"Guns don't kill people. People kill people."
This absurd gun rights excuse has been offered again in the wake of the highly publicized and utterly horrifying murders of a television reporter and cameraman in Virginia.
Offensive NRA propaganda aside, I'll concede that the problem is indeed that people kill people. It is primarily people with guns who kill people. And mostly male people with guns kill people.
Forget, for the moment, our immoral, cowardly, political inability to place reasonable controls on gun ownership and safety. And forget the equally absurd 2nd Amendment defense of unrestricted gun ownership and use. To gun rights folks I suppose the murders in Virginia were just one more constitutionally protected activity of a "well-regulated militia."
Let's talk about boys and men.
On Wednesday night, still reeling from this latest carnage in America's endless series of shootings, I watched a documentary titled, "The Mask You Live In," by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, which traces the psychological and social experiences that accompany the male journey to adulthood. It is a deeply disturbing and detailed indictment of the American notion of masculinity.
Men and boys commit the preponderance of gun violence. According to the National Institutes of Health, women commit only 14.7 percent of homicides. A great many of these women's shootings are in defense against an abusive or aggressive male. Many folks surmise that this gender-skewed expression of violence is essentially biological and therefore inevitable. It is neither biological nor inevitable.
Masculinity in this culture is defined in a peculiar and dangerous way. Boys are raised to suppress feelings. "Don't cry!" Athletics are an important currency in social status. Toughness is rewarded. Qualities like deference, compassion, empathy and cooperation are considered feminine characteristics. Boys who express such things are told, "Don't be a pussy!" "Sissy!" "Fag!" Despite the biological diversity of boys' temperaments, physicality and emotional sensitivity, the cultural milieu rewards those boys who are aggressive, physically capable and stoic.
It is wired into our assumptions and therefore an explicit and implicit context in schools and homes everywhere. Boys play with trucks and girls play with dolls. Boys play cowboy and girls play nurse. How many little boys have camouflage shorts and T-shirts? I've seen camo onesies for goodness sake! Camouflage is a military fabric, associated with guns, particularly on film and in video games. It's not just a fashion choice. How can it not influence a boy's subtle sense of his world and his gender?
According to "The Mask You Live In," the average boy sees 40,000 homicides on television, film or video games before age 18. The average boy spends more than 15 hours per week playing violent video games. The majority of adolescent boys spend several hours per week viewing pornography, most of it degrading women, often with explicit violence. Don't tell me that this has no effect on behavior. For years the purveyors of smut and violence claimed no causal relationship between these activities and subsequent behavior. More recent research shows a clear causal pattern. How could it not? As stated in the film, a multi-billion advertising industry knows the absolute causal effect of images and messages on purchasing behavior. Then some of the same people claim, "Oh, video games and pornography are not a proven cause of sexual aggression or gun violence." Right.
This skewed cultural understanding of masculinity harms the "winners" and the "losers."
On the "winner" side, some of those who navigate the male culture through sports, as one small example, internalize the male qualities that helped them succeed. The endless stream of violence, including spillover domestic violence, in college and professional football, should be no surprise. It's like pit bulls, trained for a lifetime to be aggressive through taunting, punishment and being rewarded for viciousness. Like men, the pit bulls weren't born to this life. They were trained for it.
These athletes' aggression is too deeply conditioned to be confined within the field's boundaries. I suggest that the same process accounts for business bullies (can you spell Trump?) or males in any situation where aggression and lack of empathy are rewarded with material or social success. Because of male conditioning, the "winners" believe they are entitled to their success and will become even more aggressive when threatened or challenged.
The "losers" suffer a different, perhaps more dangerous fate. Wednesday's killer may have been among them. He was a black man, reportedly gay. The sketchy record thus far reveals a man who felt serially humiliated, victimized, rejected and alone. Of course none of this justifies his heinous acts, but the cultural milieu in America inarguably humiliates, rejects and victimizes black and gay men.
If we develop young boys into testosterone-fueled, entitled "winners" who succeed by suppressing real feelings and behaving aggressively, we shouldn't be surprised when they act as they have been conditioned to act. If we humiliate and bully young boys for not being sufficiently "masculine," we shouldn't be surprised when they eventually act out with anger.
We must come to grips with the easy availability of guns and the political cowards who bow and scrape to the NRA. But we must also come to grips with the perverse notion of masculinity that drives our men and boys to take matters, and guns, into their own hands.
A version of this post appeared in The Valley News