men, masculinities and gender politics

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If I lose, you die! (On the connection between male entitlement and mass shootings.)

In the aftermath of the horrific mass shootings in the movie theater in Colorado and in the Sikh temple in Wisconsin, there have been a lot of calls in the United States to further limit access to guns. What there has been little discussion about, however, is the need to also change the way that we raise boys. And I would argue that shifting the messages that we give to young men is at least as important as limiting access to high-capacity firearms. If we want to be safe.

The mass shooter – a uniquely American phenomenon? I am generally supportive of gun control. For example, I support denying men who perpetrate domestic violence the right to have a gun. And I support a total ban on the private ownership of assault rifles and of any firearm that has a large capacity clip. But I also try to be thoughtful about my political positions, so I think it must also be acknowledged that the rate of gun ownership and the level of gun violence in a given society are not necessarily directly correlated. While it seems manifestly clear that having guns does not make us any safer, it also seems that – depending where you live – guns do not always make us all that much less safe.

I think of Canada -- where rates of gun ownership are similar to the United States. But Canadians do not tend to shoot each other. This was a phenomenon that Michael Moore explored in his film Bowling for Columbine, and which he revisited in a recently published a piece on the Huffington Post entitled “It’s the guns -- but we all know, it’s not really the guns.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-moore/its-the-guns-_b_1700218.html

In this piece Moore recognizes the merits on both sides of the gun debate, writing that advocates of gun control are correct in asserting that having fewer guns around will probably mean fewer gun-related deaths in the United States. But looking cross-culturally, Moore observes that other countries with similar (or even higher) rates of gun ownership have immensely lower rates of gun homicide than does the United States. Moore writes that the gun rights people are “half right” when they say "Guns don't kill people, people kill people." He continues:

I would just alter that slogan slightly to speak the real truth: ‘Guns don't kill people, Americans kill people.’ Because we're the only ones in the first world who do this en masse… We Americans are incredibly good killers. We believe in killing as a way of accomplishing our goals. Three-quarters of our states execute criminals, even though the states with the lower murder rates are generally the states with no death penalty.

Our killing is not just historical (the slaughter of Indians and slaves and each other in a "civil" war). It is our current way of resolving whatever it is we're afraid of. It's invasion as foreign policy…

We are an easily frightened people and it is easy to manipulate us with fear. What are so afraid of that we need to have 300 million guns in our homes? Who do we think is going to hurt us? Why are most of these guns in white suburban and rural homes? Maybe we should fix our race problem and our poverty problem (again, number one in the industrialized world) and then maybe there would be fewer frustrated, frightened, angry people reaching for the gun in the drawer. Maybe we would take better care of each other…

Those are my thoughts about Aurora [Colorado] and the violent country I am a citizen of.

 
American or Ameri-man? I think Moore is onto something here. That there is something unique about the American culture that leads so many Americans to shoot other Americans. And the research would tend to back him up: compared to other industrialized societies, Americans are much more likely than their first-world peers to endorse violence as a way of addressing problems.

But I don’t think that Moore’s analysis goes far enough.

I would change the slogan he proposes yet again, from “Guns don’t kill people, Americans kill people” to “Guns don’t kill people, American men kill people.” When Moore writes about Americans being incredibly adept killers, he is actually talking about American men. When he talks about executions, and the slaughters of Native Americans, of slaves, and of other white folks in the Civil War, he is talking about the acts of men. When he talks about invading other countries, he is talking about decisions still made by-and-large by men.

So I also think that Moore himself is “only half right.” (I suppose that must make the gun rights fanatics only 25% right? That still sounds kind of generous to me... )

I lose? You die! One commonality in all mass shootings... school shootings... shopping mall shootings... movie theater shootings... temple shootings... workplace shootings... all of these shootings anywhere -- is that the perpetrators are always male. And the male who is doing the shooting is typically a guy who has a grudge. He is failing at something, and he has decided to compensate for that fact by reasserting that he is indeed “King of the World” as he goes on to cause his own titanic disaster.

The killers at Columbine High School did exactly that. They decided to be badass. They decided to go out in a blaze of horror. This, right after one of them had been blocked from achieving his life dream of joining the U.S. Marine Corps. It was as if he were saying:

“You don’t think I’ve got what it takes to join the Corps? You don’t think I can be a goddam killing machine? I’ll show you! Watch this, you fuckers!”

Columbine was all about revenge. It was all about power. That’s the reason they staged the attack on April 10. Hitler’s birthday.

In nearby Aurora, Colorado the other night, the shooter in the movie theater wore body armor. He was fully decked out in military gear. Before going on his murderous rampage, he had booby trapped his apartment so that any law enforcement officers entering through the front door would also be killed. (Fortunately the police were very cautious and that did not happen.)

The Aurora shooter had just failed an oral exam in his Ph.D. program. Things were not looking good for him. So it was time to reassert his power...

He stood in front of a captive audience. People who were there to watch a movie about the battle of good versus evil. And he shot them one after the other. He became the ultimate villain.

And the shooter at the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin, a long-time white supremacist who had often spoken of the dire need to save the “white race,” acted similarly when the chips were down. His life was going badly. After getting in trouble in US Army he received a “general discharge” -- which is not a great thing. But then he worked for quite a while as a truck driver. With the help of a veteran’s loan program, he bought a house.

But he lost his job in 2010, and he lost his home in 2011. It is also reported that he had just broken up with his girlfriend. And what did he do when things went south? He lashed out. He sought his “revenge.” And if a white guy adheres to a racist ideology like this guy did, when he lashes out his targets are likely to be innocent people of color.

Men and loss. Yes these shooters were all deeply disturbed individuals. The Aurora shooter may even fit the definition of having a major mental illness. But he was also impaired when it comes to negotiating life’s basic tribulations. As were the Columbine shooters. As was the racist killer at the Sikh temple. As far, far too many of us males are. We men grow up with such a strong message around losing. And that message is:

Don’t.

And, if for some reason we do happen to lose, we then escalate. Escalate until we don’t lose anymore!

The next time you see a couple of boys or young men wrestling around or roughhousing, see if you don’t witness this phenomenon: One of them starts to win. The other will then escalate. Often this escalation comes with saying things like: “I’m gonna kill you!” And in more heated moments it becomes: “I’m gonna fucking kill you!”

When males find themselves losing, they often escalate. Often violently.

We raise males with an exaggerated sense of entitlement and with an exaggerated sense of their power in the world. So when we do lose -- and at times we will all lose -- it is a blow from which some males will find it impossible to recover. Losing becomes a threat to their very identity. They believe it is a matter of life and death. And how do some of them respond? By deciding to destroy whatever it was that has caused them to lose. They kill the guy on the street who disrespected them. They kill the woman who just broke up with them. They kill the manager who just fired them. They kill the principal who expelled them. Some decide to blame people of color, or immigrants, and commit racist murders. And some of these guys decide that it is the world itself that has turned against them. So they decide – like the shooters at Columbine high school, and like the shooter in that Aurora theater – to destroy the whole world.

Guns are not the only risk factor. Most people who have guns never shoot anyone else. Even most people who own assault weapons never shoot anyone else. But being able to own these personal weapons of mass destruction makes it so much more likely that mass casualty events will occur.

Most people who are raised male never shoot someone else. Even most males who have a sense that they are being persecuted never shoot someone else. But just as with the availability of assault weapons, raising our boys without an ability to negotiate loss – and with the sense that they are entitled to destroy the world should it ever wound them – makes it so much more likely that mass casualty events will occur.

Yes, it is true that it is people who kill people.

But those people also typically use guns to kill people.

(Especially when it comes to mass murder).

And it is typically male people who typically use guns to kill people.

(And mass murder is pretty much an exclusively-male behavior.)

Having so many guns doesn’t help the situation.

But traditional male socialization doesn’t help the situation, either.

Michael Moore seems to be making the argument that if Americans want to end gun violence, then American culture needs to change. I agree. And I think the transformation begins by changing how we bring up our sons.

By changing what it means to be a man.