental illness” with “an individual who is so delusional as to be barely functioning in the same reality as the rest of us.” That represents only a narrow subset of people who could be classified as mentally ill. I work with mentally ill people every day in my psychology practica for my doctoral program, and every last one of them has the same cognitive abilities to interpret political and other messages just as well as any one. Loughner’s problem is not that he is mentally ill, it is that he is severely delusional. Be more careful with the language.

      Also ,the comparison to John Brown is extremely poor. John Brown was an ideologically driven abolitionist who gave his life to one of the most righteous and important causes in American history. Jared Loughner murdered a bunch of people for . . . who knows why? Yes, they both killed people. The comparison ends there.

      Also, the suggestion that John Brown was perceived as insane is totally unclear. The excellent book, “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” spends some interesting ink on John Brown, observing that references to him as “possibly insane,” or some other wishy-washy nonsense like that are probably the creations of slavery apologist textbook authors trying to avoid offending the Texas schoolboards. Full-disclosure: I tend toward this interpretation and have a portrait of John Brown hanging in my office.

  3. Posted January 18, 2011 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    I disagree that the “first-and-last on this guy” should be related to his mental illness. Mentally ill people aren’t actually more likely to be the perpetrators of violence than healthy people are. In fact, they’re more likely to be victims of violence due to public opinion that they’re dangerous or somehow less human. In my opinion, we just like to believe that these horrendous crimes were the result of “crazy” people because we don’t want to believe that people could be so violent or irrational without the excuse of severe illness.

    • Posted January 18, 2011 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

      I wonder how you came to the conclusion that the disparity in crime victim status is related to public opinion that mentally ill people are more likely to be viewed as less than human. can you cite a citation.

      I am a bit skeptical and more inclined to attribute the greater incidence of crime victimhood to factors like homelessness, increased likelihood of being institutionalized/in the prison system and poverty.

      You are right that the data suggest that even people with schizophrenia and/or bipolar are not at elevated risk for crime (http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000120). However, in this case the argument that his delusions are totally unrelated to his committing a seemingly irrational act of violence seems a bit hard to swallow. The aggregate data suggesting that mentally ill people are NOT at increased risk does not mean that mental illness was not a causal factor in THIS crime. However, I still tend to agree with you that it’s good policy to withhold judgment.

      • Posted January 18, 2011 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

        OK, let me revise my statement: the article I linked to actually concludes as follows:

        “Schizophrenia and other psychoses are associated with violence and violent offending, particularly homicide. However, most of the excess risk appears to be mediated by substance abuse comorbidity. The risk in these patients with comorbidity is similar to that for substance abuse without psychosis. Public health strategies for violence reduction could consider focusing on the primary and secondary prevention of substance abuse.”

        So people who are schizophrenic (the diagnosis tagged on Loughner by many an armchair psychiatrist) ARE at increased risk, but it seems to be mediated by substance abuse.

        Maybe Loughner’s substance abuse history would be a good starting point, then, if we are following the empirical literature.

        • Posted January 19, 2011 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

          A lot of times people with mental illness are likely to become victims of violence or end up in abusive relationships, etc. moreso, than perpetrate it. I’ve read this repeatedly and will dig up citation if anyone wants me to.

          FWIW, while I do think his mental illness should be taken into consideration, I don’t think everything he’s ever said or thought should be attributed to it. I also live with schizo-affective disorder and under treatment, for example, and I do not in the least have any of the views described here on women in power. What I find ironic is this seems to be a PRIME example of why there needs to be more and better health care and treatment (as well as less social stigma to prevent them from seeking it) for those with mental illness. The right treatment plan or medication may have prevented this tragedy. But few people talk about that and today the House voted it down anyway.

          • Posted January 20, 2011 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

            Maybe I wasn’t clear there. I have read studies suggesting that people who meet criteria for a mental illness are more likely to be victims of crimes than they are likely to be perpetrators. That is fair enough. However, Eva above made the following statement:

            “Mentally ill people aren’t actually more likely to be the perpetrators of violence than healthy people are.”

            That is very different than saying they are more likely to be victims than perpetrators. It is possible that mentally ill people are both more likely to perpetrate crime than “healthy” (I assume she means “people who do not meet criteria for a psychiatric disorder”) AND are more likely to be victims of crimes than to perpetrate them.

    • Posted January 18, 2011 at 11:42 pm | Permalink

      I definitely didn’t suggest that mental illness = violence. I also didn’t suggest that mental illness = crazy. There are many millions of neurotics out there, myself included, who gently go about their days. I think most acts of violence are committed by relatively healthy, lucid, rational people. Based on what I’ve seen and read, I don’t think this was the case in AZ.

      Like most of us, I’m hundreds of miles away from the reality of this story. Still, it seems pretty clear, to me at least, that the dude was not rational. Or, if he was rational, his reasoning wasn’t based on the reality that most of us share. And again this is just my opinion, but I think his irrationality probably has a bit to do with whatever mental illness(es) he suffers from.

      I hope that time will give us more answers. I just think it’s a little irresponsible to start pointing the finger at any one social trend or event or source of media, especially this soon after the event. It reminds me of when Columbine was blamed on heavy metal music.

  4. Posted January 18, 2011 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

    I very much doubt there’s a “first-and-last” for this man. What was really going on in his head when he pulled the trigger? We can’t know. Mental imbalance, misogyny, violent rhetoric, all probably played a part. I’m getting tired of the reporting on this story, from all sources, that tries to tie his motives up in a neat little bow. Everyone seems to agree that over-the-top rhetoric contributed to the tragedy, or at least didn’t help. But if anything, there’s been more over-the-top rhetoric in response.

    I know this post didn’t intend to claim a monopoly on Loughner’s one and only motive. And I appreciate the recognition of complexity in the last couple of paragraphs. I guess I’m just wondering at what point do we get to grieve in the face of tragedy, instead of trying to explain it away.

  5. Posted January 19, 2011 at 2:25 am | Permalink

    Jared believes in propositions which are morally horrendous. Why are we so keen to find something mitigating about his state of mind? I think it’s entirely possible to be in one’s right mind and come up with something that seems patently a departure from rationality for the rest of us. He believes, wrongly and for bad reasons, that women should not have power. Likewise, Fred Phelps believes, wrongly and for bad reasons, that queer people should be captured by the State and executed. And I am sure that when we sit down with either of these gentlemen (actually, someone _did_ sit down with Phelps and Co.: there’s a documentary on it), we will find that they go through all the motions of rational thinking and the pretenses or normality. But obviously the real problem is that Jared (like Phelps) is a monster. Evil incarnate, and unmitigated asshole. Why is this conclusion difficult?

    • Posted January 19, 2011 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

      His writings suggest someone on the schizophrenic spectrum, for example the ability to connect the dots between a lot of seemingly unrelated points (which those who write the manuals like to describe as “disordered thinking”. It’s just a more encompassing way of processing information.) I’m not trying to say this gives him a pass or that what he did wasn’t evil. I’m just wondering why, given the repeated warning signs this guy apparently gave to his school, classmates, neighbors, local authorities, and even to the point where he was rejected from the military, the ball was dropped on treatment. I wonder why one of his victims can get an involuntary commitment at the drop of a hat for speaking menacingly to a Tea Partier, while Loughner pretty much ran around unchallenged?

      http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/16/us/16fuller.html

  6. Posted January 19, 2011 at 5:38 am | Permalink

    I think any sort of reason someone gives for targeting an elected official (whether immutable like gender, race, religion, or sexual orientation, or a matter of politics such as party affiliation or votes on particular bills) is still, broadly speaking, an attempt to intimidate a certain group of people and to violently subvert the democratic process. Indiscriminately killing others in attendance makes such an action even more serious. It can be useful to note gender as a factor, but I think the violent threat to the democratic process (regardless of the justification) is really the heart of the matter. If we can’t reasonably expect to be represented correctly, then *every* right is in danger.

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