The Newtown School Shooting — Why We Mustn’t Ignore Gender

Photo by Richard Adams; published on guardian.co.uk

Photo by Richard Adams; published on guardian.co.uk

Yesterday, a young man entered an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, and opened fire on both staff and students, killing 20 children and 6 adults. It was later found that he had also killed his own mother, bringing his total victim count to 27.

Following the tragedy, news outlets and social media were ablaze with horror and misery, vigils were held for the victims and their families, and a nation mourned for the innocent lives so cruelly snatched away by a senseless act of brutality.

It is always heart-rending to hear about a school shooting. Yet, what I find even more upsetting is the fact that this is nothing new. We’ve seen it all before—in 2007 at Virginia Tech; in 2006 at Pennsylvania, in 2005 at Red Lake High School, Minnesota; in 1999 at Columbine High School—and so on. As President Obama tearfully said in a televised statement, America has “been through this too many times.” Each time it happens, we find ourselves shaking our heads in shock and bewilderment. Who is this guy? What is his personal history? What could have driven him to this? We obsess over the minutiae of the perpetrator’s psychology, treating it as an isolated, freak incident, while missing the larger pattern that is woven by each and every case. If we miss the pattern, then we cannot expect to find a solution. And without a solution, we are doomed to experience such tragedies over and over again.

The Newtown shooting has reignited an ongoing debate about gun control in America, which is a promising start. Although America has always felt strongly about the right to bear arms (in a Gallup poll conducted last year, 55% felt that the gun laws should either remain the same or become even more lenient), public opinion is shifting towards gun control, with many taking to Twitter or Facebook to voice their support for tighter restrictions.

From changingworld.com

From changingworld.com

While I very much agree with the call for tighter gun control, and hope that Obama’s reference to “meaningful action” is more than just rhetoric, I feel that a fixation on the idea of guns as the main problem loses sight of the root of the issue. After all, 27 people died yesterday not because an out-of-control gun went on a rampage, but because a man picked up a gun, aimed, and pulled the trigger, 27 times. There are two issues that need attention here—the ease of obtaining and carrying a gun, but also the murderers themselves.

And when we do examine the perpetrators, there is a glaring pattern that is frequently overlooked; that is, the gendered dimension of the attacks. In response to yesterday’s shooting, The Telegraph did a short recap of the ten worst school shootings in the US. Out of this list, 100% of the perpetrators were male. About two months ago, Mother Jones ran a report on mass shootings in America. According to the article, there have been 62 incidents in the last 30 years, and 61 out of the 62 perpetrators were male. And according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, it is men who commit over 90% of violent crimes in America, and start 100% of wars.

The problem is, whenever people (usually feminists) point this out, they are met with cries of “misandry” and “demonization of men.” People (usually men) are quick to point out all the acts of heroism done by men, drawing attention to the brave policeman who saved countless civilians, to the self-sacrificing husband who protected his wife and children, frequently followed by a command to the female gender to be grateful to men for protecting them from, well, other men.

But if we want the level of violence in society to decrease, we cannot afford to ignore the gendered aspect of crime. We need to take a close look at male culture, and ask ourselves what lessons we teach young boys about what it means to be a man. We need to question the link between masculinity and power, between masculinity and dominance, and ask ourselves why little boys grow up needing to achieve both these qualities, which frequently translates into being either a hero or a villain. Most of all, we need to address the crisis in male emotional health, and ask ourselves why crying, expressing love, fear, or hurt, are emotional outlets that are denied to most men and boys. When the only emotion that a man can legitimately express is anger, how can we be surprised that many men turn to violence in response to emotional issues?

I do not buy biological reasons for male violence, especially since tests concerning the difference between male and female brains have largely been inconclusive. (For more on this, look up Delusions of Gender by neurologist Cordelia Fine.) Most men are not violent criminals, and to simply accept men’s near-monopoly on violence as a reflection on male nature is unfair. We as a society, with our rigid gender roles and our glorification of (male) aggression and power, continue to churn out violent men, and perpetuate the dynamic we were born into. But I firmly believe that we can also change it.

How many more young men have to be imprisoned before we acknowledge a problem with the values they’ve been brought up with? How many more children have to die, and how many more families have to grieve?

I’m ready for a safer world. And I know you are too.

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19 thoughts on “The Newtown School Shooting — Why We Mustn’t Ignore Gender

  1. Pingback: [link] The Newtown School Shooting — Why We Mustn’t Ignore Gender « slendermeans

  2. This may be a mute point but the Mother seems the reason this Boy had access to guns, also she seems be the reason for his love of Guns. Strange then that you seem to push all the blame onto Men. Also uncontrolled aggression, in men, likely gives a survival a advantages in pre history. And is largely unwelcome by most in modern society. The only sane thing to do is restrict Guns and Gun ownership take it from a typical male we get over it. UK resident.

    • Neil Weaver, how ON EARTH did you get “push all the blame onto men” from this post?!

      The author was doing the complete opposite:
      “Most men are not violent criminals, and to simply accept men’s near-monopoly on violence as a reflection on male nature is unfair.”

      She was pushing the blame onto ideas that society (including mothers) has about what boys should grow to be, saying that there is:

      “a problem with the values they’ve been brought up with…” and that we should “ask ourselves what lessons we teach young boys about what it means to be a man…”

      She was pushing the blame onto unhealthy and restrictive gender roles* that deny boys a healthy relationship with their emotions. Gender roles are *ideas* that all kinds of people (men, women, children, institutions) perpetuate in myriad ways. She was *defending* men from blame by saying that the ideas that restrict mens’ and boys’ emotions are bad for them, and bad for everyone.

      *These restrictive gender roles are also bad for women and girls. That’s the whole point of the phrase “patriarchy hurts men too”. Putting people into simple little pink and blue boxes is just unhealthy, and male violence is just one aspect of that.

  3. I came to this realisation on Friday too. When was the last time I heard about a non-male rampage killer? The only examples I can think of EVER of female killers are famous due to their uniqueness.

    I think you’re on to something with the restrictions on the way males are “supposed” to express their emotions. To be seen as less of a man if they show outwards signs of vulnerability and so forth. But even so, the psychological profile of many (but certainly not all) of the worst cases of mass shootings have pointed towards outcasts to an extent, or people who felt themselves as outcasts. I’ve known a lot of “outcasts”, male and female, over time, maybe myself included, but met very few who haven’t either embraced their position or just dealt with it. Even less so have been those who I’d feel were likely to be dangerous. Perhaps it is to do with male culture, but perhaps it is also to do with American culture. I blogged on how the difference between the number of mass shootings in UK and US is their gun laws, but perhaps culture plays as bigger part as well, and especially make-oriented culture. The UK is not perfect, but I think we’ve benefited in being in Europe, whereas the US has had little to tempter its culture and weed out the bad stuff.

  4. Male Supremacist System – aka malestream media as usual refuses to see elephant in the room – namely once again a male decided to cold bloodedly murder women and children. Men and their Male Supremacist System have to deny the fact it was a male who decided to commit femicide because if men accept they are the ones committing endemic male violence against women and children then they have to accept men collectively are the ones colluding/justifying/denying male violence against women is endemic.

    Patriarchy/male supremacy does not hurt men because men created Male Supremacist System/Patriarchy in order to justify male domination over all women. Men are the ones oppressing women and children therefore men cannot oppress themselves. Men cannot be simultaneously the oppressors/oppressed but that has never prevented men from making such illogical claims. Men have never been oppressed because of their sex whereas men have always oppressed women because of our sex.

    Elephant in the room is ‘sex’ meaning the sex of the male who committed femicide.

    • But patriarchy isn’t a unilateral form of oppression. Gay men, for instance, are oppressed by the patriarchy because male homosexuality under patriarchy is seen as an affront to patriarchal masculinity because of misogynist attitudes. It’s not as simple as you presume.

    • Uh, no. The mechanism of oppression takes the form of strictly enforced and internalized roles based on gender, applied to both of the binary sexes. Both of those roles have psychologically and physically damaging traits. While the “feminine” role is definitely more oppressive, the masculine role is itself oppressive as well. Furthermore, while the patriarchal system was almost certainly invented by men, it is (as an aspect of culture) perpetuated by both men and women.

      So, in other words, yes, men can and do oppress men. And pretty much everyone in our culture is both oppressor (in that they perpetuate the oppressive memes) and oppressed; in fact, significant parts of oppression (especially the male-harming parts of patriarchy) involve self-inflicted gender-policing.

  5. I just stumbled on this post, but I thought I’d throw my thoughts in the mix if you don’t mind. I agree with everything you’ve talked about in this post, bar one item, but I’ll come onto that later.

    First of all, I’m Male, and 18 years of age – which if you look at the gender/age range of violent crimes puts me pretty much slap bang on target to be an offender! And its true, most of the people that I know who’ve been arrested for violent crimes (bar one or two) are male. I think you’re spot on saying that its ingrained in society for males to “act like men”, and in all honesty it is what causes the majority of us lot to get in fights. Theres a whole ethos of because you’re a bloke you have to show your dominance (over everyone may I add) through physical confrontation.

    The only thing that I really disagree with in your post is the “People…quick to point out the heroics of other males” (I know I’m paraphrasing), personally I don’t really think this is the case, maybe its just where I’m from. However, if you take the recent shooting as an example, and I don’t do this lightly – I find using atrocities to further one’s point abhorrent, much of talk about it is the heroism of one of the young female teacher who sacrificed her life essentially to save her students. (Front page of The Independent on Thursday if I remember correctly.) I know that you’re suggesting that blokes will try to defend themselves by showing how much of a hero they can be, with suitable examples, but I just thought that it would be pertinent to point this out. My personal ideals are that if someone has behaved heroically, they are a hero, doesn’t matter if they’re female or male.

    Finally to the user “Hecuba”, I couldn’t understand much of your post, mainly because I’ve not researched much into your agenda before, but I think your final paragraph is a bit worrying really. Of course what you’re talking about is harmful to men, it might only be a minority of men, but it is – psychologically and physically in some cases. (Not adhering to the projected norms of what a man should be like interferes with your perceived dominance over other men and women, and therefore suddenly you’re less of a person.) I think you’re treating all men as a single entity where as, most of us are pretty independent of thought and I don’t know how saying “men can’t oppress men” is really relevant – not only is it wrong (just look at cases of homophobia etc through society and you’ll see its generally hate crime directed towards men, and usually from other men too).

    Anyway, I hope you appreciate my reply, its just my thoughts on this post. I hope I don’t spark offence in anyone. Cheers.

  6. Pingback: Raising A Non-Violent Boy In A Violent World

  7. http://belowthesaltblog.wordpress.com/2011/07/16/in-a-haze-of-testosterone-induced-lust/#comments

    I wrote this a while back. It is not anti male, it is anti our male centric society. I don’t want the pendulum to swing to a female centric society. We need balance. That is when we will be our best.

    We women need to take responsibility for feeding into and affirm these male dominance role. As half the population we are not all just victims — we are also enablers.

    • No, that’s blaming the mother. While some mothers are at fault and would act horribly even without patriarchy, most mothers are forced by the system to enable their sons, whereas men, being the powerful ones, have more choice.

  8. Pingback: quick hit: The Newtown School Shooting — Why We Mustn’t Ignore Gender

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