Toxic Masculinity: A Global Killer
After the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, much of the conversation surrounding gun deaths has understandably centered around gun control. Specifically, advocates of gun control and safer communities have justifiably derided Republicans’ complete dereliction of their duty in failing to promote sensible regulations to keep Americans safe from gun violence.
A secondary issue that has received some (but not nearly enough) attention is the fact that the shooter in Parkland, Florida was, once again, a male. In fact, of the last 97 mass shootings in the US since 1982, 94 of them were perpetrated by men. 56 of them were white males, as were Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber), Timothy Macveigh (the Oklahoma City bomber), and Mark Anthony Conditt (the Austin bomber.)
This phenomenon goes far beyond mass shootings and bombings, however. According to the UN Office of Drugs and Crime, men committed 95% of all homicides and also made up 79% of all homicide victims (88.7% and 77%, respectively, in the US.)
Men are also disproportionately drawn to violent groups. 93% of gang members in the US were identified as male in 2010. Extremist groups — from far-right hate groups and armed militias in the West, to terrorist groups in the Middle East and Africa — all rely on recruiting young, disillusioned men as their front-line fighters.
The ubiquity of extremist groups’ recruiting strategy suggests there is something inherently alluring for young men specifically that draws them to such groups. Factors such as ideology and poverty are insufficient in their own right in explaining why a white man in Alabama would join a hate group, a Salvadoran man in Houston, Texas would join MS-13, or a Muslim teen from London would travel to the Middle East to join ISIS. Whether holding an AR-15 in an American school or an AK-47 in a Syrian war-zone, the “bad guy with a gun” is almost always just that: a guy.
Why Are Men So Much More Violent?
For most of human history, the answer to this question has been relegated to a simplistic explanation that men are born differently than women, with different traits, one of which is a propensity for violence. In fact, one’s biological sex has little to do with this. Most of what we associate with masculinity or the gender identity of being male, is actually sociologically conditioned, learned from our family, schooling, and other social interactions.
Boys, therefore, are not born violent. Society conditions them that way.
From the moment boys are very young, they are instilled with messaging about what it means to be male. The definition of “being a man” differs across cultural, geographical, and political contexts. However, there is usually a dominant and normative form of masculinity that is upheld by a society as the standard by which all men and young boys are judged from the time they are very young. It encompasses a set of behaviors, actions, values, and practices that men are conditioned to adhere to in order to be seen as proper men in their community.
What this messaging entails and how it is imparted also differs across cultures. However, it often includes notions that men must be tough; they must not show emotion; they must dominate their surroundings, including their spouses, children, and other men; be sexually fertile; and be financially successful. The pursuit of capabilities related to masculinity — being able to secure work and provide for one’s family; the ability to be sexually active, marry, and have children; the ability to enjoy a sense of belonging and respect among one’s peers and community — dictates many men’s actions and the way they live their lives. Men who deviate away from these established norms often face ridicule and social exclusion by their peers and other members of their community.
At its most extreme, defined by practitioners as toxic or hegemonic masculinity, such behavior assumes that men are inherently superior and rightfully entitled to dominate all forms of society by virtue of their manhood. Such beliefs are often mixed in with other harmful traits such as misogyny and homophobia. Failure to fulfill one’s duties as a man renders that person as “female” or “gay.”
Not all men choose to subscribe to these definitions of masculinity. Many do not choose to live their lives according to such norms. However, men who hold more rigid views of manhood, tend to show more aggression, more risk-taking, and less of a willingness to seek emotional and medical support (particularly when it comes to mental health.) They are also more likely to be drawn to violence when they struggle to fulfill their perceived needs and identities as men.
“The Bad Guy With The Gun”
It is hard to know exactly what traits or circumstances will prompt someone to take a gun and shoot up a school, open fire in a drive-by, or blow oneself up in a crowded place. But given the aforementioned definition of toxic masculinity, it is easy to see how someone that has been brought up with such extreme views of what it means to be a man can be drawn to such violent acts.
This is especially true if such men are unable to fulfill their perceived duties as men, and particularly if they face socioeconomic barriers to doing so. One such barrier is a lack of economic opportunity. Men who face poverty or unemployment often see this as an emasculation in the form of an inability to provide for themselves and their families. Those who hold this view are more prone to lash out. Men may also join extremist groups or gangs if they think that being an operative on their front lines offers the financial opportunity their environment does not provide.
A similar barrier men may face that make them more prone to violence is social marginalization. This goes beyond the “loner/social outcast” profile common among many mass murderers. Sociocultural barriers on the basis of one’s race, age, religion, ethnicity, or any other social identity increase the likelihood of men to feel disengaged from the communities in which they live. This can happen even if opportunities to fulfill one’s roles as a man are present, as long as equal access to those opportunities is restricted along the aforementioned lines.
Examples of this include young men from immigrant backgrounds in the West joining gangs or terrorist groups. One would think that these men would be less likely to engage in violent activity given that they live in rich world societies with robust human rights and freedoms. However, the discrimination such men often face means they do not enjoy the same degree of these freedoms as native-born men. It is this very discrimination that makes men more vulnerable to be radicalized.
While social inequality may serve as a force “pushing” men towards violence, violent groups themselves can “pull” such men in as well. The most common way such groups do this is by offering a sense of belonging to a group. It is easy to picture ISIS or MS-13 as simply evil organizations with purely evil members. But for ostracized men vulnerable to radicalization, they can offer a social network that they are lacking. This is especially true if these violent groups offer a sense of belonging along a shared identity.
Gangs and terrorist groups have long exploited this notion. It is no coincidence that major criminal organizations boast names such as La Familia or Cosa Nostra. Similarly, the ultra-traditionalist and anti-Western ideology of Islamic State creates a Muslim identity that men who are ostracized by Western society for being Muslim could find appealing.
Another aspect that may pull men into violence is the search for respect. It has often been argued that fame and notoriety are a prime motive for mass murderers to commit the acts they do. This, however, is the most extreme example of an aspect of society that is more commonplace than we think.
Many societies hold warrior figures — be they soldiers, police officers, secret agents, or even Tony Montana — in high regard. These figures use violence to control their surroundings, even if it is for noble purposes. Joining a violent group can, therefore, be a way to gain an elevated position in society. For example, former fighters from al-Shabaab, a jihadist group in Eastern Africa, cited honor, respect, and attention from women as the biggest draws to joining the group.
Towards A Less Violent Masculinity, And A Less Violent World
This article does not seek to apologize for violent actions of any kind. Any man behind the trigger should be liable and responsible for the acts they commit. Nor does it seek to trivialize the importance of the gun control movement. That common sense gun control will reduce the number of deaths and injuries from guns is counter-intuitive only to the NRA, its most fervent supporters, and the politicians in their pockets. This article instead argues that if we are focusing solely on preventing the bad guy from getting the gun, we are only addressing a part of the issue.
Broader reductions in violent acts can be achieved if we begin to break down the constructs that make men so much more prone to violence. This entails having frank conversations about why society values violence as an acceptable expression of manhood. Messages like “if they hit you, hit them back,” “don’t be soft,” “stop crying,” or “you hit like a girl” may seem innocuous enough. But the underlying message this gives to boys is that they need to commit violent acts to be accepted. The violent acts discussed — mass shootings, gang violence, terrorism — are but the most extreme forms of behavior we as a society have deemed acceptable from generation to generation.
Breaking down these male gender constructs is not an easy task, not least because so few men are willing and/or able to talk about their experiences as men. But it is not impossible. For the better part of a generation, we have been telling girls that they do not need to be stick-thin, clad in pink, and stuck in the kitchen in order to be seen as true women. Is it too far-fetched an idea to tell our boys they do not need to be violent to be seen as true men?