Ideological extremism doesn't explain this shooting
There has been a great deal of speculation as to the motives of Audrey Hale, who shot dead six people — including three nine-year-old children — at a private Christian school in Nashville, Tennessee. Reporting on the shooting mentions a manifesto that might have revealed Hale, a biological woman who identified as a transgender man, had a motive tied to her gender identity. This has provoked questions as to why we don’t put violent online rhetoric from trans activists under the same scrutiny reserved for online speech from other groups.
One answer to this question, of course, is the cultural and political climate. But there’s a deeper problem here, too. If Hale’s online footprint or manifesto shows a connection to violent online speech, does that necessarily mean she was radicalised into committing an act of violence? It’s not as clear-cut as one might think.
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I have long argued that even if some mass shooters mention broader social problems or a specific ideology, it would be wrong to view them like we might other ideologically motivated violence. A school shooting isn’t the same type of violent act as a suicide bombing perpetrated by an Islamist extremist, for example. It’s not that shooters are “radicalised”, it’s that they’re attracted to radical speech because it helps give shape to violent acts that may already be inevitable.
Research from the Violence Project backs this up. The report notes that “hate comes late along the pathway to violence,” cautioning that “so-called ‘motives’ can become labels used to explain away the problem of mass shootings.” The Violence Project found other similarities among mass shootings: most shooters have a history of adverse childhood experiences, and the shootings are often “intended as a final act”. They’re a form of suicide, not an act of terrorism as it’s typically defined.
What complicates this case is that the “violent rhetoric” which may have inspired Hale significantly differs from other types of violent online speech. Whereas white supremacism is taboo and exists only in particular subcultures, violent speech from the trans community has been normalised. Just look under any of J.K. Rowling’s tweets, and there are calls to commit acts of violence against her.
Then there’s the political climate around transgender identity. The topic is stifling: outside of explicitly Right-wing or “dissident” spaces, criticism is often treated as interchangeable with bigotry. Until relatively recently, even trans people weren’t spared from backlash if they, for example, spoke negatively about their own experiences with medical transition, or disagreed with some of the popular lines in transgender activist rhetoric. Detransitioners, too, were and often still are subject to harassment if they’re perceived as being too critical.
In the media, activist organisations like the ACLU promote apocalyptic narratives about the lives of transgender people, bolstered by a 24-hour news cycle that is determined to paint a grim picture of the state of the trans community, often turning the tragedies of individual trans people into “tragedy porn” and inundating viewers with frightening statistics. The spectre of suicide is always present, and anything is liable to cause it, from the sensical (homelessness, physical assault) to the sensational (restricting irreversible medical procedures from minors, using the wrong pronouns). Of this climate, Eliza Mondegreen writes in UnHerd: “what we’re witnessing here is not trans genocide but trans radicalisation.”
So, if Hale’s manifesto does suggest that her connection to transgender identity motivated her, does the current political environment change the character of what happened? Maybe, but I still suspect not. It is tempting to explain mass shootings away — to liken them to domestic terrorism — but American mass shootings do not resemble violent acts inspired by or perpetrated by groups like ISIS. They remains separate, and in some ways, more complex, events.
With Hale, as with all other shooters, there was a much deeper problem afoot than violent speech.