The L-Word

One week ago, 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner tried to kill U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords outside of a Safeway in Tucson, Arizona. Nineteen other people were shot in the process, six of them fatally, including cute-as-a-button–9-year-old Christina Green.

People wasted no time in branding Loughner a loner.

Mike Taibbi, voicing what seems to be the commonly held view, referred to Loughner as “a troubled loner” on The Today Show.

An ABC News report, ostensibly citing other people’s descriptions, contained the lines “He’s been described as mentally ill, unstable, a loser, a loner” and “Loughner has often been described as a loner” and “Neighbors say he kept to himself.”

A Boston Globe headline read “A Crazed Loner, an Old Story, and a Harsh Political Climate.”

Fox News, never one to be outdone, reported that “interviews with those who knew Loughner or his family painted a picture of a young loner who tried to fit in.”

On the FoxNews.com opinion page, Dr. Dale Archer gave readers his diagnosis: “Sometime midway through high school things started to fall apart. He alienated friends, became more of a loner, started smoking pot and talked about weird ideas.”

The headline “Disturbed Loner, Not Politics, Pulled Trigger” appeared in Maine’s Kennebeck Journal.

The Los Angeles Times quoted Loughner’s neighbors on Loughner and Loughner’s family as saying:

  • “They’re like a mountain man. They want to be alone.”
  • “He wanted to keep everything private.”
  • “He seemed like he was the quiet type.”

Novelist Walter Kirn even fretted about the resemblance between Loughner and “the socially-inept-loner-on-the-internet protagonist” of his 2007 novel The Unbinding.

Lest you think this is a tic specific to echo chamber-like U.S. media, here’s the Montreal Gazette: “Jared Lee Loughner: ‘Disturbed’ Loner, ‘Unstable’ Dropout.

And here’s the BBC: “Schoolmates have described Mr. Loughner as a loner who was often disruptive in classes.”

The Telegragh relayed Loughner’s onetime friend Caitie Parker’s descriptions of Loughner as a “political radical” and “loner” who was “very philosophical.”

And finally, Sky News’s report sounded an awful lot like that of its American sister network Fox News: “Friends of U.S. shooting suspect Jared Loughner have described him as a cannabis-smoking loner with a ‘twisted’ sense of humour and an obsession for conspiracy theories.”

I could go on. But that’s the point.

There are at least two problems with calling Loughner a “loner.” First and foremost, he almost certainly isn’t one. The fact that he used to have a bunch of friends tells us as much. Second, calling Loughner a “loner” gives real loners a bad name. As somewhat of a loner myself, this really pisses me off. The above examples, of which I’m sure there are more, constitute a socially acceptable form of loner-bashing. There are lots of words you could use to describe Loughner, “loner” isn’t and shouldn’t be one of them.

The relevant text here is Anneli Rufus’s magnificent, nearly-300-page–loner-apologia Party of One: The Loner’s Manifesto.

Rufus shrewdly observes that “He was a loner is a crime-story cliché.” A page or so later she writes:

Like the bogeyman and the witches and ogres in fairy tales, the criminal-as-loner serves a social function. It sets the criminal apart from ordinary people, from the masses, designating him as freak, a demon, and an alien. This ties up matters neatly. It explains things. … The weirder and more perverse the crime, the more rapidly the press starts calling the perpetrator a loner. … Declaring criminals loners – especially the sickest criminals – is a form of primitive self-defense. It sets crime and the criminal mind safely outside the familiar realm of the majority. It is a way of saying This could never happen here. The kind of person who does THAT could never possibly be one of us. The creep whose deeds render him horrible by any standards must be further demonized. Must be farther removed, set off farther than jail or the status of killer and condemned man. To ensure his separateness, to quarantine him, filing him beyond recognizability, sympathy, and even humanity, call him a loner. … While serving this purpose, the neutral word “loner” acquires a hideous coating.

But while it may serve some sort of social function, the problem with calling violent criminals loners is that the majority of violent criminals aren’t loners at all.

Rufus notes that “learning the true stories of criminals who are called loners in the press reveals, with striking frequency, that these are not genuine loners. At first glance, they look or act like loners, but they are not. They do not wish to be alone. Their dislike of being alone is what drives them to violence.

Real loners, explains Rufus, do not want the “things from others – acceptance and admiration and control and power – that make social people kill. We neither hang nor thrive on what others think, say or do. That fact that we mind our own business saves us from the types of torment that typically lead to violence. We want nothing from others but to be left alone.”

Indeed, it’s important to distinguish between someone who is alone and someone who is a loner.

“Scratch the surface of those killers branded with a big red ‘L,’” Rufus writes, “and more often than not you will find quite the opposite. You will find nonloners in loners’ clothing, impostors. You will find not loners at all, but pseudoloners.” That, I submit, is what Loughner is.

Even people from the recent past you might think for sure are loners like Ted “The Unabomber” Kaczynski and Timothy McVeigh are in Rufus’s estimation pseudoloners.

Rufus spreads the blame among eager-beaver law enforcement agencies and dime-store criminal profilers and a media too quick to repeat their misnomers. At some point, however, at least if the statements of Loughner’s onetime friends are any indication, many of the rest of us also started using the term to explain away seemingly random acts of violence, thereby further conflating loners with psychopaths.

The rhetoric surrounding Jared Lee Loughner serves as a sad reminder of how far we still have to go when it comes to decriminalizing the word loner and the state of being it refers to.

Related reading: “Introverts of the World, Unite!”

(Image via Arnaud Limbourg.)

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5 responses to “The L-Word

  1. I’d want to make a distinction between introvert and loner. But you’re on the mark — the problem with Loughner seems to be severe, untreated mental illness, with his isolation from his former friends as one of the results.

    • An important distinction, I agree, although introvert and extrovert get used today more as generic personality descriptors, whereas in the original Jungian sense, as Rufus explains, they referred to how one perceives and interprets information. For what it’s worth, Rufus makes the distinction as well at the outset of her book: “introverts and loners are not one and the same thing. Surely some who gain information from within and not without still enjoy company.” Personally, I prefer the term lone wolf to loner, partly because loner has so much baggage, and partly because, well, wolves are cool.

  2. Wolves are definitely cool….And thanks I really appreciated this discussion on “loner”…I’ve never liked its mainstream usage as described above

  3. Great post, Matt. We have to continue to point out these over-broad uses of terms like “loner.” How the word gets used will only change if we persistently point out when it’s being used incorrectly.

  4. Finally, someone is addressing this ridiculousness. Unfortunately, however, I disagree with calling Loughner a person who reacted from loneliness and isolation imposed on him because he couldn’t fit in. He was a joiner, and he did isolate himself from friends, but everything I’ve seen suggests he was still dating, still had friends (although maybe fewer), still having contacts right up until the day or very near in time to the time he committed the act; he went through reboots of friends and those that were kicked aside developed the impression he became a loner. Furthermore, going by his past success, he was not a social failure. He was very much a social success. Neither were the columbine killers. I think the Columbine killers are a perfect example. I remember reading they used to call up their mates to find out what they were doing. When their mates said ‘nothing’, they’d think their friends were hiding things from them, so much so that they became hostile to people who thought they were their friends. The issue there isn’t that they were social failures, it was that they were paranoid joiners.

    So, while I sympathize with this hysteria, I reject the notion that these were especially harshly done by individuals who long for companionship. I consider labeling them that just as bad as the association with loners. There are people struggling out there who’d love to be involved socially, but they are too cripplingly shy or find themselves psychologically paralized; they do not need the inappropriate social stigma and demonisation shifted onto them, when it is equally without basis in most cases (especially Loughner’s), even in cases where they are poorly treated.

    CBS some years ago, after the Virginia Tech incident, said the shooter fit the Secret Service profile of a school shooter stating most were loners. It is a lie that is repeated uncorrected on the Wikipedia entry on the shooter, despite the Wikipedia entry citing other parts of the report. The report was the Safe School Initiative. There are two .pdf’s released that contradict those claims in the most blatant ways. For starters, in one file, before the report was concluded, they said they didn’t expect to find most shooters were loners, because the fact that most incidents were known in advance seemed to contradict that assumption. In the conclusive report, they reported that just 34% of shooters described themselves or were described by others as loners. Far from being most. Furthermore, it said just 12% of shooters didn’t have close friends. It further went on to say that there was NO profile. It said such a profile would be unreliable. The report specifically avoided profiling the shooters, yet that isn’t what CBS reported they did!

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