Kyle Rittenhouse, Empathy Loss and LARPing in Society

Grave Peak, Clearwater NF, ID

Preface: Because this is such a hot-button issue, I want to start this piece with a disclaimer. Regardless of the nuance I will exhibit in this piece, the whole idea of bringing any gun — and especially a long gun — to a protest is wrong. Ask any LEO how they react when they know a long gun (regardless of semi-auto or auto characteristics) is in play in any situation. I’ve had the privilege over my career of teaching numerous Special Forces/Special Operations returning students over the years, and they will gladly tell you how the scale evolves when any real weapon (and a long gun is a real weapon) is involved in a situation. ‘Nuf said.

Kyle Rittenhouse, the then- 17 year old (he’s now 18) charged with a variety of murder and attempted charges in the Kenosha riots surrounding the protests regarding the shooting of Jacob Blake at the hands of police officers in Kenosha, WI. The actual call was for dealing with a domestic violence incident where Jacob Blake had already been forbidden to be present with a restraining order. I highly recommend reading the various accounts of violence against African-American men that have been the nexus of the Black Lives Matters protests. Why? Because the hindsight reality was that there were a range of conditions, from total innocence of the victims (like George Floyd) to far more nuanced, high-conflict cases where alternately the system either worked, or failed.

That’s not the point of this piece.

The question confronting us is the deeper “why” of why Kyle Rittenhouse showed up at the Kenosha protests in the first place.

Once again, I’m not interested in arguing white supremacy, misguided youth, or any of the other standard reasons given for why a 17 year old showed up, crossing state lines or not, with a long gun in what was obviously going to be a chaotic, crazy situation. The reason that such an argument is uninteresting to me is that implies a 17 year old is somehow conscious and deliberate. And any adult working with a cohort of 17 year olds knows how utterly ridiculous such a statement is. There are rare exceptions of 17-year-olds having the ability to conceptualize abstraction of an unfamiliar situation in a way that might map to reality. But almost always, for a 17 year old, they would have had to directly experience a given event in order to engage in that level of projection. I found no documentation that Rittenhouse had attended prior riots, so it’s very likely he was a “one and done” candidate.

And as a “one and done” actor, he also likely had no prior validity grounding experience of being in a circumstance of a riot, armed with any weapon. I’ve been in numbers of demonstrations myself, and if you’ve done any protesting, either things are relatively homogeneous, or they’re fractious. And that fractiousness can turn into chaos literally in seconds. One minute, people are chanting some pithy saying about their issue. The next, someone’s swinging a board at your head, and everything around you is literally going to hell. You can find your own riot videos to watch, but it’s the canonical pattern.

The one truly fascinating thing about Kyle Rittenhouse’s experience was that it didn’t take very long for the real High Conflict actors to zoom in on Rittenhouse and his gun. Rittenhouse didn’t shoot any POCs — but he did shoot three white guys, and killed two. One is particularly notable — Joseph Rosenbaum was an obvious psychopath. Convicted of multiple child rape incidents at 17, that’s classic psychopath territory. If you think that dude was a committed race activist, well, you can think what you want. Like moths to a flame, High Conflict individuals are going to find these types of scenarios because it’s what they do. And yeah, they’re engaged in their own dissociated reality. But they also have no constraint in using real violence — which grounds the larger situation, intentionally or not.

I’ve also discussed the idea of “kayfabe” — the pre-planning of pro wrestling events, which so accurately describes our current state of politics. For a real take-down of kayfabe, this piece is amazing. The riots around Jacob Blake, a far more guilty perp. than George Floyd, basically changed nothing — if there was any social reform that flowed from any of it, its effects were only indirect, through election/loss of office of various politicians.

But kayfabe does something — it creates venues for self-constructed Live Action Role Playing Games, otherwise known as LARPs. Most people have no idea what a LARP is — but the movement has quite a few participants. Most are either war-gamers, or the Society for Creative Anachronism folks. And these people are serious — Tony Horwitz’s book, Confederates in the Attic, which looks at the Civil War re-enactor community, still holds up over 20 years after it was published.

I don’t have a problem with actual LARPing communities. You get done with your jousting festival, hop in your Dodge Neon, and stop off at the 7/11 for a Slushie for the road. People need hobbies, and I’m all down for people building stuff with their hands (uniforms included) and sharing information with other passionate re-enactors. In fact, as long as you don’t depart too far from the script, I’d argue it’s exactly an empathy-building exercise. You gain agency through creating stuff, learn a ton of information about a historical era, and go visit other actual humans and, well, hang out and eat hot dogs. Or whatever. We need more of that.

The problem is that with the increasing fragmentation we’re seeing in our communities, the LARP concept is being recreated — on the Internet, especially, but more importantly, in people’s head. The most consequential ungrounded LARP event in recent history had to be the Jan. 6 riots, that I wrote about here. But unlike a constant community of re-enactors getting together, and engaging in relatively innocuous fun, with that grounding Slushie reality transition at the 7/11, we had people fueling their own fantasies across the Internet, some hopping private planes, and flying out for “Insurrection Lite”. No one could seriously consider what happened on Jan. 6 an authentic coup — yet the other side of the LARP community, the various ungrounded forces on the Left with little experience in the real violence of an actual military coup, grabbed on to the symbolic nature and ran with it in their own histrionic fashion.

This is not to say that Donald Trump, engaged in his own perilous, delusional form of the LARP in his head, did not want to SEE a coup that might restore him to power. Far from it. But narcissist psychopaths gonna narcissistic psychopath. Like it or not, he is one guy. When the Joint Chiefs line up against those kinds of shenanigans, you know there is no real coup threat.

LARPing tendencies, at least the destructive ones, are characterized by empathy bubbles. People get on the Internet, with little experience, and start positive feedback loops that create these extreme positions. People construct ungrounded constructions having little to do with actual reality — mostly because there are no shared experiences in the Real World that serve as a grounding touchstone. You want a real revolution? You can set yourself up for nonsense by staying in a four star hotel before you go riot in the Capitol. Or you can spend a night sleeping on the cold, wet ground cradling your AR-15. One of these two experiences will teach you how difficult a revolution might be a priori. And one most definitely won’t.

The problem with LARP thinking is that the bubble effects not only happen on Left and Right. It creates movements like ‘defund the police’. Our middle-class bubbles are easy to maintain. My Safeway store, with all of its complicated supply-chain dynamics, make it easy to pontificate on the whole ‘burn it all down’ mindset. Fetching a pint of Ben and Jerry’s can always be executed after you post something on Twitter.

But it doesn’t give anyone any insight on this tremendously complicated and complex society. Nor does it develop any metacognition on how little any of us knows when it comes to appreciating how we are continually well-fed during what has been almost 2 years of the largest ostensible global crisis the world has seen since the World Wars. It is both a testament to the miracle of modern society, as well as the damning indictment that our leadership has playing a LARP around the issue of COVID at our expense. There are no bodies in the street, and even after two years of pandemic, a literal smattering of hospital overruns.

And yet, instead of using the voluminous data regarding COVID on our actual social/physical systems, we are bombarded with news of the ongoing LARP. Last week it was supply chain collapse. This week it is the omicron variant. The reason it continues is because as we continue along our merry way, we lose more and more of our ability to even see complexity in our society. And that manifests itself with a profound loss of empathy — who can believe that anywhere, we are masking kids?

Recovery is possible. I feel fortunate to have lived such a rich, though often extremely unpleasant, experience-filled life. If there’s a moment that’s called back to me, it’s when I was working as a process control engineer at J&L Steel, in Cleveland, OH back in 1982. I had grown up in southern Ohio, as backward a backwater part of this country that exists. Whenever any union went on strike, there were always two things — people vandalizing rail cars and pushing them destructively off the tracks, and then, of course, burning police cars.

But Cleveland was far different. When the union voted to go on strike (it was averted) as a young member of the management, who was contractually obligated to cross the picket line, I went up to the old union guys who ran the equipment at the mill. I was 20 years old, and nervous — were they planning on wrecking anything? Taking a wrench to the exquisitely tuned hot mill I had worked on for three months? Were they going to beat me up if I crossed the picket line? Would they listen to me after the strike was over?

All of them, mostly old hillbillies from West Virginia, who had fled the coal mine violence in the mid ’50s, back-slapped me, and said “Shoot, kid, we’re not playing some fucked up LARP. We go on strike for higher wages — but we want that mill here when we get back. Why would we ever be so stupid and destroy the thing we all need to make money? And the two weeks the strike might last is just enough time for you to get those computers all tuned up and running.”

Of course, they had no idea what a LARP was. But they knew what reality was. It’s past time for all of us to look at where we’ve LARPed up, and open the door to larger grounding reality and validity. And we might just find that we’re sharing the same real estate with folks who might have some interest in persistence of at least some of our current systems. That is NOT an argument for no change. I’ve worked on system change my whole life. But the level of ignorance of reality is higher than any time since I’ve been alive.

And that’s the problem with not understanding the difference between reality and a LARP. The feedback loop is going to be harsh. And our lack of awareness will make not one whit of difference.

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