Shooting Blanks: The Problem Of How We Talk About Mass Shootings

by Mark Cohan

Thursday, June 5, 2014 marked the closest I have ever come to being involved in a campus shooting. Lucky for me, it wasn’t close at all. I teach at Seattle University, which is five miles from Seattle Pacific University, where, on that day, a lone gunman killed one student and injured three others. Still, the relative nearness of the event, its sheer randomness (reports indicate the shooter chose his target school for no reason other than he wanted to shoot one up), and the connection I feel with my own students, left me feeling scared and vulnerable. This latest (at the time) enactment of masculinity and violence wasn’t just academic; it was a part of my real life.

The surprising thing, in retrospect, is that I found this realness shocking. In a year in which the number of refugees from armed conflict worldwide matched World War II levels and in a country with more guns and more gun-related deaths than any other “developed” nation, why had I felt entitled to a life in which violence was merely an academic concern? Like a significant portion of my students and colleagues, I benefitted from an unexamined and unchallenged class privilege, a privilege based on the assumption that those of us who have the means to be educated or to become educators are “good” people and violence only happens to “bad” people who inhabit different, “bad” places. College campuses thus become sacred spaces, and when the predictable happens, the media responds with narratives of violation.

But a curious thing seems to be happening when it comes to the public discourse surrounding mass shootings—our narratives are breaking down. Schools (middle schools, high schools, college campuses) have been rampaged by shooters so often, that the narrative of violation is losing traction.

If the story of “sacred spaces being violated” rings hollow, is there a different story that actually helps make sense of these mass shootings? Sociologist Michael Kimmel has long argued that the missing story of school shootings is masculinity (here). Virtually all perpetrators of mass killings are men, and as sociologist and social work professor Jessie Klein shows in her book, The Bully Society, school shooters routinely cite feeling bullied, dismissed, or devalued as the rationale for their rampages. Klein points out that there is a twisted kind of cultural support for the boys’ reactions; the codes of traditional manhood say that violence is the “manly” way to right wrongs. Was Isla Vista shooter Elliot Rodger right to use homicidal violence against innocent women to cope with his sense of being invisible to those he desired? Absolutely not. But what were the assumptions about masculinity implicit in his actions (and explicit in his writings)?

o   Boys’ and men’s value is indicated by how much attention they can get from beautiful girls or women

o   Feeling and expressing emotions, except for anger, makes you feminine, and “feminine” is synonymous with “worthless”

o   If you must express an emotion, make it anger, and express it with violence

These are things that millions of boys learn. So it seems that if we want to do something about mass shootings, we have to make a concerted effort to change the story we tell our children and ourselves about the meaning and importance of “being a man.”

Dan Mahle, another Seattle author, made this point eloquently (here). He diagnosed the SPU shooting as evidence of our “masculine empathy problem.” He says that men “need to re-learn how to express [their] feelings in safe and healthy ways.” I think he’s absolutely right, but I don’t think that’s enough. Because traditional masculinity is defined in opposition to all things feminine, redefining manhood requires fundamental change in how men relate to women. Men cannot simply cope with their own feelings while continuing to hold to a quiet assurance that they are better than women because they are men. The privileging of all things masculine is woven into the very fabric of society. If it wasn’t, would (male) sports dominate our cultural landscape? Would male-dominated jobs be among the highest paying and female-dominated jobs among the lowest? So for real change to happen, men have to become active agents working against sexism.

Are our public narratives reflecting these insights when they address mass shootings? Mahle’s commentary aside, I’d say they’re not. Because the National Rifle Association and its political muscle have short-circuited any real discussion of guns (and prevented government-sponsored collection of data on gun violence) (here) and because the cultural blind spot regarding masculinity and mass shooting remains, it seems the only story we have left is mental illness. We define these boys and men as “crazy” so that we don’t have to acknowledge that maybe—given the messages sent to men in this culture—responding to powerlessness and invisibility with violence has been normalized. But even this story is not applied equally; it’s highly gendered and racialized. When white men commit mass shootings, they are crazy, and therefore the behavior does not reflect on white men as a group. But if a person of color commits a mass shooting (a statistical rarity), their race or ethnicity is front and center. And if a woman kills multiple people, her gender is foregrounded. So it seems that what we do now in the face of mass shootings is try to determine where the defect lies. If a person in a marginalized group, such as a man of color or a woman, commits the act, the defect is in the group. But if a white man commits the act, the defect is in the person (or, at most, the mental health system) (here). So, every time, we miss the chance to have a more nuanced discussion of these tragedies, one that recognizes multiple causal factors and one that includes perhaps the most important source of “defect”—the ideas of manhood that shape privileged men’s responses to perceived powerlessness.

Mark Cohan is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Seattle University.










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