Last week, as was massively covered in the news media, 22-year-old college student Elliot Rodger went on a murderous rampage before apparently taking his own life in Isla Vista, Calif., after self-reportedly being unable to win the attention and sexual affection of young women.
Last month, as was far less covered in the press, 19-year-old college student Alyssa Funke took her own life in Big Carnelian Lake, Minn., after reportedly being bullied online by former high school classmates about her participation in a sexually explicit adult video shot earlier this year.
What unites the deaths of Rodger and Funke? That they were both college students who took their own lives? That is obvious.
That they both made videos that will likely live on in perpetuity in cyberspace, becoming fetid fodder for feasting in our morbidly and sexually obsessed voyeuristic nation? That seems clear as well.
That Funke was arguably the victim of our misogynistic ideology, while Rodger was a perpetrator of that same ideology. Likely true too.
That both Rodger and Funke craved kindness and attention, albeit probably for very different reasons, to fill some gaping gaps or needs in their lives? That sex, or the lack thereof, played an unquantifiable role in their deaths? That their family lives were less than perfect? Any or all of those hypotheses perhaps contain some shred of the truth.
But what really binds the otherwise unrelated events separated by more than 1,500 miles and one month is our all too predictable reaction to them.
We immediately, if not reflexively, play the blame game of tragic death. We often embrace social media to do so. Troublingly, we may feel like we're doing something when, most likely, we are doing very little to change anything. We border on being slacktivists.
The volume of social media chatter is undeniable in Rodger's case. As an Associated Press story put it, Rodger's rampage "sparked a flurry of online discussion on a wide array of topics: violence against women, gun control, mental health, even news coverage itself."
We understandably engage in social media cries of outrage and righteous rage. We do so against supposedly lax gun laws in a state that actually has some of the strictest, against the Hollywood entertainment industry and Judd Apatow movies, against pornography, against slut shaming, against malevolent and misogynistic attitudes toward women, against bullying -- against anything, really, we can think of at which to point a post-hoc finger of blame to explain the inexplicable. That makes us feel good, like we're having our say and that our tweets and Facebook posts really matter.
Our social media cries make us, in times of obvious and undeniable pain, feel good because, in part, we bond with others who share our opinions. We feel part of a community of shared values. But reductionism to lone alleged causes doesn't get us very far and neither does simply adopting a simplistic viewpoint and embracing it through tweets.
As Emily Shire eloquently wrote about the discussion of Funke's death, "the great indignity ... is not that she performed in a pornographic video, or that she was harassed by her former classmates. It is that two competing media narratives have tried to cast her life in black-and-white and claim her alleged suicide as a way to prove a point." Shire explains that "just as easy as it is to use Funke's death as a way to chastise the adult-film industry, it can be used as proof of the dangers of cyberbullying and the problems with stigmatizing sex workers. In both of these lines of arguments, Funke is boiled down to a talking point in a culture battle over pornography and sex work rather than treated as a real person."
There is a real danger here -- namely, that we may be substituting knowledge about an issue and engaging via social media about it rather than taking any real-world action. It is a modern, twisted version of the narcotizing dysfunction theory of media consumption, one in which we now substitute social media posts for action.
The bottom line is that we often seem to engage in simplistic and superficial soul searching and feel-good social media activity. The danger is that we really may not be taking much real-world action. And the clearly cathartic and therapeutic vigils and protests we now hold won't last long. The attention of the mainstream news media currently given to them will soon move on to the next event sure to fill a 24-hour, non-stop news cycle.
Ultimately, there are no easy answers to the causes of the deaths in Isla Vista and Big Carnelian Lake. But our responses sometimes seem far too predictable and far too reductionist to keep us from realizing that. Let's just hope that, at the end of the day, we'll not abandon the sentiments behind our noble hashtags and be left only with the Rodger and Funke videos in the digital scrapheap of one-hit tragedies.