Rev. Clementa C.Pinkney. Cynthia Hurd. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton. Tywanza Sanders. Myra Thompson. Ethel Lee Lance. Susie Jackson. Daniel L. Simmons. Depayne Middleton Doctor. As my beautiful friend, Suzanne Enck said, “remember their names. Learn their stories. Ensure that their legacies live on.” In churches across Charleston this morning, church bells are ringing. The Charleston Area Convention and Visitor’s Bureau claims that “Charleston is often referred to as the ‘Holy City,’ a place where church steeples–not skyscrapers–dot the skyline. This Sunday, our bells will ring loudly and proudly to proclaim our community’s unity.” There has been much debate and conversation as to who and what is to blame for yet again another mass shooting in America, but I want to be clear. On this Father’s Day, this is no joyous occasion for those who just lost their loved ones; whose names we must remember. Whose stories, lives, memories, and legacies should be our sole focus.
As I watch the service, I am filled with such incredible sadness. When I first heard of the massacre, I was sitting in a hotel lobby, lazily eating my continental breakfast and watching the news, the giant television one foot away from my face, and my eyes just welled with tears. Perhaps this tragedy hit me harder than others because I’d just spent so much time in peace and beauty, high in the mountains of Glacier National State Park, feeling connected and loved and forgetting how much darkness still exists in this world. Perhaps it’s as my friend, Richard Grusin said, “The older I get, the harder these horrifying attacks hit me. I don’t know how much more of this I can take.”
Because this is neither the first nor the last mass shooting I will bear witness to in my lifetime. As Jelani Cobb points out speaking of the recent death of Walter Scott along with the Charleston massacre, “The two incidents seem like gruesome boomerangs of history until we consider the even more terrible idea that they are simple reflections of the present. The daisy chain of racial outrages that have been a constant feature of American life since Trayvon Martin’s death, three years ago, are not a copycat phenomenon soon to fade from our attention.” And sadly, the plot line remains the same. Horrible tragedy occurs. There is moral outrage. Politicians and pundits blame the media, violent video games, mental illness, and lax gun regulations. The sitting president calls for stricter gun regulations and policies. A bill is proposed, maybe two. And then the next salacious news story grabs our attention. Nothing happens and we forget. We forget so quickly. As Melissa Harris-Perry posed this morning, we have to ask ourselves whether “emotional solidarity formed in trauma can last and whether it can make lasting change.” Sadly the answer, I believe, is no. A few months will go by and we will forget. We will forget them. Perhaps the Onion displayed this sentiment best in its headline following the Isla Vista shooting back in May of 2014 when it read, “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.”
I’ve been wanting to write about the issue of mass shootings in America for awhile now because of this very reason. I’m tired of this plot line. I’m tired of this cycle. Phrases like “mass shootings” and “school shootings” shouldn’t exist in our culture. And until we start talking about what motivates those who engage in these mass shootings to do this kind of ultimate act of violence, we as a society will never progress.
I do not claim to have all the answers, but this is my attempt to continue a much needed dialogue regarding the role of gender in mass shootings and the misplaced blame on mental health, violence in the media, and gun control legislation.
The author, Jackson Katz has been writing on this for years, so if you’re familiar with him, you will notice a lot of his arguments here. If not, I highly encourage you to become familiar with him, his advocacy, and his work. I always say, if I ran the world, I would make everyone watch his groundbreaking documentary, Tough Guise 2: Violence, Manhood, and American Culture. It’s summary: “In this highly anticipated update of the influential and widely acclaimed Tough Guise, pioneering anti-violence educator and cultural theorist Jackson Katz argues that the ongoing epidemic of men’s violence in America is rooted in our inability as a society to move beyond outmoded ideals of manhood. In a sweeping analysis that cuts across racial, ethnic, and class lines, Katz examines mass shootings, day-to-day gun violence, violence against women, bullying, gay-bashing, and American militarism against the backdrop of a culture that has normalized violent and regressive forms of masculinity in the face of challenges to traditional male power and authority. Along the way, the film provides a stunning look at the violent, sexist, and homophobic messages boys and young men routinely receive from virtually every corner of the culture, from television, movies, video games, and advertising to pornography, the sports culture, and U.S. political culture. Tough Guise 2 stands to empower a new generation of young men — and women — to challenge the myth that being a real man means putting up a false front and engaging in violent and self-destructive behavior.”
Let’s start with the troubling “go to” arguments we regularly hear following these massacres:
Mental Illness: Here’s the thing. Women suffer from mental illness, too. They do not commit mass shootings. Arther Chu has a great breakdown of why we need to stop focusing the blame on mental illness here, so I won’t go into much detail, but he does point out a few key arguments: “We do have statistics showing that the vast majority of people who commit acts of violence do not have a diagnosis of mental illness and, conversely, people who have mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators. We know that the stigma of people who suffer from mental illness as scary, dangerous potential murderers hurts people every single day — it costs people relationships and jobs, it scares people away from seeking help who need it, it brings shame and fear down on the heads of people who already have it bad enough . . . . ‘mental illness’ never created any idea, motivation or belief system. ‘Mental illness’ refers to the way our minds can distort the ideas we get from the world, but the ideas still come from somewhere . . . . We love to talk about individuals’ mental illness so we can avoid talking about the biggest, scariest problem of all–societal illness. That the danger isn’t any one person’s madness, but that the world we live in is mad. After all, there’s no pill for that.”
Violent video games, music, Marilyn Manson, etc., etc., etc.: I am the first to admit that the power of the media to influence values, perceptions, beliefs, and actions cannot be overestimated. However, as I stated with the mental illness argument, women also play violent video games. They listen to Marilyn Manson. And they do not commit mass shootings.
Lax gun laws/lack of gun control legislation: Rather than debating the merits or effectiveness of gun control legislation, I want to point out again that women have access to guns. They have access to illegal guns. Women do not commit mass shootings.
Let’s start with some statistics, what I believe, and make a few things very clear:
I do not hate men
I do not think men are inherently evil
I do not think men are biologically predestined to be rapists, murderers, or abusers
I don’t think parents intentionally raise their sons to be rapists, murderers or abusers
I do believe there is a correlation between constructed masculinity and violence
I do believe masculinity is socially constructed learned behavior
I do believe the repercussions of constructed masculinity are real, dangerous, and need to addressed
Why does this matter? The same ways we train young girls to think their only value lies in their beauty, we also train young boys to associate strength with violence. And the repercussions are deeply troubling. According to Katz, compared to girls, boys in the U.S. are more likely to:
1) Be diagnosed with a behavior disorder
2) Be prescribed stimulant medications
3) Fail out of school
4) Binge drink
5) Commit a violent crime
6) Take their own lives
Males are most often both the victims and the perpetrators in 90% of homicides.
90% of people who commit violent physical assault are men.
Males perpetrate 95% of all serious domestic violence.
86% of armed robberies are committed by men.
77% of aggravated assaults are committed by men.
87% of stalkers are men.
86% of domestic violence incidents resulting in physical injury are perpetrated by men.
99% of rapes are committed by men.
Men commit approximately 90% of murder.
Since 1982 there have been more than 62 mass shootings in the U.S In only one instance was the gun user female.
The purpose of listing these statistics is NOT to show that men are inherently evil, though many argue that men are just more biologically dispositioned to be violent and do violence. To me, that is THE greatest insult to all men–to assume that being rapists and murderers is encoded in their DNA. No. This is learned behavior. We train our young boys to be “tough,” to “man up,” to be emotionally constipated, and to never, never fall outside the constraints of what it means to “be a man.” And if all of these messages can be learned, if violent masculinity is, in fact, manufactured, it can also be unlearned. The training can be undone.
So how and where are young boys getting these messages? Everywhere.
The key here with all of this is that this isn’t just about deviant individuals. The men committing these mass shootings aren’t just a few bad apples. So often they are described as “lone wolves” detached from society–sociopaths committing atrocities in isolated incidents–when in reality, many men often turn to violence out of fear that they don’t measure up to our rigid cultural codes of manhood. Psychiatrist James Gilligan interviewed hundreds of violent criminals in American prisons and found that that the single most powerful reason they turned to violence was because they felt shamed, humiliated, or disrespected as men. They were so afraid of being perceived as weak, they had been bullied, abused, and taunted to such a breaking point, they were willing to engage in violence to somehow “regain their man card.” As Katz argues, “What all of this amounts to is that our violence problem seems to be a lot less about lone wolves and monsters who fail to conform to society’s norms than it is about too many men, in a sense, conforming to our norms and ideals of manhood out of a fear of not being seen as men.” In the documentary, “The Mask You Live In,” the director highlights what so many young men face growing up–trained to be emotionless, to see seeking help as weakness, and to see violence as a way of gaining respect. Some of the quotes from the young men speak volumes: “Once I went into high school, I struggled finding people I could talk to because I feel like I’m not supposed to get help.” “As a man, respect is linked to violence.”
We view mass shootings as the number one cause of gun violence in this country, when in reality, most gun deaths are a result of men and boys shooting themselves. Suicide accounts for close to two thirds of all gun deaths in the United States. Suicides by gun accounted for about six of every 10 firearm deaths in 2010 and just over half of all suicides, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If we really want to solve gun violence in the United States, if we really, really want to solve this problem, we need to look at the toxic culture in which we are raising our young boys and the messages we send them on a day to day basis.
So what does this have to do with the South Carolina shootings? Many politicians, pundits, and reporters have been quick to label the shooter as mentally ill, a racist, and a terrorist, and the media coverage has been entirely predictable. Many have blamed this attack on everything from the lack of concealed guns in the church to anti-intellectualism. Clearly, from his own manifesto, Dylann Roof had racist ideologies–indeed this massacre was racially motivated and to not acknowledge that would be wholly irresponsible–but even these ideologies are deeply ingrained in gender identity. In an excerpt from Michael Kimmel’s “Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era,” he notes, “It is through a decidedly gendered and sexualized rhetoric of masculinity that this contradiction between loving America and hating its government, loving capitalism and hating its corporate iterations, is resolved. Racism, nativism, anti-Semitism, antifeminism—these discourses of hate provide an explanation for the feelings of entitlement thwarted, fixing the blame squarely on ‘others’ whom the state must now serve at the expense of white men. The unifying theme is gender. These men feel emasculated by big money and big government. In their eyes, most white American men collude in their emasculation. They’ve grown soft, feminized, weak. White supremacist websites abound with complaints about the ‘whimpering collapse of the blond male,’ the ‘legions of sissies and weaklings, of flabby, limp-wristed, non-aggressive, non-physical, indecisive, slack-jawed, fearful males who, while still heterosexual in theory and practice, have not even a vestige of the old macho spirit.'” And, as Lisa Wade points out, “Roof’s act was racist, yes, but his racism was built upon colonialism and sexism. Our hierarchies interconnect, interweaving, providing each other with support.”
If you read Roof’s language closely, it was as if he was trying to prove himself to someone. Numerous accounts from those who knew him described him as shy, antisocial, a boy who had very few friends, and a home life that left much to be desired. In pictures, he scowls at the camera, performing the “tough guise” Katz describes, sometimes armed, sometimes not. But I’ll stop there. Speculating about Roof’s motives doesn’t get to the heart of this tragedy, nor does it allow us to have a much needed conversation between the correlation between violent masculinity and mass shootings. Surely he was influenced by racist ideologies, but we have to ask–what led this young man to seek out such hatred? Roof did not come out of the womb with the will to kill 9 human beings and the intent to take his own life. What was going on in his life that was so miserable, he just wanted to “hurt a whole bunch of people?”
And that, that is the question we need to be asking. In the wake of these tragedies, we want to assign blame. We want to make sense of that which seems so senseless. We want answers. We grieve. We mourn. We debate. And tragedy upon tragedy, the cycle continues. We don’t get answers. We move on with our lives. And we forget. We forget Rev. Clementa C. Pinkney. Cynthia Hurd. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton. Tywanza Sanders. Myra Thompson. Ethel Lee Lance. Susie Jackson. Daniel L. Simmons. Depayne Middleton Doctor.
Today, let us not forget. This Father’s Day, today, let us send love to those who lost their fathers in this tragedy and so many others like it. Today, let us truly try to look at ourselves and our society and understand how these shootings keep happening time and time again. Today, let us stop misplacing blame on symptoms and look at the root causes of this systemic violence. And let us hope that by doing so, I may not have to write about this again.
Update: for further reading on the gendered nature of mass shootings, I highly recommend this piece:
Angry misogynist murders women at showing of film by feminist comedian; police worry “we may not find a motive.”
Thank you, David Futrelle.