The intersection of masculinity and mass shootings
Every time an American man shoots up a church or a grocery store or a salon (the list goes sadly on), he puts an implicit demand on the rest of us to examine the society which produced him. What is it in the storied soil of our culture that grows such lethal apples?
The causal threads of a mass shooting tangle together in an intersectional rat’s nest. We can’t know why a man would do such a thing without considering his family of origin, his ancestral and developmental trauma, his society’s racism, his nation’s gun control laws, and much more.
Masculinity, or what masculinity has become in our culture, is another factor to consider. According to the website Statista, male shooters have committed 118 mass shootings in the United States since 1982, as compared to three by female shooters. Despite this glaringly lopsided statistic, it doesn’t seem to have entered our collective ken that a profound reckoning with our masculinity is a matter of national security.
Masculinity is the story we tell ourselves about what it means to be a man, a story made up of beliefs about who men are and who we aren’t, what we do and don’t do. This story is being written every day, every generation, in the countless ways we relate to and as men.
Currently, the story of American masculinity is one in which emotional intelligence is a deviation from the desirable standard, to say nothing of vulnerable expression. And yet, emotions and vulnerability are essential aspects of our humanity, as is the need to communicate the challenges these aspects create for us. Without the proper tools to help us articulate the nuances our inner struggles, men use the tools we have at our disposal to do so. One of those tools, primitive and powerful, is violence.
We all know boys don’t cry. But boys do cry, which is to say, boys feel. What happens, then, when a boy encounters a masculinity which asks him to become something he is not: a hardened caricature numbed to his own innate sensitive capacities? In short, his struggle begins: that battle between what he learns he should be (or what he realizes he needs to be) and who he really is. The emotional pain that he will encounter over the course of his life becomes something he must pretend isn’t there. Without help, which he has learned not to ask for as a man, this invisible struggle will define him.
Avoiding self-reflection (because feelings are unmanly) and guarded against our vulnerability (because we dare not risk showing weakness), we become repositories of estranged pain that we have no way of understanding any more than we can understand a stranger. We can’t release this pain because we can’t communicate about it. To do so would be to defect from what we think it means to be a man. We are loath to break the taboos that broke us. So, our pain grows, influencing our perceptions and our choices, and impacting the people around us: a cruel word, a cold silence, a deadly shooting spree (this list, too, goes sadly on).
“People evolve a language in order to describe and thus control their circumstances,” James Baldwin wrote, “or in order not to be submerged by a reality that they cannot articulate. (And, if they cannot articulate it, they are submerged.)”
Men are born into a submersion of stories called masculinity that fails to reflect the complexity of who we really are. And in a tragic catch-22, we are prohibited (or we prohibit ourselves) from feeling what we would need to feel in order to learn the emotional language required to articulate ourselves out of this isolating illusion. What would change for us as a society if boys were supported in cultivating their sensitive, self-reflective, and communicative capacities? What would transform, if embodying vulnerability was understood to be an expression of a man’s radical courage and power?
Flipping the script on masculinity isn’t a magic bullet, but it is a necessary part of the work we can be doing to stop the barrage of mortal bullets fired everyday by the hands of hurting men. The prosecutors will cross-examine the mass shooters. The rest of us have to cross-examine American masculinity, if not for the shooters, then for the would-be victims of future shootings that will only be preventable once we start making a new culture around what it means to be a man: no longer a hardened caricature, incapable of connecting in the life-affirming ways that sensitivity makes possible, but a man open, a man vulnerable, a man alive and awake.