Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Gender, Race, Masculinity, and Gun Violence

Since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School last month, the social media world has been awash with articles, blogs, Facebook posts, and tweets about the motivations of mass murderers, the prevalence of gun violence in the U.S., what to do about mental illness, what to do about semi-automatic weapons, and what to do about school safety.  I've waited to make much commentary on the tragedy because I needed time to reflect on what to say and whether or not I have anything meaningful to add to the conversation.  In the immediate aftermath, I was deeply troubled and unable to say anything I didn't feel was disrespectful to the victims or offensive to the survivors.  But in recent weeks, I've become equally troubled by the direction I feel the national conversation is going.  People have tried to make this into a conversation about mental health and our lack of attention to that problem.  That is indeed an important conversation to have, but the shooting at Sandy Hook was not about mental illness.  I'll be the first to say that the United States is in desperate need of better mental health services, but that won't stop mass shootings.  There will always be people who go undiagnosed, or people who don't have a diagnosable mental illness who, for whatever reason, act out in violence towards others.  The least we can do is cease debating whether it is our right to own assault rifles and consider instead if it's worth it, regardless of whether or not ownership of such weapons is our right.  All rights come with consequences.  The consequence of easy access to semi-automatic assault weapons is the death of a lot of innocent people, children included.  Fifteen years and dozens of massacres ago I would have still said it's not worth it.  After last December, I struggle to take seriously anyone who still thinks it is.

In addition to my anger about gun access, I'm also troubled by the lack of analysis by the mainstream media of the role of gender and masculinity in these types of shootings.  Anti-racist activist Tim Wise has illustrated this point (read here), but despite my efforts to find other commentary of this nature, it seems there has been relatively little (though this, this, and this are worth checking out).  The news media have largely ignored the race and gender of the gunmen in this shooting and others similar to it.  The Washington Post did publish a short commentary on Adam Lanza's white maleness, here, but the author's simplistic argument is that men and women are just different, and that men "carry" with them a certain kind of rage that leads them to kill.  He even compares this rage to that exhibited by male chimpanzees in conflict with other chimps.  He makes no connection between this supposed rage or violent behavior and the cultural expectations around masculinity thrust upon human males, and maybe even chimpanzees as well.

Still, as some activists and writers have pointed out about this and other massacres, if the shooter had been brown and a Muslim, we'd be having a very different conversation right now - not about mental illness, but about "radical Islam," terrorism, or jihad, or whatever else our paranoid imaginations could concoct.  I find it maddening that when a person of color, particularly those whom white Americans have been pre-conditioned to fear, commits a violent crime, that crime is analyzed through the lense of culture, religion, race, maybe poverty - i.e., we say that such a person has committed a crime because he was desperate, or because he was a terrorist, or because we believe his religion incites violence, or because he comes from the inner city (or we largely ignore the crime at all if the victims are also of color).  On the other hand, when a white male commits a violent crime, we collectively reflect on our need to better address mental illness.  By all appearances, we believe white men's crimes have nothing to do with culture, religion, race, or any other factor.  Despite the numerous massacres perpetrated by white males (out of 62 mass killings by firearm in the United States since 1982, Mother Jones estimated that 44 of the shooters have been white males), we perceive each one as an isolated incident.  As in the case of Adam Lanza, the assumption is that this person was ill, and we should have helped him sooner.  After a crime committed by a person of color - again, particularly an African-American or one who appears to be of Arab descent - when have any of us ever heard a call to improve the mental health system or a blog post by someone claiming to be the mother of a child "like that one," imploring us all to help these people before they become so unthinkably violent?  We cling to the notion that white males who commit violent crime suffer from mental illness, or some other private affliction, and not a side effect of our impossible standards of masculinity, or of any other factor related to race, gender and social expectations.

Further reading:
The Secret History of Guns (Adam Winkler, The Atlantic)

Suicide by Mass Murder: Masculinity, aggrieved entitlement, and rampage school shootings (Rachel Kalish and Michael Kimmel, Health Sociology Review)

Race, Class Violence and Denial: Mass Murder and the Pathologies of Privilege (Tim Wise)

White Men and Mass Murder (Chauncey DeVega, AlterNet)

Time to Profile White Men? (David Sirota,

A Guide to Mass Shootings in America (Mark Follman, Gavin Aronsen, Deanna Pan, Mother Jones)

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