We will never address gun violence if we don’t address the root of the problem: masculinity

If we don’t talk about how masculinity creates and enables violent men, we will never be able to truly address gun violence.

Violent and troubled people tend to idolize other violent and troubled people. After Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot and killed one teacher and 12 fellow students at Columbine High School in Colorado, their fans, calling themselves “Columbiners,” developed a presence on Tumblr. Many of them expressed a desire to “outdo Harris and Klebold” — indeed, violent and troubled people also tend to emulate the behaviors of other violent and troubled people. Only a couple of years after Columbine, Charles Williams, the Santana High School shooter, announced he was going to “pull a Columbine,” before shooting two of his fellow students and injuring 13 others.

While social media may not be responsible for violence, it does allow violent and troubled people to connect more easily with others like them, and makes it easier for them to find content relating to guns, knives, and gore. Nikolas Cruz, who murdered 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida on Valentine’s Day, certainly benefited from his ability to both share and access such content. His Instagram was filled with pictures of guns, pictures of himself posing with guns, and targets with bullet holes in them.

But because social conditioning goes beyond social media, it is necessary to also analyze societal and cultural expectations in order to determine how and why people become violent. We have already begun to try to address the role guns and gun culture play in these mass shootings. In the wake of the Nicholas Cruz shooting, many corporations are ending their partnerships with the NRA; marches and school walk-outs are taking place across America; members of the electorate are forcing conversations on gun control, using the power of their votes; and discussions surrounding mental health and the ability of law enforcement to recognize potential warning signs of violent behavior are taking place. But while cutting a weed may stifle its parasitic behavior temporarily, its elimination can only be ensured by pulling it out at its roots. While ensuring that violent, troubled people cannot access guns, and educating the public on how to spot indicators of violence may hack away at the gargantuan weed that is gun violence,  in order to attack the true root of that violence, our focus must shift from violent and troubled people to men.

Approximately 98 per cent of all mass shootings in the United States are committed by men. According to the Department of Justice, 82.6 per cent of all gun homicides between 1980 and 2008 were committed by men. James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University, was correct when he told CNN that “murder is a man’s crime.” Unfortunately, men hardly limit themselves to murder. The FBI reported that, in 2014, approximately 80 per cent of individuals who were arrested for a violent crime were male.

Indeed, violent behavior is a predominantly male characteristic. Why is it that men commit such a disproportionately large share of violent crimes? It is possible that the answer to this question lies within another: why do people commit acts of violence at all?

Psychologist Clark McCauley sorts aggression and violence into two categories: impulsive aggression and instrumental aggression. Impulsive aggression is characterized by strong emotions, while instrumental aggression is typically used as a means to an end. Impulsive aggression is certainly more common, and is especially associated with anger. Anger typically arises as a result of a perceived moral violation, especially in instances of “perceived infringements of authority or independence, or other threats to positive self-image.” It can also be present when a sort of physical danger is perceived. Essentially, anger is used in an effort to supplant (however ineffectively) other emotions, like fear and sadness. Indeed, it can be a very confusing emotion, and the inability to think one’s way through feelings of anger can be extremely destructive. As animals, though, when we perceive a threat to our safety, we are not inclined to think. Rather, we are inclined to act on our emotional impulses, and, if we are unable or unwilling to control our anger, we lash out in violent ways.

While much of men’s violence is premeditated, society lets men off the hook for their behaviour most-often because we have taught one another that they can’t control themselves. If we assume that people commit acts of violence because they are unable to control their impulses and emotions, it is easy to excuse men’s violence, as they are rarely expected to control themselves. Gender roles, which are forced on children from the moment their sex is known, require women to maintain an intense, even artificial control over themselves while simultaneously relieving men of any such duties. If a woman does not wear makeup or shave her legs or perfectly maintain her hair, she is seen as deviating from the ideal image of her sex. If she doesn’t restrict her diet in order to stay thin, she is seen as lazy, sloppy, and inadequate — as having “let herself go” (i.e. lost control over herself — a decidedly unfeminine quality). All a man must do to meet basic expectations of his gender, however, is bathe regularly, cut his hair, and trim his nails.

Studies show that, though girls are given more household chores than boys, those who receive an allowance get less than boys. Girls are expected to be “ladylike,” which is generally defined as being “polite” and “having good manners,” yet there is no corresponding expectation for men. Indeed, the phrase “boys will be boys” implies that the exact opposite set of behaviors is expected of males.

These gendered behavioral boundaries extend beyond childhood and adolescence. In heterosexual relationships, men are frequently permitted to treat women as though they exist for men. This idea is so normalized, in fact, that many do not even recognize it as out of the ordinary. Male treatment of women in relationships is seen as a result of their evolutionary and biological programming; their supposed lack of impulse control and egocentric behaviour excused as innate. This is all strengthened by the lax social expectations which shapes their behavior as children, perpetuating the same culture that taught them to act on their impulses without forethought. Similarly, the expectation that women be “ladylike” — or, rather, quiet and submissive — teaches women to stifle the uncomfortable emotions that arise because of a negative social, romantic, or sexual encounter with a man. Men act on their impulses because they are not expected to control them, and women suppress their discomfort and anger because they are.

This mindset has dark implications for women who are partnered with men. One out of every four women will experience severe violence at the hands of a partner in her life, and one out of every six women will be the victim of an attempted (or successful) rape in her life. Approximately 98 per cent of individuals arrested for rape are male. Unfortunately, many women who are abused by their (typically male) partners stay with them, and the vast majority of rapes and sexual assaults go unreported. Of course, men are let off the hook in much more simple ways than this. Men frequently make sexually inappropriate comments towards women that go unpunished, are not subject to the same standards of dress in school and at work that women are, and are hardly expected to participate in child-rearing or domestic labour whatsoever. The often joked about “useless husband/father” trope is unfortunately representative of how many men actually behave, and how many women accept this infantile behavior. Our standards for males are incredibly low, and that is incredibly dangerous.

As long as our current expectations remain the same, as long as we render boys and men exempt from the concept of self-control, nothing will change. Male violence will continue because its roots remain firmly in place. If we do not change our expectations, there will always be another Nikolas Cruz. There will always be another male who commits an act of extreme violence because he was neither expected nor taught to control himself. It is necessary to talk about gun control and mental health reform, and it is necessary to talk about violent and troubled people. If the problem of gun violence is one we would like to solve, however, then we must first discuss how masculinity creates violent and troubled men.

Morgan Amonett is a student living in Ohio.

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