Is masculinity a public health crisis?
For most of my life, I have suppressed my anger. I let it swell until it broke like a tidal wave. This anger was an aspect of my manhood, and like many mass shooters across America, it could have propelled me to do some pretty terrible things.
Growing up, I bent myself into a pretzel trying to appease others. I was the ‘shy boy’ in the corner watching, saying nothing. Alway murmuring my ‘pleases’ and ‘thank you’s’ with a low voice. Others would call me weird, strange, gay, a shooter-in-the-making. I had few friends and felt incredibly lonely most days.
I don’t know when the sadness bloomed into rage. Middle school? High school? Soon my days were a struggle to do anything, but vent. I hated my school. I hated my teachers. I hated society. I was extremely difficult to nearly everybody. I would scream in class. I would turn in angry screeds for papers. I would tell my only three friends that I wanted to blow up the school.
I was not a functional student. I would get home from school and curl into a ball. If I had the energy, I would watch TV, or scribble a line or two of homework.
Many teachers called me disruptive. Countless students whispered about me being weird or crazy. Few approached me to ask me what was wrong or to refer me to a counselor. It was not until I was 26 that I saw my first, long-term therapist.
I never ended up shooting up my school. I had the privilege to keep riding out my sadness and rage until I eventually found a reliable support network. I feel a lot better today, but when I hear that another angry, white man has shot up a school, it doesn’t surprise me. It could have been me.
Do you want to know who the most significant perpetrators of violent extremism in the United States are?
As of writing this, the five deadliest shooters in the United States are as follows:
Stephen Paddock — a 64-year-old that fired into a crowd of concertgoers in Las Vegas to kill 59 people.
Omar Saddiqui Mateen — a 29-year-old that killed 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando in 2016.
Seung-Hui Cho — a 23-year-old that killed 32 people during the Virginia Tech Massacre of 2007.
Adam Lanza — a 20-year-old that killed 20 children during his shooting spree at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012.
Devin Patrick Kelley — a 26-year-old that killed 25 people and an unborn child at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas in 2017.
Of these five, four were in their 20’s during the time of their attack. All of them were men.
When I was venting to my peers about wanting to blow up our school, I wasn’t thinking about White Supremacy, involuntary celibacy, Christian Fundamentalism, or ISIS — though I am, sure given a worse enough environment, one or more would have become my justification. I was resentful of my peers for thinking I was weird. I lacked the tools to understand my depression. I didn’t understand how to regulate my own emotions, and like countless other men, I lashed out.
For a long time, anger has been an integral part of masculinity. It was former President Richard Nixon who famously said: “You must never be satisfied with losing. You must get angry, terribly angry, about losing. But the mark of the good loser is that he takes his anger out on himself.” Men are taught to be angry, but paradoxically they are told to bury that or any emotion.
Take any blockbuster, TV show, or book at random, and more often than not, you will be bombarded with images of soldiers, superheroes, hitmen, presidents, police officers, and ‘chosen ones’ that succeed in their goals by remaining calm under pressure. Captain America or G.I. Joe may lose their nerves shortly before the final battle, but they are always back to cooly finish off the big bad. Their anger is a fuel that rarely comes to the surface. They are cool, chill, distant.
‘Men must not lose control’ is a mantra heard everywhere and in countless different ways — don’t cry, be strong, man-up, don’t be such a girl— and because such a feat is impossible, rarely are men taught how to process their anger when the façade breaks.
When emotionally repressed men ‘lose it’ all across the country and the world, a lot of them aren’t able to diffuse that anger. It festers into rage, and unfortunately, violence. It’s not always quick, and it isn’t always as dramatic as a mass shooting, but it inevitably hurts everyone.
Male violence is overrepresented in nearly every aspect of criminal activity. In the federal prison system, 93% of inmates are men. We see a similar trend on the state level. More men tend to be arsonists, murderers, and serial killers. Women do commit crimes (calm your dicks, Meninists), but, both historically and presently, men have been able to enact more violence than women.
It shouldn’t surprise us that the male privilege to express anger factors into a lot of mass shootings in the United States. The Pulse shooter, Omar Saddiqui Mateen, was described by a coworker as “always shaken. Always agitated. Always mad.” His ex-wife has since told the press that he beat her violently. The mother-in-law of the Sutherland shooting, Devin Patrick Kelley, described him as “…a controlling man who was easily offended, quick to anger and limited his wife’s contact with her family.”
Those who knew the Virginia Tech shooter, Seung-Hui Cho, saw him as removed and isolated. His creative writing professor found his writing deeply disturbing. His anger and depression were evident to her, and despite contacting campus counseling, student affairs, and even the police, no one intervened.
To these entities, the risk wasn’t pronounced enough. Implicit in their silence was the belief that male anger was normal. Come back, they thought, when that quiet seething turns into violent action. The male entitlement to anger has led to the taking of hundreds of lives, and given that these incidents are increasing, we should really be perceiving male rage for the national health crisis that it is.
Yet, opponents have countered that mental illness is the primary, if not the leading cause of these shootings. This is a common talking point in conservative circles. In the wake of the Parkland shooting, for example, President Donald Trump responded by calling the shooter “mentally disturbed.”
It’s not just conservatives that think this, though: Grant Duwe and Michael Rocque of the LA Times wrote a detailed piece of how mental illness plays a crucial part in the life of these shootings.
If you squint long enough, you might find some evidence to support this view. The doctor of Stephen Paddock, for example, claimed the shooter had bipolar disorder and was refusing to take the necessary medication. The outlet Mother Jones detailed in 2012 the prevalence of mental illness in mass shootings.
Yes, blame it on the crazy people.
While it is true that mental illness does sometimes play a role in mass shootings, the data on its prevalence is suspect. A 2016 study found that mass shootings by people with severe mental illness represent less than 1% of all yearly gun-related homicides in the United States. Another study found no statistically significant association between gun violence and mental illness. We could spend all day quoting studies.
In the words of Bethany Lilly, an attorney with the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law: “If you talk to any practicing psychiatrist, they will tell you that the risk factors for gun violence are being a young, angry, socially isolated man. Sometimes in the constellation of effects, you will also have people with mental illness.” Mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety can indeed cause people to be withdrawn, and that can lead to isolation, but there’s no substantial evidence that mental illness is the primary cause of violent shootings.
If you want to argue that a correlation between mental illness and mass shootings exists, then sure, there is a correlation. There is a correlation between ice cream sales and murders, too.
We know pretty conclusively, though, that male rage, and not mental illness, is the primary cause, and to prove this I don’t need to pull out another study or quote Richard Nixon. I just need to ask and answer one simple question.
Where are all the female mass shooters?
Mother Jones keeps a pretty exhaustive list of all the deadly mass shootings in America from 1982 to the present. Out of the 100 deadly mass shootings in the last 4 decades, do you know how many female perpetrators are listed?
Jennifer Sanmarco — a 44 year old former postal worker that in 2006 killed her neighbor, and then ended the lives of 7 people at the Goleta postal office, including herself.
Cherie Lash Rhoades — a 44-year-old that in 2014 went on a killing spree at the Cedarville Rancheria Tribal Office and Community Center, killing 4.
Tashfeen Malik — a 29-year-old who in 2015 killed 14 people with her husband at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California.
Of these 3 incidents, one of them — Tashfeen Malik — was assisted by a man.
Do women not suffer from mental illness? That’s a rhetorical question: of course, they do. With some illnesses, women report higher instances of it. If mental illness were the primary cause of mass shootings, however, you would think we would be seeing a lot more women shooters.
Clearly, there are a set of social conditions that allow violence to persist more among men. We see such violence manifest even among the very mental illnesses that are purported to be the causes of these disasters.
Take Anti-Social Personality Disorder (ASPD), for example, the dreaded ‘sociopaths disease’ — though I want to stress that such framing is very hurtful to those with this condition. The DSM-5 describes the disease as a “…impairment in personality (self and interpersonal) functioning and the presence of pathological personality traits.” If any disease were the ‘cause’ of extremely violent behavior, you would think it would be this one.
Something interesting happens, though, when we look at this disorder along gendered lines. A recent study published in the Journal of Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment found that while women with ASPD were more likely to have engaged in self-destructive behavior (e.g., run away from home overnight, miss work/school, lie a lot, etc.) men were far more likely to engage in conduct that hurt themselves or others (e.g. destroyed other’s property, started a fire on purpose, made money illegally, done something they could have been arrested for, hit someone so hard they injured them, and hurt an animal on purpose).
Even among a population that, in lieu of a proper support network, is prone to the sort of isolation attributed for causing extremely destructive behavior like mass shootings, we see that gender makes a significant impact on the type of violence initiated.
This problem we have here is cultural. Our norms make male violence permissible. The ways we do this are another article in of itself. It’s everything from how we allow boys to dress up in more aggressive roles (soldiers, firefighters, etc.) to the ingrained practice of doubting the authenticity of what women say, to the acceptance of misogyny in day-to-day conversation. If you want to find out more, I strongly recommend you read Nicole Spector’s ‘Why boys are more likely to be violent — and what can we do to stop it’ and Michael Reichert’s ‘Male Violence Is Everywhere’, for a more thorough understanding of how we indoctrinate boys into becoming angry men.
As we have seen, men are more outwardly violent than women in a majority of cases, which causes them to lash out at others in a way that women statistically just don’t do. These trends aren’t something that just happens. They are a cultural choice. They are patterns of behavior that our society has refined through generations.
To solve the issue of mass shootings and other problems of violence, we need to alter the types of behavior that we consider acceptable. Gun control can’t hurt. In fact, I believe that it is necessary.
Ultimately, however, our conception of manhood needs to change to reduce violence in general. I will even wager that changing our norms of masculinity will be a prerequisite to legislative reform on gun control. If we want to stop these attacks from happening, then violence cannot be perceived as something men are entitled to, and that includes the guns men use to enact such violence.
I was 26 when I saw my first, long-term therapist to treat my anger and depression. I should have been 12. Thankfully there were no guns in our house. I was lucky. Many around me, however, thought that the violent awkwardness I exuded as a kid was normal. Anger was just a thing male teenagers went through. That kind of thinking needs to end.
Luck is not enough to stop the next mass shooting.
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