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On Mass Shootings & Masculinity

Gender roles and expectations are part of our national trauma

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This month witnessed mass shootings in Texas and Ohio, the 254th and 255th mass shootings in America in 2019 (so far), according to the Gun Violence Archive. After each high-profile shooting, the satirical website The Onion publishes the headline, “ ‘No way to prevent this’, says only nation where this regularly happens.” Indeed, though it is difficult to compare mass shootings across countries due to differences in definition (Congress and the FBI can’t even agree on a definition), it is safe to conclude that these tragedies are far more common in the U.S. than in most other nations, particularly high-income, Western democracies.

Depending on who you listen to, this consistent violence can be attributed to video games, the proliferation of guns, lack of regulation of the gun industry, the internet and, most commonly, mental illness. Proponents of all these potential sources may or may not be able to marshal empirical support for their positions. All extant data, for example, clearly shows that mental-health issues are not predictive of violence. (See “Mass Shootings and Mental Illness,” published by the American Psychiatric Association.)

One common factor that is apparent: Virtually all perpetrators of mass shootings, and indeed most gun violence, are boys or men. However, national media outlets rarely, if ever, point out this blatancy, and will often go out of their way to use gender-neutral terms, such as “the shooter” or “the killer.” But if the recent killings were perpetrated by a girl or a woman, that fact would be the main discussion point. We are so conditioned to seeing men commit this violence that we ignore the overwhelming gender disparity. By all objective standards, women suffer from mental health issues as much as men do, yet it does not manifest itself in mass shootings. In addition, women also use the internet, play violent video games, and live in cities where guns are numerous and available to them. The elephant in the room continues to be ignored.

Part of this is rooted in the conventions of our language, which tends to obscure symbolic discussions of those in power. When we hear the words “race” or “gender” or “sexuality,” we often think of racial minorities, women and the LGBTQ community. The terms are applied to those outside the power structure, leaving the most powerful groups immune from the critique. Therefore, the fact that the killers are almost always men is ignored as a causal factor.

When the role of men is occasionally discussed, it’s often in the context of biology, and hormones. Boys and men, it seems, are just hardwired to be violent. Lost in this discussion is the role that our culture plays in producing definitions of masculinity that celebrate warriors as heroes—how we view violence as a legitimate (and often preferred) form of conflict resolution. In this way, as anti-violence educator Jackson Katz points out, we are able to view these people as anomalies who fall outside the norms, instead of seeing them as over-conforming to masculine gender norms that focus on strength, toughness and dominance.

According to the Law of Holes, when you find yourself in a hole, the first step to getting out is to stop digging! As long as society refuses to acknowledge the often unhealthy way that boys are raised to be men, we will be no closer to digging ourselves out of these national tragedies. Boys and men need to experience the full range of human emotions that all of us have within us: kindness, empathy, sympathy and mercy. And they should be granted societal permission to do so. This should happen at the structural level through our major institutions such as education, media, religion, sports, politics and the like, and it should also occur at the individual level, within families, peer groups and intimate relationships.

There is certainly no perfect solution to gun violence in America; it is rooted in our cultural narratives, ideology and mystique. But until we are willing to concentrate our efforts on the role of male gender socialization, we will only be putting Band-Aids on the wound instead of addressing its underlying etiology.

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Woodward is a professor of sociology at Florida State College at Jacksonville.

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