|Judge Esther Salas and her son Dan Anderl|
This shared delusion is--well, it's a little funny, right? In the way we laugh at absurdity. Occam's razor says you just forgot that you set your coffee mug down over there; no team of spies has set up in your neighbor's house for the express purpose of moving your coffee cup. But it's mostly tragic, and I think I can understand the determination to piece together a coherent narrative. It's what all people do, especially all people groups together: we tell stories so that the world makes sense. We have creation myths to tell us what we truly are, what our purpose is, why life is so hard. (We are dust; we are animated by the breath of God; we turned from God and turned on one another in the Garden.) So it makes sense, too, that people whose minds have failed them would need stories to explain what's going on and what it all means. They've just gotten their stories from the most unreliable storyteller possible.
There are other online communities created by people whose minds and behaviors and traditions have failed them. They go there to reassure themselves that this isn't their fault; that it's somebody else's fault; that there's a secret, unspoken system working against them. They are poor, it turns out, because of the Jews and the Illuminati. They are single, it turns out, because all women are drawn by biological imperative to alpha males. They are sick, it turns out, because of 5G and glutamates.
I have intimate experience of this in the pre-internet days. My father, a paranoid schizophrenic, had a series of obsessions to explain his malaise and confusion. He was suffering from mercury poisoning, so he made my mother give him purging chelation IVs at home. He was picking up radio signals from the air, so we all had to wear glasses without metal frames. We were looking at him, so he rushed at us, beating me with his belt buckle, screaming puff-faced and bulge-necked that we were aggravating him.
It's true that he was exposed to mercury as a small child, playing with the shiny liquid stuff that his father brought home from work at an Oak Ridge laboratory. But as an adult, he believed the problem was amalgam dental fillings. He bought some device he billed as a mercury vapor breathalyzer, and drove around town with it, stopping strangers in parking lots and making them huff into a straw. He made a banner with dot matrix paper, filling the back window of the van he lived in with the words
If your dentist uses mercury amalgam, SHOOT HIM!!!
All this to make sense of a senseless life. Without easy connections to other delusional paranoiacs, he had to forge his own brand of fearful, raging insanity, using data gleaned from an analog world. Online, he has turned to end-of-days prophecy. He made a video detailing the star signs that indicated a hail of meteors would destroy the West Coast after the 2017 solar eclipse, and it appallingly went viral, unironic comments trailing below the video praising his insight and the truth he was speaking. In the internet age, his delusions are morphing to coordinate with the data that other delusional people are sharing, crowdsourced insanity.
You don't have to be schizophrenic to take part in a shared delusion, though. We're all vulnerable to getting carried along by a community and its sense-making narrative. We're built to think and act in stories: we join political movements and churches, educational groups and social groups that tell a story about what the world is like, what our place is in it, what everybody else's place is in it. Our economic policies, our child-rearing practices, our buildings and our manufacturing all come from and reinforce those stories: what is the spirit of the American people? What is the shape of God's work in the world? How do people behave under normal circumstances, and how do people behave under abnormal circumstances, and why? What makes us us, and what makes other people different from us? We explore those questions through stories and, the more we tell those stories (about the free market, about Original Sin, about Paleolithic diets and pioneer ingenuity), the more we see the world make sense. The stories that we hold in common with each other explain not only our lives, but all the things that don't fit with our lives, and there's the danger. Those shared narratives tell us why life is so hard, and those shared narratives can make people with ordinary, functional minds turn on their neighbors, from Salem to Jedwabne to Tulsa.
Jump with me over to Denmark in the late 19th century, where Henrik Ibsen's play A Doll's House has just premiered. It's the wrenching story of Nora, a naive middle-class housewife, groomed for a life of idleness, who is drawn into a con by her husband's trusted buddy. When the husband learns his wife has lost his money, he rages at her, and she stands up and rages back, rages that she has been kept stupid and uneducated so that her father and her husband would have a doll to play with, rages at her wasted years and empty head, and she walks out the door (leaving behind her three children because, in this time, women had no right to custody).
The play was a hit in Scandinavia. When it moved to Germany, the ending was re-written. Nora is shown her children, and she breaks down and stays, a palatable narrative for a culture that believed Western society would collapse if women were allowed to leave their marriages.
The real tragedy behind the play is that it was written to redeem the horrific experience that Ibsen's friend Laura had as a Norwegian housewife. When Laura's husband contracted tuberculosis, Laura took out an illegal loan for his treatment and forged a check to pay it off. Her husband responded by having her committed to an asylum. Ibsen recognized that Norway had a narrative of female innocence--a story they told about the fragility and purity of women, and how women needed to be protected from, among other things, financial responsibility and the knowledge of financial matters. This narrative required adult women to be kept ignorant, which of course set them up for error. And when they erred, they were not protected by their innocence. Retribution for failure to live a benign, mild life was brutal.
Of course, most of us couldn't live benign, mild lives if we tried. Only a few of us are born to roles that allow innocence or ignorance; most of us are born working-class, or born men, or both. But that narrative of natural female ignorance and innocence, of our unsuitability for participation in a man's world, of our culpability in the collapse of Western society--that story is alive, on the internet, and it's morphed through the collective delusion of raging men whose lives are hard for reasons they can't understand. Collectively, this subculture has crafted a narrative that we are all slaves to our sexual orientations and gender roles, and that if we'd accept that we could find some peace, but women have departed from their lane, and that's why things are shot to hell. It's because all women have unfair advantages that these particular men are fired from their jobs over and over again; it's because all women have unfair advantages that these particular men have lost custody of their children (the most-reiterated example that Men's Rights internet trolls bring up). When nobody wants a second date with them, it's because all women are wired to have sex with a different sort of man. Into this metanarrative of wrongful female domination, this subculture can fit all the details of their lives--it's a bigger story that explains away their conflicts, their broken relationships, the way every bar in the world seems too high for them to meet.
And so together, in Red Pill and Incel and MGTOW forums, they tell this bigger story, over and over, bringing their daily struggles and their ponderings and their malaise, making the myth bigger and bigger. It bubbles up into the mainstream when somebody fires off a Google memo about how the female brain cannot science, but most of the time, most of us are blissfully unaware of this community.
Until August 4th, 2009.
And May 23rd, 2014.
And April 23rd, 2018.
And November 2nd, 2018.
And February 24th, 2020.
And July 19th, 2020, when self-described Men's Rights activist Roy Den Hollander murdered the 20-year-old son and critically wounded the husband of Esther Salas. First news reports use those phrases that are too familiar: feminazi, the draft, ladies' nights at bars, manosphere. They are part of a story built to make sense of the world by identifying who the villains are (and it's all women who exist in the public eye, and all men who support the dignity of women). They are data points connected into a narrative that is absurd to the rest of us, but which answers the question "Why is this happening to me?" in a way that this community has accepted as patent truth.
I grieve with Judge Salas for the murder of her only child. I grieve with her as her husband fights for his life. For the audacity of sitting as a judge, for the audacity of hearing a case brought by a Men's Rights lawyer, she has suffered an attack that is anything but unprecedented. She is the latest victim of a story that has grown legs. The so-called Men's Rights communities are telling a story about female domination that explains all their woes and then sends them out to homes and yoga studios and city streets with guns in their hands. They are making a sense of the world that turns them on their neighbors. Collectively, as they craft their creation myth, they find their way to the dawn of sin, hissing the first act of cowardice and the first act of cruelty: The woman you gave me; it's her fault.