Mass Killers Don’t Have a Warped View of Masculinity — Liberal Men Do

There is something wrong with men — something obviously, undeniably, tragically wrong.

There is something that leads us to rape, to batter, to buy and sell women. There is something that leads us to violate, then to laugh at that violation and to reach orgasm through it. There is something that leads us to murder each other, to execute our partners and our children.

There is something that leads us to burn down entire cities, to drop bombs on each other, to declare wars and invade nations and conquer free lands and make them ours. And there is something that leads us to walk into movie theaters, shopping malls, and elementary schools with rifles on our backs.

We’ve concocted so many reasons for why we do what we do: Religion, politics, mental illness, human nature, foolish pride. Yet women worship, vote, fall ill, and share in the full experience of humanity as well, all without ever making the decisions to murder strangers in one last sadistic explosion.

Women commit perhaps one-tenth of all murders, and less than one tenth of one percent of all mass shootings. When one removes from the pool of killers all women who struck back against abusive strangers and partners alike, only to be punished for their self-defense, the number drops further. To deny the specifically male nature of atrocity is to fool oneself.

There is a psychology, not a biology, that accompanies these crimes; we do not kill because of what we are, but who we are. A set of beliefs about the world, a collection of desires and fantasies, determines the meaning of manhood far more than bone density or genital shape. This ideology is that same, whether committed privately against a wife or girlfriend or proudly against the whole of the living world.

The entitlement, rage, brutality, and pathological drive to break the boundaries of an Other defines Christopher Columbus and Andrew Jackson as much as Ted Bundy or Eric Harris. These acts are united by a set of traits, linked together through history. There is a word for what is wrong with men. There are a lot of words, of course. But there is one word that means the others.

The word for what is wrong with men appears momentarily with every mass shooting, but it is never unaccompanied. That word is masculinity, and its addendums in the public discourse are many: Confused. In Crisis. Flawed. Warped. A recent article claimed that men murder strangers in college parking lots because they have been taught “a distorted view of masculinity.” Another lamented the way America breeds “toxic conceptions of what it means to be a man.”

The implication of these ever-present adjectives is clearly that male violence has its roots in a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of manhood, not that manhood itself.

There are, indeed, quite a few men whose understanding of masculinity is tragically deluded — unfortunately, they’re the ones writing these op-eds, not the ones shooting up schools. The men who randomly murder, or rape, or beat their wives and children to death do not misunderstand masculinity. Their psychotic violence, emotional emptiness, and dead-eyed cruelty show they understand it perfectly — lethally — well.

To respond to a woman’s rejection by shooting nine strangers and then yourself is to express the dictates of masculinity in their most concentrated form: Demand what you want. Use violence to take it. Destroy what you can’t have. This is the ideology of manhood. There is nothing warped, confused, or flawed about it. Nor is it a “toxic” form of something otherwise benign.

The truly toxic confusion over the meaning of masculinity is found in reformers, men who hope to replace ten thousand years of domination psychology with a “healthy masculinity” comprised of gentleness, compassion, leadership, and provision. But there is no way to mold a sex-specific psychology from basic human decency. These traits have been shown throughout history by all people, male and female both; random violence and explosive rage, on the other hand, have generally been the purview of men.

There has never been a need for a word to describe the psychology of a healthy, functional adult male besides “good person.” There has, however, been a very pressing need to create a word for the qualities men need to retain their power over women.

Many of the traits that define the liberal notion of “healthy masculinity” cannot be laundered of their patriarchal roots. There is nothing healthy about the notion that men are uniquely providers, defenders, protectors, or leaders. Historically, the association of men with protection has accompanied the association of women with property, just as the male role of leader has existed on the parallel female role of follower.

Even these supposedly enlightened interpretations of masculinity rely on and perpetuate a system of gendered division wherein men maintain tacit control over women. The truly progressive view, that no behaviors are more or less valuable depending on one’s genitals, has no place in the neo-romanticism of modern manhood reform.

The liberal notion of “healthy” masculinity is either a distraction, or a lie. It can be ahistorical and meaningless, by turning masculinity into an empty term indistinguishable from ‘decent human,’ or it can be a benign patriarchy that confirms the sex stratification at the heart of male power. But what it cannot be is an effective antidote to the militarized psychology of domination that drives male atrocities from mass shootings to genocide.

There is something wrong with men — something obviously, undeniably, tragically wrong. Yet it is not particularly wrong for men, in that these explosive bouts of violence do much to maintain and strengthen the grip of power we have over women. “Healthy masculinity” as a concept allows for men to share in this unchallenged power while distancing themselves from the dirty work required to maintain it.

To celebrate a healthy masculinity is to celebrate a sanitized version of slaughter, one that grants you entrance to an exclusive class without demanding sacrifice. A man can have his tenderness, his gentle lovemaking, his occasional cry, all the while comfortable in the knowledge that, as he cries and comforts and fucks, other men will scream and batter and rape to ensure his power remains unchallenged.

If we are serious about ending mass shootings, much less rape and battering, we cannot afford to distance these crimes through the use of the terms ‘toxic,’ ‘confused,’ or ‘warped.’ Masculinity itself is all these things, of course — invariably toxic, invariably confused, and invariably warped. But the understanding violent men have of masculinity is spot-on, while those who fantasize about a masculinity purged of violence and cruelty are the ones hopelessly confused about its purpose.

Society doesn’t teach us toxic ideas about manhood. It teaches us a toxic idea called manhood — one no amount of reform can save.