The Truth About The Men Who Riot And Kill

Credit: flickr/Wasfi Akab

A 27-year-old man with a history of abusing his girlfriend killed five people in Alabama last week, apparently because they tried to help her leave him. According to the Gun Violence Archive, there have now been at least 248 mass shootings in the first eight months of the year, which continues an alarming upward trend in this kind of violence in the U.S.

In a 2015 essay for The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell explored whether or not the frequency of reported shootings in America has created a self-propagating “phenomenon” — with each new act increasing the likelihood that another person, somewhere in the country, will soon lash out.

Referencing the work of sociologist Mark Granovetter, Gladwell posits that school shooters, as a group, function much like a riot, in that each new participant’s “threshold,” at which they are compelled to join, is lowered by those before them. Riot instigators may be those on the brink of desperation, or people willing to destroy property for little reason at all, but at some point even otherwise “law-abiding” citizens tend to also suddenly take part in chaos. Gladwell uses this model to explain why it’s become so hard to create a single profile for shooters, or predict who might be next:

“The problem is not that there is an endless supply of deeply disturbed young men who are willing to contemplate horrific acts. It’s worse. It’s that young men no longer need to be deeply disturbed to contemplate horrific acts.”

This echoes a 2015 New York Times analysis of mass shootings in general, which concluded that “what seems telling about the killers . . . is not how much they have in common but how much they look and seem like so many others who do not inflict harm.”

Yet both the Times and Gladwell come to their conclusions while only glancing at a certain commonality: that these shooters are nearly all men (and mostly white men at that). Furthermore, these writers seem to presuppose that there is a “normal” or healthy ideal of how young men should behave in America. Which suggests that if it just weren’t for all these high-profile massacres, perhaps the threshold for violence amongst men would have remained higher, and so many of them would not be choosing to “inflict harm” on society.

But, in the year of Donald Trump, as we process the loss of more than 270 lives at the hands of mass shooters — whether in Alabama, at a gay club in Orlando, or on the streets of Dallas (not to mention attacks in Munich, Fort Myers, Baton Rouge, Istanbul, Dhaka, Baghdad, Nice, Kalamazoo, and too many other places to list) — it’s important to ask the question again: What exactly is “healthy” behavior for men? When exactly do boys learn how to be men in ways that do not inflict harm on society?

Gladwell himself makes a strong case for broadening our lens on this topic, in further explaining Granovetter’s research:

“[Granovetter] was most taken by the situations in which people did things for social reasons that went against everything they believed as individuals. ‘Most did not think it ‘right’ to commit illegal acts or even particularly want to do so,’ he wrote, about the findings of a study of delinquent boys. ‘But group interaction was such that none could admit this without loss of status; in our terms, their threshold for stealing cars is low because daring masculine acts bring status, and reluctance to join, once others have, carries the high cost of being labeled a sissy.’ You can’t just look at an individual’s norms and motives. You need to look at the group.”

Similarly, mass shooters in this country can’t be entirely separated from Granovetter’s group of boys who act recklessly out of a fear of being called “sissies.” It seems likely that the killer in Orlando, who targeted a gay nightclub that he himself visited (and who also had a history of domestic violence), shared an overt fear of femininity. The shooter at UC Santa Barbara in 2014, who made a confessional video listing his frustrations with women, was also clearly disturbed by the idea of appearing less than manly. As were countless other killers before and after them.

And though a majority of young men do not become murderers — or even “delinquent boys” — it’s no stretch to say they are mostly being socialized to carry in their hearts that same fear. So perhaps we should consider that so-called “healthy” visions of masculinity exist at the edges of society (if at all), and that the dislike of women and all things “feminine” is much closer to the center.

If mass shootings are akin to a new kind of cultural “riot,” then, it is a riot born in the traditional culture of masculinity — thriving in a country built on the macho mass violence of genocide and slavery. And it is occurring within a global society still dominated by hypermasculine straight white men, and where men of all backgrounds are cheered more for their loyalty to other men, than for their resistance to oppression.

But why exactly has this particular threshold been lowered in the last few decades? Gladwell points to the 1999 shootings at Columbine High, and the way news of that spree, and many subsequent ones, spread online and openly taught young men the rituals of mass killing. He emphasizes the role of visual storytelling in this process:

“[T]he sociologist Nathalie E. Paton has analyzed the online videos created by post-Columbine shooters and found a recurring set of stylized images: a moment where the killer points his gun at the camera, then at his own temple, and then spreads his arms wide with a gun in each hand; the closeup; the wave goodbye at the end. ‘School shooters explicitly name or represent each other,’ she writes.”

Illustrating this point, last month in Munich, a man who killed nine people at a shopping mall was found to be using the photo of another shooter (who killed 77 in Norway exactly five years before attack) as his own WhatsApp profile picture.

These killers don’t consume or create their stylized images of masculinity in a vacuum, though. We have long seen them elsewhere. If those who planned Columbine “laid down the ‘cultural script’ for the next generation of shooters,” as Gladwell writes, they did so within the context of other scripts and images which have also encouraged young men to, as Gladwell put it, “contemplate horrific acts.”

If knowing the stories of past shooters helps to lower the barrier of entry for these killers — or if this is a riot “in which each new participant’s action makes sense in reaction to and in combination with those who came before,” as Gladwell claims — perhaps it’s worth thinking more about how these stories intersect with those we most often tell about men.

Like all American institutions of power, popular cinema — one of our most celebrated forms of storytelling — is filled with white men, and is often centered on a conception of masculinity which encourages a fear of being called a “sissy.”

The stars of the year’s top live-action film, Captain America: Civil War (Captain America and Iron Man, played by Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr.), or in last year’s blockbuster Jurassic World (Owen Brady, played by Chris Pratt), were not hellbent killers, but seemingly noble heroes intent on saving humanity from evil. These guys recall beloved movie characters like Han Solo, the kind of hard-shelled, wise-cracking white men who aren’t afraid to bend a few rules in pursuit of justice.

That seems different than how we might initially describe someone like Travis Bickle, Taxi Driver’s “lone wolf” protagonist who plots the execution of a presidential candidate and takes out his frustrations by murdering a pimp. Yet films like Taxi Driver or Reservoir Dogs aren’t cult hits because they necessarily differ from the status quo of popular cinema, but because they zero in on specific, familiar representations of masculinity, and then take them to extremes.

Similarly, SUNY professor Tristan Bridges says that instead of seeing mass shooters as “outliers or oddballs . . . we should actually think of them as conformists . . . They’re over-conforming to masculinity.” The truth we tend to avoid is that the norm is for men to be valued for harmful anti-social behaviors, and that most stories about men, intentionally or not, reinforce this norm.

Physical toughness, lack of emotion, and power over women are just as linked and celebrated in blockbusters like Captain America, or this year’s Deadpool, as they are in films like Taxi Driver, only slightly more obscured by romantic subplots, CGI-ed villains, or a framework of fantasy. But at his core, the immensely popular Iron Man is also a “lone wolf” type who rarely cries, makes rape jokes, and uses aggression to gain the respect of other straight men.

How many of our favorite movies — from American Sniper to Dirty Grandpa to The Revenant — give men ways of overcoming challenges that don’t appeal to aggression, power over women, and other limiting ideas of “manliness”?

Films like Batman vs. Superman tend to reiterate that (white) men are entitled to control, and that acceptance into the “group” of masculinity requires dominance. But they also risk providing a script for how men should go about obtaining that power — or at least reaffirm the vision of what it looks like to “become a man.” This echoes the underlying messages about masculinity we see in the videos of mass shooters, or even ISIS propaganda.

And, at the end of the day, there is no mainstream counter narrative for how masculinity should be performed. Instead we see Hollywood’s ideas about the man “club” replicated in mainstream politics, in the culture of law enforcement, popular music, comic books, video games, and in our everyday lives. Adding extreme violence to that mix — or guns, or racist, homophobic, or otherwise oppressive rhetoric — only fans the already rising flames.

In The Atlantic, James Hamblin recently expounded on the problem of “toxic masculinity,” but again emphasized its specificity: “The idea of toxic masculinity is — critically — not a sweeping indictment of bros or gender. It’s an admission that masculinity can be toxic at times.”

Yet, just as in Hollywood, “toxic masculinity” remains the most pervasive mode of masculinity in this country. Our patriarchal constitution, embedded in white supremacy, was written with these very behaviors in mind. As R.W. Connell has described, there are indeed many different “masculinities” in existence, and race, ethnicity, class, and a myriad of other factors can alter one’s experience. But the version we most often see, hear, and value — everywhere from cable news to talk radio to within our police departments — is primarily toxic.

This same fear of being excluded from the club is exactly what’s fueling Donald Trump’s campaign for president at the moment. And though it’s certainly terrifying, we can no longer pretend that his is a fringe vision of manhood.

Toxic masculinity remains the most pervasive mode of masculinity in this country.

It’s no coincidence that one of the common ways men criticize Trump is by resorting to the same type of hypermasculine shaming which accelerated his rise — ridiculing his penis size or calling him a “wuss.”

Can we expect to put out the fire in the hearts of “violent” men if we don’t recognize that we — all of us who have been socialized to be men — are also standing in flames? That we are a part of that same riot?

This isn’t to say we shouldn’t critique the inciting words of men in power, or completely denounce the thinking of mass shooters, but that we might spend more time considering broader context — and looking inward. Because improving mental health care or eliminating access to guns alone (just like removing extreme violence from cinema) will not change the harmful context of masculinity. Neither will defeating Trump.

In fact, we might ask ourselves: In our pursuit of a “healthier manhood,” are we more interested in creating a safer and more equitable world for others, or just putting ourselves above the ugliness of these men — creating new hierarchies? Why is it that straight cis men are more comfortable talking about “reimagining masculinity” than simply embracing “femininity”? Are we still holding onto that same fear of being called a “sissy,” of being associated with women?

Gladwell frames that New Yorker essay around the life of John LaDue, a young man who was caught planning a school shooting in Minnesota. The writer suggests that perhaps LaDue, who “never expressed a desire to hurt anyone,” was more attracted to the ritual of being a mass shooter — like a rioter who stumbles into the crowd — than he was to the end result:

“LaDue was fascinated — as many teen-age boys are — by guns and explosions. But he didn’t know the acceptable way to express those obsessions.”

Isn’t it strange that there is an “acceptable” way to express a desire to destroy others? As bell hooks writes, “many boys are angry, but no one really cares about this anger unless it leads to violent behavior. If boys take their rage and sit in front of a computer all day, never speaking, never relating, no one cares.”

On the 4chan message board where a 2015 shooter in Oregon allegedly left evidence of his plan, there are a number of casual replies from men who offer ideas on how to best enact mass murder. Most of them may not have imagined they were talking to someone who was seriously planning one, and yet they feign seriousness as a way to impress others — to prove their masculinity. And as subsequent reports revealed, the deceased killer himself may have once been one of those men, with those “obsessions,” who performed on message boards in an effort to be acknowledged by others.

These men may perceive themselves to be anti-establishment, but they are in fact — like Trump, Deadpool, or the Orlando shooter — just replicating the same systems of the establishment. The same fear of isolation, and same obsession with gaining entry into the club.

LaDue eventually received a plea deal, and on the day of his last hearing, Gladwell recounts how his father, David LaDue, stood outside the courthouse answering reporter’s questions:

“He wanted to remind the world that his son was human. ‘He had love,’ LaDue said. ‘He liked affection like anybody else.” [ . . . ] He talked about how difficult it was for men — and for teen-age boys in particular — to admit to vulnerability.”

Before he learned the rituals of mass shooters, John LaDue was taught the rituals of manhood. The way you must shut yourself down to matter. How physical force always speaks louder than a cry for help. These are the ideas which have been plaguing society since long before the Columbine shootings, September 11th, or the hateful murders at Pulse nightclub.

Regardless of what else we do in 2016, without transforming our cultural understanding of gender — without being vulnerable as people who call themselves men, without embracing love and what we call feminine, and including ourselves in this work of better, less gendered storytelling — the riot will rage on, taking new forms, attracting more and more fearful people searching for a way to prove that they belong.

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