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Plymouth attack: blaming women or mental health issues for mass shootings isn’t solving anything

Where does our impulse to ‘explain away’ acts of violence come from? Stylist investigates.

Last Thursday (12 August), the city of Plymouth bore witness to the UK’s worst mass shooting in a decade. The gunman behind the attack – who was later named as 22-year-old Jake Davison – shot two women, two men and a three-year-old girl before turning the gun on himself. 

When news of the shooting first broke, it was met with widespread shock and horror. But since then, much of the conversation surrounding the incident, especially online, has revolved around blame.

From a horrific viral tweet (which has since been removed by Twitter) urging the “women of Plymouth” to take responsibility for allowing Davison to feel isolated and “without hope” (an assumption based on his connections to so-called ‘incel’ ideology), to the endless theories suggesting that his autism diagnosis and mental health struggles explain his propensity for violence (they don’t), the commentary surrounding the shooting has been relentless and, in many cases, incredibly damaging.  

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But this isn’t the first time a violent incident like the one which unfolded in Plymouth has been followed by debates around who is to blame. 

For example, when 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz murdered 17 students and staff at the Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in 2018, the suggestion that he had been bullied by his fellow classmates was repeatedly used to explain his actions. And when 21-year-old Patrick Crusius opened fire at a supermarket in El Paso, Texas in 2019, leaving 20 people dead, his actions were linked both to his mental health and the video games he supposedly played.

If one thing’s for sure, it’s clear that the impulse to place blame and ‘explain away’ the violence at the heart of last week’s attack in Plymouth isn’t an isolated response to this kind of tragedy. So, where does this kind of behaviour come from? 

Flowers laid in Plymouth
Where does the human impulse to 'explain away' acts of violence come from?

According to Stephen Benning, a psychology professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, the need many feel to attribute blame or ‘explain away’ actions of violence is likely down to the fact that the human brain craves meaning in times of crisis.

“Threats that are unexplained and inexplicable generate profound anxiety in us because we wonder when they might happen again and how to protect ourselves from them,” he explains.

“If we can generate a story around why someone perpetrated a violent act – something we call a ‘role schema’ in psychology – we can then take steps to prevent it from impacting us in the future. That prediction reduces our anxiety about things happening, and it can also reduce the fear that we might otherwise experience as we go about our daily life and interact in the same kinds of places as a mass shooting has occurred.” 

Benning notes that, while the details people cling on to in the aftermath of these kinds of events are often the ones that are immediately available or most striking – a psychological phenomenon called the ‘availability heuristic’ – the story people run with can also be down to something called ‘confirmation bias’, in which people choose a narrative which fits their own beliefs.

“It takes a lot of effort to seek out new information, so we take mental shortcuts to minimise that effort, particularly when we’re afraid or anxious,” he explains. “Thus, we may impute the things we either fear most or understand least onto a shooter to avoid having to restructure an entire belief system if contradictory information comes in.”

This could explain why, for example, many commentators chose to ignore the racist manifesto Patrick Crusius published on a far-right website just minutes before his attack, or why Jake Davison’s links to misogynistic extremism have been skimmed over in multiple news reports; focusing on smaller, personal issues such as someone’s mental health or enjoyment of video games allows people to ignore those wider issues which aren’t as quickly fixed, and are often uncomfortable to confront. 

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The problem? While pretending these bigger, overarching issues aren’t at the heart of these violent acts may make it easier for people to reduce their anxiety in the short term, it’s not going to make these horrific truths go away, in the same way that reducing these multi-faceted situations to a singular factor isn’t going to help, either.

The only way to move forward from these kinds of incidents is to confront the multitude of big, overarching factors which feed their existence – and put pressure on those in charge to treat them with the severity they deserve.

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