It seems like mass shootings are becoming more common. I’ve written before about mass shooters being almost all male (though the claim that mass shooters are disproportionately white is false). Today I want to ask if the intersection of American culture and masculinity plays a role. After all, mass shooters are almost all male in other countries too, but most other countries (including Canada) don’t have the frequency of mass shootings that we find in the United States.
American culture has always been militaristic. The original colonists warred with America’s first nations over land, which culminated in the Wild West’s genocidal campaign against Native Americans. And The Atlantic notes that controlling slaves played a huge historical role in the development of America’s gun culture. Further, while opposed by most of the world, Americans over a decade ago were largely supportive of the offensive (“preemptive self-defense”) war in Iraq.
The predictable response to the most recent mass shooting in Oregon by conservatives is a call for more people to arm themselves. America’s honor culture, which accepts violent vigilante justice and distrusts the government to properly administer justice, is alive and well. It’s a common motif in Hollywood films.
Honor culture is particularly about masculinity. Writing for Patheos.com, Fred Clark notes the theory that when a person’s identity is questioned, that person is “likely to react by over-demonstrating qualities associated with that identity.”
Toxic masculinity is a hot topic, but it lacks counterbalance due to the failure to also discuss positive masculinity. That’s why I wrote for insideMAN that masculinity has never been monolithic. Supportive and nonviolent forms of masculinity have always been with us.
Unlike honor culture, a culture of dignity doesn’t blame others for personal failings or take offense at small slights, but it does respect other people’s rights and boundaries while assertively and nonviolently defending one’s own rights and boundaries.
And dignity isn’t just a human trait. In my post about the myth of the lone wolf/alpha male, I noted that zoologists have found that “within the pack he [the male wolf] is most often cooperative.” Nor are wolf packs as male dominated as popular culture believes.
I concluded that the masculine qualities pop culture promotes should be more Captain Picard and less Captain Kirk. Like it or not, pop culture defines our attitudes to a huge extent. I think the stories we tell ourselves need to reflect the distinction between honor culture and dignity culture, and counterbalance the destructiveness of honor culture with the positivity of dignity culture, and the implications for both on masculinity.
But there’s something else that stands out. On the CBS Evening News (15:57) on October 2, Dr. Kelly Posner (who founded Columbia University’s suicide prevention program) claimed that 90% of mass shooters have had serious suicidal thoughts. I haven’t fact checked that statistic, but it’s consistent with the fact that almost four out of five suicides are male.
The claim that the male suicide rate is far higher because men use more fatal methods (such as firearms) avoids the issue. It’s like saying men get more speeding tickets because they drive faster. Why do men drive faster? Why do men use more lethal suicide methods? If masculinity is why, then what is it about masculinity?
Though women attempt suicide more, this cry for help shows they want help rather than death. But men are much less likely to believe they’ll get help or even be listened to. (Men are listened to when talking about impersonal things like sports, but often not with personal and emotional issues.)
Expecting men to be more empathetic toward others is only half the equation. Society must also be more empathetic toward men. Yet, a casual glance at Internet comment sections shows that even women who support egalitarian gender roles are sometimes dismissive of men who express personal concerns, frequently referring to men as babies or suggesting (with zero sum reasoning) that women’s issues are more important so men shouldn’t talk about men’s issues.
But as one woman noted on a Facebook discussion board for the masculinity documentary The Mask You Live In,
I strongly believe society has told men what they expect in the form of “girl power”. In my opinion, and I have a son and a daughter who are tweens, the expression “girl power” has become all encompassing. Instead of teaching both genders of children they BOTH have “power” inside them we exclude young boys and relegate them to sports only as ways for them to express themselves. Take a look at most rural or suburban schools, they have programs after school for girls only that teach them about peer pressure, body confidence, etc beginning at a young age! Such programs do not exist for young boys. I have heard of such programs for young boys in urban schools however, they are not a national program like “Girls on the Run”…My son is almost 12, he has asked me “do I have power?” I didn’t understand what he was talking about, until he explained the signs at school for girl only events…Boys need nurturing too, it’s ok as a nation to emotionally nurture boys outside the home.
The enormous male/female suicide gap first appears in adolescence and widens as boys progress to manhood. If it’s true that 90% of mass shooters have had serious suicidal thoughts, then imagine the effect that programs for boys could have in reducing these tragic events.