How Do We Talk to Boys About Violence?

One of my earliest memories is on South Hill in Ithaca, New York. The neighborhood boys had caught a frog and pinned it down in the woods. Somebody had firecrackers and poked them into the body of the living frog. In a ceremony that later I would think back on as a Lord of the Flies moment, they blew the thing up. I wanted to cry. I wanted to stop them. But I knew that either reaction would cost me membership in the neighborhood gang. So I didn’t. I was five.

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I realize that blowing up a frog isn’t the same as going into a school or a movie theater or a college campus and committing mass murder, but for some reason that image of those boys intent on committing an act of violence and my inability to stop them, to even raise my voice in protest, keeps coming back to me as I try to contemplate the unthinkable: Why do our boys kill?

As a public speaker on the topics of manhood and goodness, I have often said that my best audiences are women (who love to talk about men), inmates (who cannot walk out on me), and boys. This fact has actually changed over the years since men now show up in much larger numbers than they did at the beginning. But the part about boys is still true.

My hypothesis is that teenage boys in 2013 are being assaulted by a world with so many difficult challenges—such as porn, divorce, drugs, prison, concentrated wealth, a constant stream of celebrity bad boys, and war. And in this world, even more so than in the past, they are confused and desperate for some way to sort out the wall of scary information that overwhelms them on a daily basis on their electronic devices. The core issue for boys has always been how to become a man, but that issue has never been as fraught with danger and a total lack of honesty as it is now.

What I mean by danger and dishonesty is that I think most adults in our boys’ lives stick their heads in the sand and keep droning on about things that don’t really advance the ball in our boys’ maturation. No one is really leveling with them about the most important topics on their minds. I try to tell my story, and bring speakers like Andre Tippett and Julio Medina to do the same, in as graphic and raw detail as I possibly can.

The reaction is always the same: shock. The look on the boys’ faces is, “You mean you are actually going to talk about this shit? The stuff that is weighing on my soul?”

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One topic I am obsessed with is how we as a culture talk to our boys about violence. That conversation takes many forms. Julio Medina talks about stabbings inside Sing Sing. Andre Tippett talks about how karate saved his life and how the concept of having the heart of a beginner was his saving grace, both growing up in Newark without a dad and as an NFL player. Michael Kamber talks about the ravages of war seen first-hand as a photojournalist over the last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Violence, including childhood violence, continues to decline globally, and that’s true on both a macro and a micro scale. The boyhood propensity for violence is far more muted in the current generation than it was in yours, or even mine. Kids actually get in trouble for fistfights now, whereas in living memory that was just considered normal for boys. A parent hitting their child is less and less condoned, whereas when I was a kid, spanking and whipping were part of pop culture, and a hundred years ago, child abuse wasn’t even a concept. And yet the most horrific kinds of violence by boys—mass murder on a scale never seen before–continues to escalate.

What is going on here?

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What I worry about most is the way in which the real cost of violence and war has become invisible, especially to our boys. During the World Wars and Vietnam, the human cost of being at war was front and center, day in and day out. Especially during Vietnam, that carnage was broadcast daily to our living rooms on the evening news—images and numbers of casualties only adding to the bloodshed we knew of so vividly.” Despite being in two decade-long armed conflicts, we don’t see the brutality on a daily basis. Even as adults we forget. How the hell are our boys supposed to realize the gravity of the situation?

 

What is worse, the very real fighting has made superheroes of men who could easily be mistaken for computer game characters. We fight with remote-controlled drones and, when the shit really hits the fan, heavily armed Navy Seals who attack carrying television cameras that broadcast images remarkably similar to the games and films and television shows our boys watch incessantly.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not trying to say whether or not our wars are justified. I am certainly not diminishing the courage and bravery of the men (and women) who put themselves in harm’s way for our country. That is a completely separate issue. What I am talking about is the cumulative impact of how we fight wars, how the dead and injured are invisible, and what it means to the psyche of our boys.

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My 16-year-old son went to see Zero Dark Thirty and came back raving about it. He wants to go to West Point. I pepper him regularly with questions that go to the heart of the issue of warfare in the 21st century. I am satisfied that he is among the most well-read 16-year-olds on the topic. He has talked to dozens of active and retired servicemen and servicewomen in addition to reading every available text.

The reason I pepper my son, and why I worry for our boys as a group, is that they see a noble cause that is too wrapped up in Hollywood and not enough in the god-awful truth of war. And for those boys who waver on the precipice of mental health, the line between fiction and reality becomes incredibly dangerous.

Let’s be honest: our nation tells boys that to be a real man you have to be a superhero who goes on incredibly dangerous missions to get the bad guys. It doesn’t much matter if you are the Dark Knight or a Navy Seal. Either way you are at the very pinnacle of machismo. So it’s just a small, sick, and tragic step to go from that message to believing that going on a mission to kill innocent people is equally macho.

I am in favor of stricter gun control and better security precautions at our schools. But to me the core issue is how we talk to boys about violence. And how boys talk to each other about violence. At this point I think there is a very dangerous silence. And that’s not their fault. It’s ours.

Sources: Research by Mother Jones. (With thanks to the Associated Press,  Canada.com, and Citizens Crime Commission of NYC.)

Image by dclough

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About Tom Matlack

Tom Matlack is the co-founder of The Good Men Project. He has a 18-year-old daughter and 16- and 7-year-old sons. His wife, Elena, is the love of his life. Follow him on Twitter @TMatlack.

Comments

  1. The reason I pepper my son, and why I worry for our boys as a group, is that they see a noble cause that is too wrapped up in Hollywood and not enough in the god-awful truth of war.

    This is nothing new, Tom. Boys have always focused on the glory of war and violence without understanding the cost. In the past, we would change that by putting them in war, and they would see it is not the “cool” thing they thought. Today, we sanitize everything. We do not tell them the truth. We present it as entertainment, but we do not follow up to make sure they understand the cost of it.

    Let’s be honest: our nation tells boys that to be a real man you have to be a superhero who goes on incredibly dangerous missions to get the bad guys.

    That is nothing new either. What is missing is the sense of responsibility that comes with that. We often do not teach boys or girls the choices you make have broader impacts. Where is our national conversation about the impact of war on Iraq or Afghanistan, wars we started for less than honest reasons?

    I think what we are missing is a respect for violence. For the most part, we do not have to deal with it on a daily basis, so we never learn that it should be a last resort, not the first thing we do.


    • This is nothing new, Tom. Boys have always focused on the glory of war and violence without understanding the cost. In the past, we would change that by putting them in war, and they would see it is not the “cool” thing they thought. Today, we sanitize everything. We do not tell them the truth. We present it as entertainment, but we do not follow up to make sure they understand the cost of it.

      I wonder if selling war to boys as “cool” is/was for the purpose of getting them to more readily embrace it. Even though we know that war is hell boys and men are still fed into the various war machines that have come and gone throughout the ages. In order to keep the flow going they have to be sold on actually wanting to embrace the hell. Well since most people won’t willfully embrace hell like that it is repackaged and sold as cool.

      Jacob do you think that might have something to do with the way that war death tolls are reported?

      • I wonder if selling war to boys as “cool” is/was for the purpose of getting them to more readily embrace it.

        That certainly does happen when war is on. The propaganda machine only shows the good side, and makes war look easy, painless (for their side), and little more than a hero’s journey. What real man would not want to go war?

        Jacob do you think that might have something to do with the way that war death tolls are reported?

        I think it plays a role. Look at how the Bush administration tried to sell the Afghan and Iraq wars. It was very sanitized, complete with them blocking the media from recording any of the dead soldiers’ caskets returning home. We still rarely hear about the number of civilians killed or the horrors our troops subjected them to. We do not talk out, let alone show, the real impact of war, so how can we expect people, children especially, to understand it.

  2. I think one very important point that needs to be made is that violence, or at least the willingness if not active desire to commit it, is not a defining pillar of masculinity.

    As you say Tom boys/men are sold the idea that they need to embrce such things or else it counts against them as being considered “real men”.

    What I mean by danger and dishonesty is that I think most adults in our boys’ lives stick their heads in the sand and keep droning on about things that don’t really advance the ball in our boys’ maturation.
    I’m not sure if they are sticking their heads in the sand. When you held to the condition that you need to embrace something in order to matter of course there be the desire to puruse that something. Saying they stick their heads in the sand implies they are actively trying to avoid the topic, and I don’t that’s what’s going on.

    If we look back at your mention about the frog and firecracker. That’s the kind of stuff they are told they need to be into. They aren’t focusing on that stuff because they are trying to avoid other things, they focus on them because they have been led to believe that as men that is what they are supposed to be focused on. To me that’s not sticking their heads in the sand, staring up at the clouds maybe.

    But I can see where you could say that, whether their heads are in the sand or clouds, they are being distracted from the realities of war and from other important things. I just don’t think boys like your son seeing the realities of war and violence and then actively choosing to ignore other things.

  3. John Schtoll says:

    Tom, we also tell boys and men thru laws and governent actions that they are disposable , after they have outlived their usefullness to society, that same society won’t be there to protect them. This has been done thru history not just today. After a man gets divorced he becomes a paycheck or in modern time an ATM, he gets visitation (if lucky enough to have the money to fight for it), he goes up against the machine of people like Jack C. Stratton , the liz library, NOW etc just to get to level, let alone ahead. The Violence we are seeing imho, is the result of this. Men (and boys) are frustrated that society doesn’t care about them, so what if only 35% of people graduating high school and college are men, we don’t care. So what if men are 3 – 4x as likely to commit suicide , we don’t care, so what if men live on average 5 – 7 years less than women, we don’t care. Do we have national debates on suicide as a male problem, NO WE DON’T, Do we care if men are raped in warzones like the congo at near equal rates to women, we don’t care.

  4. The romanticized violence of a Kill Bill movie, a Lord of the Rings sequence or Zero Dark Thirty is no more violence than sparklers are explosions. The real violence is the economic system or racism and economic inequality, the daily poverty around us everyday. In the United States we live in a culture of violence as surely as fish live in water: It permeates everything and is so ubiquitous it is invisible. We could talk about violence every day if we wanted, by paying attention to economics and who exactly it is that the bully-boys with badges and berets are paid to thump on, when not thumping their own chests.

    Introduce the boy to boxing or mixed-martial arts in a gritty, working-class gym, and encourage him to notice the family stories of the other athletes there, including their mothers and sisters. West Point has a lovely mythology but the essential purpose of armies is to beat and steal from poor farmers. It has been this way since the days of Sparta, and pretending otherwise ignores a fundamental social and political reality.

    Every pyramid looks pretty cool when you are a top brick. Men of privilege would do well to look more closely and see that most of the bricks are buried and on the bottom, before starting a serious meditation on privilege and the proper use(s) of power.

  5. John Schtoll says:

    @Rory: Shouldn’t that be men and women of privilege, not just men of privilege. This pyramid of which you speak is very real and it sure does look good while standing on the top brick looking down. What most don’t realize (or care to see) is that the very bottom bricks in western society are dominated by men.

  6. In another spin on the “invisible” effects of violence…

    When you’re watching a movie/show or playing a game and one of the main characters is killed off, good or bad, you have an emotional reaction. Maybe triumph when the villain is slain, or sorrow when the hero dies his heroic death. But what about all those ‘extras’ that were killed too? The henchman, the soldiers, the people in the other cars that were crushed while the Hero chased the Villain. We never see their funerals, never see their loved ones mourning them (because, especially if the’re baddies, we imagine they have no loved ones), never see any fallout whatsoever to their deaths unless it has something to do with the plot, and thus we witness those deaths with detachment. Those people are just collateral damage.

    It’s not tough to extrapolate that to a mass-shooting scenario. One of the first things we do is look for the connection between the shooter and the victims so we might try to understand motive, to understand how those deaths play into the larger plot, as it were, of the shooter’s life as well as the media story. Even if we hate the act, knowing why it happened gives us some small sense of satisfaction. And when there’s no connection to rely on, the event becomes that much more tragic.

    But that’s because we understand that all those victims are real people with names and lives and families, goals and hopes and dreams. Ostensibly, the shooter did not have that same understanding. To him, they are disposable extras in his mission for…well, whatever. One place he might get such an idea is from violent media. Shoot an NPC in a first-person shooter, war-simulation game, and there’s no grief, no consequences, no emotional or moral fallout. No one just lost a husband or a grandson or a father or a friend. It’s just another body – a simulation of a body – lying in the simulated dirt, something to step over on the way to winning the war. And chances are you were even rewarded for it with points, or an Achievement, or the high score kill count.
    (By the way, I’m just making observations, not suggesting that you should have to go to the funeral of every hooker you kill in Grand Theft Auto as part of the game.)

    I think this is at the core of my visceral reaction to violence and war, and the core of my pacifism. (The story about the frog made me feel nauseous.) Call me crazy but I can’t watch a James Bond movie and *not* think about the wife and kids of the henchman whose neck Bond just coolly snapped. And no matter the cause behind the war, I can’t get my mind (or more accurately, my heart) around killing in the name of that cause. There’s nothing I believe in so fervently, nothing I love so deeply, that I would be willing to kill to protect it – not even my own life.

    • Another layer of this I didn’t even think about at first – on top of Invisibility there’s Invincibility. You die in a game, you get to play again*. Sure, there might be a limit to the number of times you can try again, how many ‘extra guys’ you have, but still, death is not finite.
      *At least, I don’t know of any popular games where the player character’s death means instant game over and no more chances. Even if such a game exists, you still have the option to take the game out, play something else, and try it again later.

      All of this amounts to: The weight and gravity of both killing and being killed just isn’t there.

  7. When you’re watching a movie/show or playing a game and one of the main characters is killed off, good or bad, you have an emotional reaction. Maybe triumph when the villain is slain, or sorrow when the hero dies his heroic death. But what about all those ‘extras’ that were killed too? The henchman, the soldiers, the people in the other cars that were crushed while the Hero chased the Villain. We never see their funerals, never see their loved ones mourning them (because, especially if the’re baddies, we imagine they have no loved ones), never see any fallout whatsoever to their deaths unless it has something to do with the plot, and thus we witness those deaths with detachment. Those people are just collateral damage.
    Also take into account the gender of most of that collateral damage. Mostly male. You mentioned Grand Theft Auto. Check this out.

    Grand Theft Auto 3 was the one that really put the series on the map in the gaming world. One thing I’ve noticed is that most of the complaints about the violence are about the whole bit about killing prostitutes. Now I’m not trying to say that it’s okay but I have some math. Every single one of those prostitutes you kill is optional, meaning that you can complete the game without killing a single one. There are MAYBE 3 (and I’m being conservative, I honestly think it was only 1) women in the entire game that you kill as a part of required gameplay. I challenge anyone to count how many men (all those villains and henchmen) the player has to kill as a part of required gameplay.

    Simply put we are taught that other than what they can provide for others, men/boys lives don’t matter and when they die its only collateral damage.

    • Stephen P Smith says:

      Spot on!

    • Good thoughts Danny, thanks for replying. I am personally more bothered by the idea of collateral death at all than the fact that it’s mostly male victims, but I still recognize the validity of that perspective and don’t mean to downplay it at all.

      And you make another good point about the GTA controversy mostly being about the male-on-female violence of the game and ignoring the male victims.
      Man kills man, no big deal, no controversy, no discussion about what that says about our societal gender values.
      Man kills woman, HUGE BIG DEAL. Talk about patriarchy, about domestic violence, about female victimhood, about sexism, as all being somehow relevant to each individual act.
      Woman kills man…he probably had it coming, the public says.

      Anyway, I think graphic or lifelike violence in video games is a pretty lousy thing, and I think we underestimate the effect it has on the people who play these games. Cartoon violence, like Super Smash Brothers, doesn’t really faze me, but the glorified gore of some killing-centric games, being positioned as entertainment as well as personal achievement, that does bother me. I’m not saying it’s responsible for real-life violent acts, but it’s certainly worth talking about what kind of culture games like this create.

  8. Stephen P Smith says:

    You are almost there, check out this article, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2000/05/the-war-against-boys/304659/ and read the book if you can, then come back and expand upon this topic. It CANNOT be stressed enough. We as a culture are failing our boys, especially the poor, minority and at-risk ones…the very ones that execute these terrific crimes.

  9. john schtoll says:

    Perhaps this explains the VAWA, even though men are victims at higher rates than women in almost ever single crime in the US, there is (was) an act specifically designed to combat violence against women. Think about this for a minute.

    Women die of breast cancer at much higher rates than men (some men do die from it), can you even imagine if the government tried to create an act that specifically targeted breast cancer in men and ONLY Men, outlayed millions of dollars for it, etc etc.

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