“What we don’t do enough as men in general is express the way we feel about one another” — NFL wide receiver Davante Adams
Right now, we are undergoing a crisis in masculinity in America. We’re seeing an increasing amount of very heinous and alarming mass shootings, which are caused by too many people who shouldn’t have access to semi-automatic assault rifles having access. Some mass shooters have motivations we can’t pinpoint, while other mass shooters have obvious motives, namely racism and white supremacy lately.
But there is one thing almost all mass shooters in America have in common. Obviously, they have access to guns (and probably shouldn’t). But they’re also almost all young men, many of whom are between 18 to 21 years old.
The fact is most of us can’t think of any female mass shooters. Criminologist Ralph Larkin at John Jay College says mass shooters are always “marginal males who feel they have been wronged by society” who have a “violated entitlement.” The data supports this assertion — 98% of mass shooters are men.
Larkin points to toxic masculinity, which has elements like stoicism, aggression, valuing physical strength, being willing to resort to violence, and especially “suppressing emotions or masking distress” from a young age as the culprit, coupled with very easy access to guns.
I completely agree with this and see this. How do I know? I was once a young man, and at 25, I arguably still am a pretty young man. I have felt the pull of a lot of these toxic masculine values before, and to a small extent, still do.
As a teacher who teaches predominantly young men, I know we need better laws to stop guns from getting into the wrong hands. But we also need to do a better job reaching our young men.
But how? Maybe vulnerability is the answer.
Masculinity is not the suppression of your emotions, but being able to express your emotions. I would argue masculinity must have a healthy dose of vulnerability to succeed.
To be vulnerable means being open about your feelings towards other people, particularly people you’re close with. It has become a bit of a buzzword in mental health spaces, but it is a buzzword for good reason. I’m here to attest personally to why vulnerability has revolutionized my relationships with people.
Opening up about my emotions and my childhood traumas with my best friends, other young men on my cross country team, was the best decision I ever made. I was 20 years old and felt like I was in a lot of pain having to hide the parts of my life that made me emotional and angry.
But I did open up, and it cascaded into other people doing the same — one friend opened up about the death of a sibling that year, another opened up about the death of his father, and a third came out as gay. These men are still my best friends today, and they know more about me than anyone else besides my fiancee.
This is a space vulnerability doesn’t reach as much as it should: relationships between men. Being vulnerable with other men in my life has changed those relationships and made them significantly more authentic, and I don’t think it’s too old-fashioned to say there are things you talk about with men you don’t talk as much about with women, and vice versa.
I think most men are familiar with expectations of toxic masculinity, and simply just used to being used to suppressing emotions, particularly around other men. I once advertised a men’s mentoring group to my class, where if a student was interested, he could be mentored by a “strong male figure.”
As you can imagine from a group of male teenagers who still ascribe to values of toxic masculinity, the proposition was greeted with homophobic comments I dare not repeat on the Internet. But then again, homophobia among teenage boys is a much more systemic problem.
What it means to “be a man” changes when a man is open and honest with other men. I don’t think every man is the same just like every woman isn’t the same, but men often have an internalized perception that “being a man” means withholding displays of emotion.
We get this perception from a very young age from various influences. I don’t care who you are or where you are — if you’re growing up as a man in America, you will encounter culturally conservative influences throughout your life that will say you have to withhold your emotions and bottle them in to “be a man.”
I remember what it was like to be a young man, ascribing to these toxic perceptions of masculinity. I didn’t necessarily like it — it was just what I thought I had to do. It was what I saw every other man in my life do. It was what my friends felt like they had to do.
I’m a writer, so that means I have a lot of emotions. I think every young man in America especially has experienced what it’s like to be angry and have pent-up rage, and not have a healthy outlet for that rage.
How can men have a healthier perception of masculinity and more vulnerability?
We need to break down these barriers to what it means to be a man, particularly around other men.
I’ve searched for other places where this has been possible outside my cross country team, where you can speak your truth, talk about your emotions, and talk about things you were conditioned not to talk about and not be judged for doing so.
The only space I’ve found did this incredibly well was when I tagged along with a friend to a Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meeting. My friend had been going to these meetings for reasons I obviously can’t disclose, but I was invited and even though I wasn’t struggling with substance abuse, I was curious to see what it was like.
That was the most vulnerable space I’d been to, where people shared the most personal parts of their lives in the basement of a Baptist church. At the meeting, a lot of people talked about their struggles with substance use and abuse and their struggles staying clean, the ramifications on their families, but a lot of people also talked about why they used in the first place and the pain they were trying to cover up by doing so.
While there were a few women, the group was predominantly men — a couple Hispanic, but about half White and half Black. At the end of the meeting, everyone hugged, exchanged numbers in case anyone felt the urge to use, and chatted about their lives. Again, I won’t disclose the specifics of the most personal parts of people’s lives, but it was an illuminating space and what I felt like we need more of in relationships in general.
Relationships between men need to be less like Fight Club and more like NA meetings. You probably don’t want every male friendship to be bearing your feelings and emotions all the time, but we need more of that and less of the and less of what’s not working.
I don’t think changing the dynamics of male relationships is going to be a panacea for all these angry young men who choose to buy assault rifles and commit mass shootings and hate crimes. Limiting access to semi-automatic assault rifles for 18 to 21-year-old men is a much more immediate solution.
You don’t have to be a potential mass shooter to benefit from more open and authentic relationships with other men.
But Larkin noted it’s particularly male teenagers who are at risk of being mass shooters or developing into them because they have come to “regard adolescent social hierarchies as a matter of life and death.” Once upon a time, most were 17 or 18. At that age, peer relationships can matter more to you than anything else — which is why it is so dangerous when a male 17 or 18-year-old has none of those fulfilling peer relationships.
And it’s particularly “marginal males” who don’t fit in and feel left out, who may have had a history of being bullied or suffer severe social isolation to some degree. As a teacher who has seen the mental health effects of the pandemic, our nation’s youth is reeling from this long period of social isolation.
Once upon a time, I was a young teenager on the margins of my social circles. I didn’t talk to anyone and was incredibly quiet, but it was out of anxiety — I overanalyzed every social situation and felt left out because the words couldn’t come out of my mouth, from what it seemed like. No, I never did and never will commit a mass shooting, but feeling like an outcast and misfit comes with a disempowerment nothing else can compare to.
It was being on a sports team with other male teenagers and later young men, and being able to be open with those men, that made me who I am today and gave me the values I have today. Other men find value in different spaces, such as their military service, but I think every man needs a space where they were able to be vulnerable with other men, so they can discover what masculinity means to them and how they can disregard the toxic notions they were brought up with.
I’m not very old-fashioned and find a lot of value in male-female relationships as well, but other men understand and have experienced the unique challenges of our conditioning and societal expectations that no one else necessarily can.
We must reach our young men, particularly those on the margins, those who have been left out, those who have been bullied, and those who feel incredibly alone. It’s dangerous when a young man who feels he has no place in society and absolutely nothing to lose can just buy a semi-automatic assault rifle and do whatever he wants with it.
Perhaps this is not the answer, but we’re having a crisis of masculinity in this country, particularly among our young men.
Something has to change.
This post was previously published on MEDIUM.COM.
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