On Bullying: Isla Vista, Seth Abramson, and Social Media
How do you ethically navigate your media?
When I heard today about the shootings in southern California, my first thought was, “oh, again?”, and my second thought was, “Rachel is in southern California.” After running to the computer to confirm that the shootings took place far enough away from where my wife is, and after feeling huge relief none of the victims were my loved ones, and after feeling momentary guilt for that relief in the face of others’ grief, I felt the now-usual feelings of sadness for the victims and their loved ones, frustration at the cultural attitudes that enable and produce this now-usual violence, and renewed knowledge of my helplessness to protect those I love from “random” tragedy.
I then did my usual thing of scanning the web for information about what went on and what lead to it. I read a good deal of the killer’s memoir/manifesto. I noted his childhood joy of opening a Pokémon booster pack to find a Charizard, his journey of dyeing his hair partly and then full-blond, his use of the term “playdate” to talk about hanging out with people when he was 17, his emotional connection to his N64, and his reverence for brand names. I realized he had probably killed his roommates before I saw any media mention that he had killed his roommates. I read that he had planned to kill his younger brother and his stepmother. I saw an excruciatingly self-involved man who in many ways still thought as a boy, and who had never been able to understand other people are human, like him.
After thinking a lot today about empathy—the visceral recognition of yourself in other people, of other people in yourself—and reminiscing some about feeling unloved, unattractive, outcast, and misunderstood, I scrolled past a Facebook post about Seth Abramson’s remix of the killer’s YouTube confession. I thought, “too soon!” and scrolled on. And then later scrolled past it, and then, on seeing it for the third time, read it. In the piece, Abramson reorganizes the killer’s words into something life-affirming. Rather than railing against the dumb beast blond women and the thugs their animal minds force them to couple with, Abramson’s piece intends itself as a message of comfort, understanding, and love for “Every single girl. Every single man. (Even obnoxious men!)” Even Elliot, the killer.
I then read the comments on the Facebook post.
It turns out, Seth Abramson is almost certainly the most vile person to ever write a poem, or write about poetry, like basically ever. As I followed the links to friends’ and “44 mutual friends’” profiles, and as I dutifully investigated the Twitter “conversation,” I found over and over testimony that not only is Abramson a self-promoting, hate-filled “douche,” but he is the “douchey-est douche” to ever hijack a national tragedy not only for his own ends, but because—and this is almost certainly a clinical, untreatable evil—he can only understand the plight of white men. Worst of all—and really, I was thinking he couldn’t get worse!—Abramson is a fucking NERD.
Don’t get (us) wrong! Abramson’s problem isn’t that he reads lots of books—we’re that kind of nerd. And it’s not even that he obviously cares deeply about poetry—that’s okay too, mostly! Seth Abramson is the kind of nerd that thinks nerdiness is okay in the real world. He’s the kind of nerd who will try and explain his nerd-dweeb ideas to people who aren’t reading a Nerds-Only website. He’s that kind of nerd who will try and explain his nerd-dweeb ideas in the first place! And—again and again I saw this—he’s the kind of nerd who makes us look bad.
He’s the kind of nerd that could get mistaken for us.
But whatever the reasons, the consensus is in: remixing a killer’s words within a day of that killer becoming a killer is immoral.
This gets me wondering, though. Linking to the killer’s unadulterated words—in this case, the original YouTube clip, various news sites with the clip embedded, excerpted, and highlighted, sites with the 141-page memoir/manifesto “My Twisted World,” etc. etc.—seems fair game. In fact, doing that not only increases your Klout score temporarily, but gives you the chance to voice that you, yourself, do in no way support murder, misogyny, the NRA, and Republicans (and Seth Abramson) in general. Controversial and marginalized views, all, especially in artist communities.
I’ve mostly avoided using the Isla Vista killer’s name here because killers should not be celebrities. Rolling Stone has hopefully learned this by now, and it’s really something our society should have learned after the many Columbine-copycat school shootings. It has been made clear by manifesto after manifesto, what these killers want is what, in some way, we all want: our name in every mouth. What I want to know is, how do we contribute? Will the next killer be dissuaded by your link to Gawker’s take on the “Pick-Up Artist Community’s Take on the Cali Shootings”? Is it probable that some alienated loser, after you show him what an alienated loser he and the alienated losers he’s friends with are, will learn to value other people as real, live, worthwhile humans? Or is it ever-so-slightly more likely that even the most unsuccessful small creative act could offer a route through the soul-crushing terror that is for many, including my younger self, suburban young adulthood?
I was a sophomore in high school when the Columbine Massacre took place, and though time has allowed my thoughts and feelings to grow manifold since then, my thought and feeling at the time was, “Well, that makes sense.” Not that two guys should have killed twelve fellow students, a teacher, and themselves, but that two guys, who received mostly hate, and at best neglect, from the vast majority of people who made up their world, would do that.
It was a given, at that time, that I’d be told more than a dozen times each day that I was a fag. It was probable I’d be pushed into a locker, or tripped, or my bag would be pulled open. There was not a day that I wasn’t aware of people laughing at me. And most days, walking through the halls, waiting for any number of these things, or worse, I would imagine running from person to person, slicing them open, letting their blood splash all down the hallways. If I had been convinced I was unlovable, hate would have overtaken me.
My family and my friends and, soon, art, saved me from believing that I was worthless. I saw in them that the world has value, and that made me feel that I, too, might someday have real, solid value. Truly I tell you: criticism would not have convinced me. Certainly all the people telling me I shouldn’t look different, talk different, or be too enthusiastic about books and videogames did not convince me to be cool. And I was too young and too dumb to even recognize wisdom, and I needed so hard what little pride I could find, even a Caity Weaver-grade commentary on my mindset would not have changed it. I knew other people were mostly around to hurt me. What I needed was comfort, understanding, and love, and something to do.
Displaying outrage in the face of something outrageous is an easy moral act, but morality is not necessarily ethical. Yelling at kids—and many 22-year-olds, and many 44-year-olds, are still functionally children—has not in three millennia of recorded history produced a reliably non-murderous generation; why is it our default mode of educating them on the internet? Why not, for instance, show them how to repurpose hateful speech into messages of shared experience? Isn’t sharing experience exactly what social media is about?
And beyond this, I have to ask: Y’all who are piling on Seth: does it trouble you that there’s no dissenting voice in this discussion besides Seth himself? At best what you’ve created with this “discussion” is an echo chamber. At worst, you remind me of the people who always found time during their day to let me know what shit I was. If your goal is to teach, learn, and foster community, there are ways to deliver most of what y’all have said in the spirit of love. Wouldn’t this be more likely not only to change Seth’s perspective, but also encourage all sorts of people with all sorts of perspectives to engage in open conversation? But if your goal is to ridicule, alienate, and confirm your in-group status, most of you are doing a great job.
Donald Dunbar lives in Portland, Oregon, where he helps run If Not For Kidnap and edits poetry for draft: The Journal of Process. He is the author of Eyelid Lick (Fence, 2012) and Slow Motion German Adjectives (Mammoth Editions, 2013).