Sunday, December 16, 2012

It's Time to Talk About the Dysfunctions of White American Masculinity

Whenever a horrible event like the massacre in Newtown takes place, we try to find ways to explain it. This is often a futile exercise, because many people merely superimpose their larger beefs with society onto these events, rather than examining them with any real analytical and factual framework.  Hence, we have people like Louie Gohmert saying the teacher should have had her own assault weapon, or Mike Huckabee lamenting the loss of God in public schools.  We should be very careful of monocausal explanations that oversimplify things.  There are a lot of factors at play in the Newtown massacre, from the perpetrator's mental state to the availability of semi-automatic weapons.  However, I would like to echo others out there in the blogosphere who want to examine the role of white masculinity in all of this.

Of course, there have been other mass shootings in other countries, and the worst such shooting in this country was perpetrated by a Korean student.  That being said, this country has witnessed the lion's share of mass shootings, and disproportionate seventy percent of the shooters have been white men.  I hardly think the connection is coincidental.  Ever since the Aurora tragedy this summer, I have been contemplating this issue, trying to connect the dots to explain the connection between white masculinity and mass shootings.  I finally feel like I have some speculations worth sharing.

Masculinity more generally in this society is defined to a great extent by violence and control, and violence used as a means of maintaining control.  I have long been amazed and appalled by how many public figures in this country who have abused their wives and girlfriends have been allowed to stay on the pedestal.  That sad fact is to me evidence that masculine control through violence is implicitly accepted as legitimate in America.  Action movies predominate at the box office, and the orchestrated violence of the NFL is America's most popular sport.

Furthermore, white men in this country are taught that they are the masters of their own destiny, and are usually not confronted with the same limitations of possibility that men of color are.  When white men fail, an experience our society gives them few resources to confront,  they often lash out at those they hold responsible, or turn inward and commit suicide.  Most mass shooters seem to want to do both, as Adam Lanza did.

The completely atomized nature of white middle class society contributes as well.  Shooters are usually described as "loners," men disconnected from others and hence unable to empathize with the human beings they kill.  We are an increasingly individualized society, which means that those mentally unstable, frustrated white men with access to deadly weapons are so rarely stopped before they kill.  They sit on the margins, alone, without any kind of cohesive social structure to bring them in.  Adam Lanza had stopped going to school and interacted with few outside his home, Eric Harris was able to plan his rampage in a home where his parents took evidently little interest in his doings, James Holmes had been expelled from his university and lived alone in a city far from home.  While atomization is occurring in all groups of American society today, in middle class, white culture it has probably been the most egregious and damaging.

We have a situation where white men are socialized to be the masters of their fate and able to use violence to maintain control over their lives.  These same men lack the tools to handle adversity, and are often left to their individual resources, even if they are mentally disturbed.  When some of the most mentally unstable of these men experience soul-shattering setbacks and are given access to semi-automatic weapons, we can only expect the worst.  We need to educate young men (especially white men) to not see violence as the answer to their problems, or to phantasize violent solutions.  We need to equip them with the tools to withstand failure, and to keep the more troubled of their number from slipping through the cracks.  Last, we need to talk seriously and openly about the nature of American white masculinity, and stop pretending that it isn't problematic.

7 comments:

Tor Hershman said...

There but for lack of the
middle-class goith moi.

Historiann said...

Right on, WHB. I got here from a link at Chauncey's place.

I think your diagnosis is great, but what about solutions? In my estimation, this is a problem of 400 years' standing, as I argued in my book Abraham in Arms and as other scholars have argued across Anglo-American history from at least 1600 on. How can we disentangle white manhood's gun fetish, but perhaps more importantly as you suggest, how can we disentangle white manhood from the will to control and dominate?

I've been talking about parenting over on my blog. It feels like all we have left, sometimes, when it comes to these historically and culturally entrenched problems.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

Thanks for the comment, Historiann, I'm a big fan of your blog.

Parenting is important, especially in teaching children how to handle their problems. Schools can do a lot about this, too. Call me sentimental, but I think it's time we made an updated version of _Free to Be You and Me_. Unfortunately, the ethos of the gun is so strongly embedded in our culture (and especially many sectors of white culture) that I wonder how much good this all would do. At least as adults we can model good behavior for the younger generation. We need to stop glorifying men who get what they want through anger and intimidation. (Bobby Knight comes to mind as a poster boy for accepting widly inappropriate behavior.)

That and more control and better mental health access would at least mitigate things a little. But yeah, there are no easy answers.

Tenured Radical said...

"Action movies predominate at the box office, and the orchestrated violence of the NFL is America's most popular sport." Right on. One of the things that has received little notice is the predominance of video games that allow the player to construct a character that engages in lifelike simulated combat where none of his enemies are real or feel pain. Many of these games are downloadable, for free, on military websites and as Jeremy Saucier, a contributor to my edited volume, argues, these games are developed as pre-enlistment training.

Great post: got here through Chauncey too

Historiann said...

We don't need a new "Free to Be. . . " We need to just listen to the old one! (A friend gave a copy to a family member a few years ago, and it was a very well-loved CD and book, for sure.)

Esp. b/c as you and TR might recall (since you both brought up football), Rosey Grier was a featured celebrity on it, and he sang a song called "It's Alright to Cry."

Some of the media/cultural landscapes that children are growing up in seem completely terrifying to me, at least if some of my commenters can be believed.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

Honored to have you comment here, TR, since I'm a fan. I must admit I enjoyed 1st person shooter games when I was younger, but now they seem much more problematic and dehumanizing.

I am teaching a class on the 1970s right now, and my students were really intrigued by _Free to Be_, but I teach at a very progressive school. If I was back at my old gig in East Texas,, I'm sure my male students would have laughed at the boy who wanted a doll.

Historiann said...

They would have laughed in order to perform for each other. My guess is that some of them might have identified with the song, but it's against the code of White (Man) Club to talk about White (Man) Club.

Sad.