On purity culture and violence, briefly

1. When a mass murderer tells police that he was “eliminating temptation,” I don’t think the right response is to assume he is telling the truth even by his own perspective. Maybe he really thinks that’s what he was doing. But maybe he killed eight people because he despaired at life and was angry, and decided later that “eliminating temptation” was a rationale that made sense and kept him from committing suicide. 

2. In any event, it is definitely the wrong response to assume that his parents, friends, or pastors taught him—explicitly or implicitly—to do this. If you’re tempted to think this way, imagine that the group that mentored him are not someone you dislike such as “purity culture evangelicals,” but somebody different. 

3. I think stories like this are frustrating because they offer genuine insight mixed with a journalistic framing that is deeply untrustworthy. Brad Onishi, Jeff Chu, and Samuel Perry—the three voices brought in to criticize evangelical purity culture—are all examples of LGBT-affirming post-evangelicalism. Because of this framing, the subtext of the article is that there are really only two choices for evangelical Christians: double down on hating women and empowering shooters like Robert Long, or abandon core evangelical doctrines. This is exactly the posture that defines nearly all anti-purity culture writing I see, which is why I get so frustrated by it, even when it makes genuinely helpful points…

4…such as Perry’s observation that a lot of evangelical men evaluate their spiritual lives only by the rubric of “purity.” That’s so true.

5. No reasonable person denies that evangelical purity culture can make destructive mistakes. I lived in it, most of my friends did too. These are real stories. 

6. But at what point does your experience in youth group stop being formative? I mean this sincerely. Why do many critiques of purity culture hinge on an ongoing psychological trauma caused by the 3-4 years you spent as a teenager getting just about everything in your life messed up? Maybe one of the lessons of youth group purity culture is that it’s a bad idea to have a 22 year old youth pastor give 13 year old students a book about sex and dating written by a 17 year old. 

7. It’s good to keep in mind that, for all of purity culture’s failures, the anti-purity culture spaces in American society don’t seem to be much wiser at this either

The Copycat Problem

Media outlets must change how they cover school shootings and glamorize the shooters.

I agree with National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke that the mass shooting problem in the US is also a copycat problem:

The shooter in Parkland was obsessed with the massacre at Columbine, as was the shooter in Newtown. More often than not, this is the case — even when shooters or would-be shooters do not manage to carry out their attacks as planned. Typically, the Columbine obsession takes the form of giving a would-be shooter the idea, and/or setting a bodycount target for him to “beat” (if this sounds like hyperbole, read this chilling account). Occasionally, though, it drips down into his tactics. From the early reports, that seems to have been the case here. It seems that the shooter wore a trench coat, and made pipe bombs, which he spread around the school. Now where would he have got an idea like that?

What empowers the copycat problem? Well, you could say that all school shooters share similar sociopathies. That might be true as far as it goes, but there a lot of disturbed, violent people in the world, and a lot of variety in how their commit crimes. The trench coated, bomb-planting, angry-loner profile for school shooters is too much of a template to think it’s all just coincidentally shared neuroses. Obviously there’s a deliberate attempt to imitate among these angry young men. And how do they get the information to imitate?

I guess some people might think talking about media coverage is a way for a conservative like me to avoid talking about gun control. It’s not. IN the very little space I’ve given to writing about the topic, I’ve expressed interest in unhitching conservatism from NRA-esque dis-regulation, and chided my fellow evangelicals for reading the Constitution well in its First amendment but poorly in its Second. I’m not a gun homer. I skew to the right on this issue because of intuition and tribal alignments, but that doesn’t mean the Republican Party’s platform is gospel. I’m all for talking about guns.

The problem I see is that everyone’s fine talking about guns, but practically no one wants to talk about why, literally hours after the deaths of 10 people, cable news outlets are promoting (yes, promoting) the alleged murderer’s Facebook profile, interviewing his classmates and friends, pasting his name atop the internet, and doing in-depth psychological profiles of his clothing and music. Let’s face it: This stuff is either a celebritization or else it’s a form of pornography, a soft-core concoction of tantalizing details and insinuations that titillate the imagination. Either way, this is a carb-rich media diet for desperate and violent men.

Young people in America want fame. According to one statistician who asked them, many young people want fame more than they want success, meaning, or even family. Social media is a billion dollar enterprise not least because it is a kind of parallel society in which opportunities for fame are legion compared to offline life. Is it really hard to imagine the mental process by which a lonely, rejected, isolated teenager would determine that the best thing he could do for his life would be to become infamous? Audition for American Idol and you probably won’t make it. Try to get into pro sports, and the odds aren’t good. But if you murder people in the right way—sensationally—your chances of fame skyrocket. There are tons of obscure good guys. Everyone knows the monster.

Cooke seems resigned to the fact that media will continue to print names, faces, GPAs, and hobbies of mass shooters. Maybe he’s right. But if that’s the case, we need to have the self-awareness to admit that the celebritization of mass murders continues ultimately because we want it too, because we are too satisfied to really consider alternatives, and because our assumptions about the information we are owed are 100% as consumeristic as the NRA’s messaging. We say we need to address Hollywood’s love affair with guns; by saying so we betray that we really do understand the formative effects of seeing violence lit up on our screens.

The staunch refusal to consider any change of protocol when it comes to coverage of school shootings is a morally outrageous hypocrisy. If universal background checks are possible, so are rules about photos. If bans on magazines and bump stocks are possible, so are laws against revealing intimate details of a shooter’s personal life. If how we think about gun violence is worth changing, then so is how we cover gun violence.

Anything less is a failure.