Unbridled access to guns is a major issue that the United States must address; but if we really want to create a world free from violence, we must talk about the socialization of boys and men.
Following the recent mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, we found ourselves, once again, navigating a cultural debate about gun violence in the United States. With the intention to create accountability, parties from all sides of the issue weighed in to assign blame. In the last few weeks, I’ve heard people scapegoat law enforcement, violent television and video games, unarmed teachers, the National Rifle Association, mental illness, and lack of background checks. Increasingly, I have heard people criticize access to high capacity magazines and automatic firearms, referring to them as “the common denominator” of deaths resulting from mass shootings.
Like many progressives, I am thrilled to see a vibrant movement that demands stricter gun regulation and the curving (if not elimination) of access to weapons of war. However, I cannot help but feel frustrated by our inadequate dialogue surrounding a more fundamental issue. Namely, it appears that we still refuse to grapple with the intricate relationship between violence (of all kinds) and the socialization of boys and men.
Over many decades, social scientists have shown how enacting violence—or at least demonstrating the capacity to enact violence—is deeply intertwined with our culture’s notion of ideal manhood. We raise boys to view violence as a necessary indicator of successful manhood. We accomplish this, not only by funneling boys into volatile activities like contact sports and video games that encourage or simulate violent behavior, but also by denying boys critical opportunities to learn empathy or emotional vulnerability. “Crying is for girls,” we say. Indeed, our society enacts emotional violence on boys by disallowing sensitivity toward their own emotions and the emotions of others.
Men’s violence is in the air that we breathe—it is everywhere. Our society praises and generously rewards men’s capacity to enact violence. Just look at how we characterize men in popular media. The dominant images of men in society teach us that men’s bodies should be muscular, powerful, and capable of dominating anything, or anyone, that stands in their way. We showcase men’s dominating bodies in movies and music videos, plaster them on billboards and advertisements, put them on sports teams, and pay them generous sums of money.
Through an ongoing media blitz, men’s violence has become normalized as typical manhood, and boys are acutely aware of the consequences for failing to meet the standard of violence. If boys fail to perform appropriate manhood they’re told to “man up.” If they reveal even the slightest emotional vulnerability, they’re bombarded with messages of gendered inadequacy. They’re accused of being a bitch, a sissy, a fag. They’re told to “stop acting like a girl.”
Of course, it’s no coincidence that these epithets are culturally associated with women and femininity. Sexist stereotypes about women’s heightened emotionality (and thus their supposed inferiority) serve as constant reminders to boys that a woman is the worst thing they could ever be compared to.
Now, I want to pause for the sake of clarity. I understand why people are concerned about access to guns. I am certainly concerned, also. Compared to the rest of the developed world, the United States has a unique problem with easy access to guns and prevalence of gun violence. According to a recent CNN report, U.S. residents not only own 48 percent of the approximately 650 million civilian-owned guns worldwide, but also have gun homicide rates that are over 25 times higher than other high-income countries. Further, looking at mass shootings from 2009 to 2015, the United States is the only country that has a median annual mass shooting rate that is above zero, according to the Crime Prevention Research Center.
What does this mean, you ask? It means that the United States is the only developed country in the world where mass shootings are a regular occurrence.
As we learn more about the harmful relationship between gun prevalence and frequency of violence, we begin to see more clearly the important role that men play. Mother Jones recently compiled a list of all mass shootings that occurred since 1982. Of the 97 mass shootings documented in this report, 94 were perpetrated by men.
In presenting this information, my intention is not to divert attention from the fact that most mass shootings are performed with weapons created for the battlefield. In fact, it’s a very logical argument to claim that assault rifles and similar firearms are “the common denominator” of all episodes of mass violence. But we cannot allow our analysis to stop with guns. Failing to view this social problem through a gendered lens renders invisible the many ways that men enact violence on our society. Just look at the data: men perpetrate 99 percent of rapes, 90 percent of homicides, and 78 percent of aggravated assaults. Unbridled access to guns is a major issue that the United States must address; but if we really want to create a world free from violence, we must talk about the socialization of boys and men.
The argument I’m proposing here is not new. In fact, the argument is quite old, because the problem is quite old. There is something very wrong with the way we are raising boys in our culture. To make sense of men’s violence, some cultural critics have described “toxic masculinity” as the ideological mechanism through which boys and men get sucked into violent (and often sexist) behavior. But, I don’t like this term. It suggests that there’s only one “type” of man who can enact violence. It suggests that there is just one bad apple in the larger proverbial crate of manhood. In other words, the term “toxic masculinity” obscures the fact that our culture expects violence from ALL men. No boy is immune to the cultural imperative to demonstrate a propensity toward violence.
My objective in writing this piece is not to condemn all boys and men. In fact, boys and men also suffer from a culture that demands violence from them. Instead, my goal is to encourage a more critical conversation that centers guns and manhood. A common denominator of mass shootings may very well be assault rifles. But surely gun violence is not the only violence worth addressing. And this need not be an either/or issue! We can be critical of gun culture while also rethinking our socialization of boys and men. Indeed, we must be able to do both—manhood is a social problem that will not be solved with gun regulation.
Sources of Interest:
Crime Prevention Resource Center data: https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/united-states-lower-death-shootings/
Harry Barbee is a doctoral candidate and graduate instructor in the Department of Sociology. Harry’s research examines the reproduction, resistance, and management of inequality, particularly within the realms of gender, sexuality, and health/medicine.