Men, Murder, Madness and Masculinity in America

Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.

Margaret Atwood

The recent shooting in a Florida school represents an increasingly common form of violence in this country. Two subjects dominate public discourse on this phenomenon, guns and mental illness. However a third attribute that applies to every shooter from Columbine (1999) to the present has been neglected. They are all men.

Why is this not part of the conversation?

Numbers tell stories. The statistics on gender and homicide provide an essential part of this one. Nine out of ten murders are committed by men. This ratio holds true in countries with high or low murder rates.

When men and women murder each other, they kill for different reasons. Adult victims of female killers are most often male intimate partners who have physically abused the women. On the other hand a jealous rage is a common precipitating circumstance when men kill their intimate partners. Half of all female homicide victims in the US are killed by their intimate partners.

Do we accept the idea that men are biologically predisposed to kill or do these statistics reflect a more complicated story?

There are two kinds of risk factors, either modifiable or not. Being male would appear to fall into the later category. However masculinity is a cultural construct that can and does change. How society defines manhood is worthy of examination in these times.

Throughout history cultures have devised rituals to transform boys into men. While the process varies widely it has reflected a society’s values and the roles men are expected to play. Most commonly boys have been prepped to protect, provide, procreate and often pillage.

At the age of 14, boys in the Bukusu tribe of western Kenya undergo sikhebo, a circumcision ceremony. Following the ceremony a guardian takes the initiate away and teaches him to hunt, build a hut, tan a hide and do battle. On his return, the boy who left is recognized as a man with valuable skills. He feels worthy of his new found respect and social role.

What rituals guide contemporary American boys to manhood?

Traditionally marriage has been one. It signified the ascension to an adult masculine role and provided a socializing effect. The successful husband’s ability to provide financially was an essential part of his self-esteem.

American marriage rates dropped from 72% in 1960 to 50% in 2014. No doubt women’s rights and the increasing acceptance of divorce have forcefully contributed to this trend. But it also reflects economic changes that have made men less necessary and less desirable partners.

In a 2017 paper “When Work Disappears: Manufacturing Decline and the Falling Marriage-Market Value of Men” David Dorn, an economist at the University of Zurich, linked employability and marriageability. When states lose male manufacturing jobs, fertility and marriage rates in young men also decline. So does their self-esteem.

Gender stereotypes die slowly. Work has been at the core of being a man and not all work is seen as equally masculine. These facts clash with recent history. Paradoxically, the long overdue progress of women in recent decades coincides with an unfortunate reversal for many men.

Women became the majority of the work force for the first time in US history in 2010. For every two men who graduate from college, three women do the same. Three quarters of the 8 million people who lost jobs in the Great Recession were men. The sectors hardest hit, construction, manufacturing and finance were all traditionally male. Health care, education and administration, the fastest growing sectors of the economy, are all traditionally female.

In 2015, approximately 20 million men between the ages of 20 and 65 had no paid work. 7 million men have stopped looking.

In the aftermath of a mass shooting the country seeks to understand how this could happen. This quest for cause frequently focuses on mental illness. As the political commentator Anne Coulter famously said, “Guns don’t kill people, the mentally ill do.” After the Newtown shootings, Wayne LaPierre, executive director of the NRA, proposed a national registry for people with mental illness.

The association of mental illness and violence wilts under the light of actual data. In fact what distinguishes the mentally ill is that they are much more likely to be the victim than the perpetrator of violence.

The public and political embrace of a mental health solution to mass shootings is based on two seemingly logical assumptions. First, a core competency of mental health workers is the capacity to predict violent behavior. Second, an adequate mental health system could treat treat the potentially violent and thereby eliminate mass shootings.

So how good are mental health workers in the violence prediction business?

Not so good.

A prominent researcher in this field stated that recent improvements allow clinicians to distinguish violent from nonviolent patients with a “modest, better-than-chance level of accuracy.” Most people would agree that this level of competence does not seem appropriate for determining whether or not to commit an individual to a psychiatric facility, especially if that individual is you.

Although mental health professionals may not perform well in predicting violent behavior, they can do a great deal to ease the suffering of individuals who live with mental illness. The continued stigmatization of this population makes it less likely that they will risk revealing themselves by seeking treatment.

While there is no single profile of a mass shooter they typically possess several of the following attributes. They are alienated young men who feel disempowered. They are failing in school or work or relationships or all of these. Their failure fuels resentment about rejection and humiliation. They often are obsessed with guns and collect them. They are injustice collectors tormented by the idea that others get a better deal. Envy and a sense of entitlement produce violent reparative fantasies of power and revenge.

This distorted character is more a cultural creation than a mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disease or depression. There is no psychiatric cure for angry young men with violent fantasies. Like most problems, this is better addressed with prevention than attempts at repair.

American culture is flooded with aggressive male images. Role models in sport and film provide boys with macho heroes. Much pornography depicts men dominating women. Video games provide vivid experiences of shooting people. The most recent version of Grand Theft Auto, a particularly violent and misogynistic video game, generated more than one billion dollars in sales within three days of its release. This makes it one of the fastest selling entertainment products of all time. Masculine power often takes the form of a gun in this culture.

Unfortunately we live in a time and culture that does little to prevent the creation of such masculinity. The disparity of the haves and have nots continues to grow. The space given to male defeat is small. Men don’t get depressed, they get angry and they get even. Aggression appears a path to power when self-esteem is challenged and competence is low. Guns are the great equalizer.

Healthy male mentors, public role models, job training programs and useful rites of passage are in short supply but firearms are readily available. Perhaps our most urgent infrastructure project is the reconstruction of masculinity.

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