Publisher’s note: This post first ran in 2017 and is being re-run in light of the most recent shooting tragedy. #Parkland
In October 2017, a man opened fire on a concert, killing 58 people and injuring hundreds more. In 2016, at least 49 died when a man opened fire in a Florida night club. In 2013, a man opened fire in an elementary school, killing 27; most of the victims were elementary school children. In 2012, a dozen people were killed by a man during a movie screening. In 2002, two men went on a shooting spree, killing 10 people. In 1999, two men entered their high school and killed thirteen. In 1995, a man detonated a U-Haul truck filled with fertilizer, destroying the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and killing 168 people.
Age is not a common factor: Last week’s shooting was done by a 64-year-old, while the Columbine shooters were teenaged. Race is not a common factor: The so-called Beltway Snipers and the Orlando shooter were not white. Guns aren’t even a common factor: While last week’s shooting is the worst mass shooting in this country in recent history (although not the worst ever), nearly three times as many died in the Oklahoma City bombing.
Gun control is certainly worth discussing. Guns are far too easy to get in this country. The same day as the shooting in Newtown, a Chinese man went on a stabbing spree outside an elementary school; nobody died. All the same, though, knives do kill.
White Supremacy is certainly a topic worth discussing. The media narrative in the wake of this shooting, where the criminal was characterized as a “lone wolf” and a “shooter,” has been markedly different than in the wake of the Pulse massacre, which was committed by a “terrorist.” Emily LaDouceur also points out to me that a person of color would likely have faced trouble getting that many guns into a hotel.
The stigma on mental illness is certainly a topic worth discussing, and I’ll bring it up again below. At the same time, though, women are just as prone as men to mental illness, if not more so.
We as a culture cannot continue to dodge the common thread here: The perpetrators of extremely violent acts are nearly always men.
In the case of mass shootings, Statista reports that 88 of the 91 major mass shootings over the last quarter century involved only men as shooters. The San Bernadino shooting in 2015 stood out because a woman was involved. In the movies, the model of a heterosexual couple going on a killing spree is a common trope, but it’s rare in the real world.
And it’s not just murder sprees: Overall, men are more violent than women. Nearly nine out of ten homicides in this country are committed by men, and men who kill use more violent methods. And while sexual assault of men by women is relatively underreported, even the most liberal interpretations show that men are the perpetrators the majority of the time. Men also kill themselves more than three times as often as women do.
If we were to take the same evopsych approach that James Damore used to justify his misogynistic rant, we might fatalistically conclude that it’s due to things like testosterone levels, slower brain development, and vestigial tribalism.
To the extent that those are contributing factors, those are difficult to address. At the same time, though, those factors have existed for tens of thousands of years, and yet the phenomenon of mass carnage committed by a handful of men ebbs and flows. Perhaps biology and evolution incline men more than women to commit violent acts than women are, but how much is our culture stirring the pot?
“Mass shooters,” writes Damon Linker, “[tend] to fixate on perceived injustices.” GMP’s Mark Greene has written extensively about the deep loneliness men feel. In the wake of the Las Vegas shooting, Charlie Hoehn also notes that men aren’t culturally allowed non-violent play.
I have been reflecting recently on why it’s easier for me to write on race than on gender. As a white man, confronting my biases about how I’m advantaged in both ways should be comparable. However, there is no identity threat to me accepting my own racism, and that of other whites. I have never had my race questioned.
Having my gender questioned, on the other hand, is a routine experience. I am a Highly Sensitive Person: For a woman, this would mean I’m in touch with my feelings. As a man, the cultural interpretation is that I’m a cry-baby.
This is not the fault of biology or evolution, this is the fault of culture.
The documentary “The Mask You Live In” (currently available to stream on Netflix) dives deeply into the way in which our culture creates toxic masculinity. I highly recommend it.
Following mass shootings like the one in Las Vegas, it’s common for people to insist that the problem is how we deal with mental illness. Certainly someone who is mentally healthy would never commit such a violent act.
This is ultimately tautological: If we use “wouldn’t commit an act of extreme violence” as a criterion of “mentally healthy,” then yes, anyone who would do such a thing is mentally ill. This misses some key issues, though. First, people who are chronically mentally ill aren’t any more likely to commit violent acts on others.
More importantly, though, while women are about as likely to experience mental illness, they don’t commit acts of violence at anywhere near the same rate. So even if we insist that anyone who commits a mass shooting (particularly of the scope of the Las Vegas shooting) is by definition mentally ill, it wasn’t mental illness that made the criminal create the idea of shooting into a crowded concert. Some forms of mental illness may lower our filters and encourage us to do terrible things we wouldn’t normally do, but they don’t create the menu of options of “terrible things.”
Somewhere, his culture implanted the idea that a way to show his opinion of the world was to buy three dozen guns and go on a rampage. This wasn’t biology, this wasn’t evolution, and this wasn’t mental illness. Specific mental illness may cause specific humans to behave in destructive ways, but it is culture that informs those choices. Men do not commit 90% of homicides merely because of biology: Our culture is doing things to reinforce that statistic.
Heather Havrilesky writes that there are “baby-men,” and that calling this “toxic masculinity” does a disservice to men who don’t act like this. She refers not just to the Las Vegas shooter, but also to a President who talks about grabbing women’s crotches, a comedian who allegedly drugged women to rape them, a movie director whose long-standing sexual harassment was widely ignored, and a White Nationalist leader.
I agree with Havrilesky that the men she lists are behaving like sociopaths. I am wary that calling them merely the product of “toxic masculinity” implicitly gives them a pass on their behaviors.
However, when videotape surfaces of Donald Trump talking about grabbing women’s crotches and he still gets elected to the highest office in the land, that’s the effect of toxic masculinity. When it takes decades for accusations against Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby to be taken seriously, and even then they’re met with cultural shrugs, that’s the effect of toxic masculinity.
Jonathan McIntosh, the Pop Culture Detective, recently released two excellent videos detailing how a show allegedly about men who are social outcasts (The Big Bang Theory) still consistently manages to reinforce cultural drumbeats about the man box and misogyny. This is not about isolated baby-men or lone wolf shooters: This is a deep level cultural malaise.
So let’s talk about gun control. Let’s talk about improved mental health treatment. Let’s treat the most egregious abusers as the criminals they are.
At the same time, though, let us redefine manhood so that more men can express their inner turmoil with something other than a weapon of destruction.
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