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Mass Killings in the US: Masculinity, Masculinity, Masculinity

10/05/2015 12:55 pm ET | Updated Oct 09, 2015
  • Soraya Chemaly Feminist, writer, and satirist (not always in that order)

Schools in Philadelphia are currently on high alert because of a threat of violence made against "a university near Philadelphia." The threat was posted on 4chan, an anonymous message board, on Friday, the day after a murder-suicide that left 10 people dead in yet another campus shooting. Today's threat, echoing other comments, praised the Oregon shooter for being part of a "Beta Rebellion," a beta being a weak, unattractive man who lacks confidence and can't get a girl. An unnamed police official described the Oregon shooter this way, "He didn't have a girlfriend, and he was upset about that. He comes across thinking of himself as a loser. He did not like his lot in life, and it seemed like nothing was going right for him."

Prior to last week's mass shooting, the gunman allegedly also wrote a 4-chan warning, "Don't go to school tomorrow if you are in the Northwest." Among the responses, many encouraging him or glorifying mass killing, was the comment "You might want to target a girls (sic) school which is safer because there are no beta males throwing themselves for their rescue." Another read, "//r9K needs a new martyr alongside our hallowed Elliot," a reference to Elliot Rodger.  Like Rodger, it appears the Oregon school shooter felt let down by life and women.

It's impossible to confirm if the original post was made by the gunman, but the commentary is insightful and disturbing nonetheless. The comments revealed more than thoughts about guns or anger over women. Some argued that this shooting will give white men a bad name.  Others, in a proxy for class, noted that "Chads and Staceys" should be targeted.  We Hunted The Mammoth's Dave Futrelle is keeping a dismal running update of the discussions.

The term "beta male" succinctly captures certain attitudes about gender, hierarchy and sex. Whether role playing or not, as one redditor put it, some people are taking the idea that there are betas and alpha males seriously and concluding that, "Since sexual freedom is rising and women today can choose with whom they want to have sex, a small minority of "alpha males" gets all girls while most betas are left in the dust. See this picture. After the betas have realized this, they'll rise up and stop the feminist insanity that left them without pussy."

However, many media outlets and analysts continue to treat information like this like an aside, or, when addressing the issue, actually feed it. Consider, for example, this headline: "Chris Mintz Defies The Age Of The Beta Male." In the meantime, another young white man with a gun has wreaked havoc on a community and once again the media is fixated on a numbing conversation about guns and mental illness.  These are important dimensions of this crisis, but they are insufficient ones. Without addressing the gender and race dimensions of male entitlement in the United States -- and the role they play in the treatment of mental illness, gun culture and the targeting of victims -- we will never tackle this problem in a meaningful way.

Consider schools, for example. Schools make up 10 percent of mass shooting sites in the US and are highly gendered targets of opportunity. They are places where educated women aggregate and compete with men as equals. According to one thorough analysis, women are twice as likely to die in school shootings.  This year alone we have already had 45 school-based mass shootings.

But schools are not the only places. gyms, shopping malls, places of worship are also frequent targets, and are similarly places where women and girls are predictably present in greater numbers. Similarly, movie theaters provide opportunities for gunmen to express particular rage. When John Hauser, a man who had publicly repeatedly expressed misogynistic views in public, methodically mowed down 11 people in July at a theatre, the film they were watching was Trainwreck, a "chick flick" in dismissive parlance, one frequently discussed in terms of feminism. Workplace shootings also have a marked result: being killed while at work is the second most likely way for women to die in the workplace, after car accidents.

Lastly, there is, perhaps, no greater gendered target of opportunity than homes which, in terms of intimate partner violence, become Alpha male arenas.  As Melissa Jeltsen wrote earlier this year, "The untold story of mass shootings in America is one of domestic violence."  Fully 70 percent of mass shooting incidents occur in homes, but we don't generally hear about them because these crimes are considered a matter of private, not public health.  In August, for example, a man tracked down his ex-girlfriend, and executed her, her husband and six children. He was apparently angry that she had changed the locks on her doors.  Headlines focused on the "incomprehensibility" of the crime and about "domestic disputes."

Overall, according to a recent Huffington Post analysis, 64 percent of the victims of mass murders are women and children.

So, it doesn't require an explicit statement of misogyny to result in a explicitly disproportionate harm to women and children due to the violent expression of masculinity. There is, however, for the record, no shortage of explicit and public statements of hatred of women, in the U.S. and the rest of the world. Particularly in connection to women's education and status.

What may come to mind for many people in terms of anti-feminist violence, schools and girls is the catalytic shooting of Malala Yousafzai and her classmates, while on their way to school.   Acid thrown on schoolgirls in Afghanistan and is not far behind in terms of hatefulness.  However, we have no shortages in countries where we tend not to focus on gender. In 1989 a man walked into an engineering class in a Montreal school and -- yelling, "I hate feminists!" -- shot 28 people, killing 14 women.  He only shot men who interfered.   In the US, in 2006 a truck driver walked into an Amish schoolhouse, "ordered the 15 boys in the room to leave, along with several adults, and demanded that the 11 girls line up facing the blackboard." He tied the girls' legs together and shot them.  In 2013 Norwegian mass shooter Anders Breivik killed 77 people, 69 of them teenage students.  Anti-feminism was an essential aspect of his manifesto, although that information often got buried in his wider ranting. He was concerned that feminism would "deny the intrinsic worth of native Christian European heterosexual males." He wrote that, "the fate of European civilization depends on European men steadfastly resisting Politically Correct feminism." Prior to killing six people during his 2014 killing spree, Elliot Rodger explained,  "I will enter the hottest sorority house of UCSB, and I will slaughter every single spoiled stuck up blonde slut I see inside there...The true Alpha Male."Clearly Boko Haram has no monopoly on targeting educated girls or schools.

The demographics of mass shootings in the United States are a testament to how inseparably and tightly bound race and gender to one another. During the past 30 years, all but one of the mass murders in the U.S. was committed by men, 90 percent of whom were white.  Sociologist Michael Kimmel has worked for decades, conducting extensive research, to illuminate the relationship between race, hyper masculinity, homophobia and violence. As he put it after the Sandy Hook shooting, "White men... have a somewhat more grandiose purpose: they want to destroy the entire world in some cataclysmic, video-game, and action movie-inspired apocalypse. If I'm going to die, then so is everybody else, they seem to say. Yes, of course, this is mental illness speaking: but it is mental illness speaking with a voice that has a race and a gender."

That mental illness can be socially constructed is rarely mentioned in knee jerk media coverage after a mass shooting. "Mental illness actually does reflect the local culture," explains anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann at Stanford University. When we spoke last year, she made a comparison with people's behavior when drunk. "The way people express their symptoms has a lot to do with the ways that people learn to think. For example, Americans are violent drunks. American college men want to destroy things when they're drunk. That's a learnt behaviour. Violence is not necessarily associated with alcohol around the world." Luhrmann's research, revealed that the voice-hearing experiences of people with serious psychotic behaviors differ around the world. In Ghana the voices people hear are benign and playful, in the U.S. they are violent and harsh.

Gender considerations also affect the way people deal with mental distress. "Women in distress," she explained, "turn their anger against themselves, men in distress, turn to violence. I think that before the biomedical revolution of the 1980s, mental illness was feminized. Our general cultural ideas tend to think of emotion as just more feminine. However, after biomedical revolution, I would say that the stereotype for serious psychotic disorder did shift to more of a male model, the crazy angry psychotic person. It is, however, still much more difficult for men to seek help or to recognize that he needs help." Think, for example, of something as basic as men learning to associate simply asking for directions as shameful or embarrassing.

Last week's shooting was, like many others, effectively a murder-suicide. The killer was dead before the end of the episode. It is estimated that there are 12 murder-suicides a week in the U.S. They may not be as publicly spectacular as this one, but they are every bit as tragic. Ninety percent of cases are perpetrated by men and involve guns 78 percent of those killed are women, and more than 90 percent of the killers who commit suicide are men.

So, yes, we need strict gun control laws, a deeper understanding of the role of media and better mental illness treatment. However, what we really need, central to all of those dimensions, is a public conversation about hegemonic masculinity in the United States, particularly the historical and social relationship betweenideals of white manhood, agency and guns. Masculinity does not have to be misogynistic. It doesn't have to be based on white supremacy. It doesn't have to cultivate the denial of men's emotional pain.

Yesterday's shooter allegedly chose to either kill or injure people on the basis of religion, so, some might say, this has nothing to do with cultural ideas about power, gender and race. Similarly, when men die in these killings, many people laugh at the idea that gender can be an issue, but this doubt represents an unhelpful, serious and dangerous error. Too many boys are learning that violence and entitlements to domination and control, including, centrally, over girls and women, define become "a real man." That's about gender, and the outcomes are grossly misogynistic, whether they use money, knives, fire, laws, or guns and whether or not their stated intent is religiously or racially motivated.  Schools, parents, coaches, religious communities all need to be thinking deeply about how traditional ideas about gender, gender stereotypes and stereotype threat work to create a national culture in which bullet-proof clothing and backpacks for children are a clothing category and gun deaths occur at 20 times the rate of peer nations.

And, just for the record, this isn't about "all men" or "all white men" being evil, which is an absurd and specious assertion. It's about how we teach children to think about gender, race and how to be human.

Also on HuffPost:

Pivotal Moments In The U.S. Gun Control Debate

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