Erika Christakis addresses the topic so many would rather ignore, what are we as a society to do with ‘young men’s violent tendencies’?
In the aftermath of the Newtown shooting, there’s a lot of talk about guns. There’s a lot of talk about the mental health of the shooter. About a crisis in spirituality. Here’s Erika Christakis’s look at the the role masculinity plays:
We shouldn’t need Steven Pinker, one of the world’s leading psychologists and the author of the book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, to tell us the obvious: “Though the exact ratios vary, in every society, it is the males more than the females who play-fight, bully, fight for real, kill for real, rape, start wars and fight in wars.” The silence around the gendering of violence is as inexplicable as it is indefensible. Sex differences in other medical and social conditions — such as anorexia nervosa, lupus, migraines, depression and learning disabilities — are routinely analyzed along these lines.
For millennia, human society has struggled with what to do with young men’s violent tendencies. Many cultures stage elaborate initiation ceremonies, presided over by older men, which help channel youthful aggression into productive social roles. But in contemporary society, we have trouble talking about the obvious: the transition from boy to man is a risky endeavor, and there can be a lot of collateral damage.
Skeptics will claim that the perpetrators of horrific acts like the Aurora shootings are such aberrations that we can hardly build public policy around their evil behavior. But it’s a mistake to view mass murderers as incomprehensible freaks of nature. For example, we know that the young men who go on murderous rampages are not always sociopathic monsters but, rather, sometimes more or less “regular” men who suffered from crushing depression and suicidal ideation.
No reasonable person can imagine how despair could possibly lead to premeditated mass homicide. However, the fact that depression is so frequently accompanied by violent rage in young men — a rage usually, but not solely, directed at themselves — is something we need to acknowledge and understand.
Our refusal to talk about violence as a public-health problem with known (or knowable) risk factors keeps us from helping the young men who are at most risk and, of course, their potential victims. When we view terrible events as random, we lose the ability to identify and treat potential problems, for example by finding better ways to intervene with young men during their vulnerable years. There is so much more we need to learn about how to prevent violence, but we could start with the sex difference that is staring us in the face.