Another shooting tops headlines in America. Shootings in America happen all of the time, every day. Only the dramatic ones make the news because reporting every shooting death in America would realistically require its own news station – or at least a continuous CNN scrolling banner.
We have created a society where we’ve clearly marked the boundaries of desirability. Certain people “fit in,” and others don’t. The hardest time for those realizations are in adolescence and young adulthood because fitting in really can feel like the most important thing in life. When people don’t fit in they internalize it. Some people express attempts to reconcile who they are with what the world says they should be through song, movies, sculpture, religion, academia, sports, business success, etc. Some become alcoholics. Some become domestic abusers. Some become addicts.
These are all methods of coping. Most people who don’t fit in as young people grow up to find better footing as adults. Some people even learn to capitalize off of the individuality they cultivated while existing on the outskirts of the crowd. Many people who fit in in school fall out of peak season never to return. Such is life. The problem comes when we tell boys and men not to be emotional. “Real men” are in full control of their expressions of feeling. But the thing about emotion is that it’s not just a warm fuzzy word for women and children. Emotions are just as real as any idea our brains conceive: they’re just as real as social order, free will, or rights. Emotions are reactions to the way the world treats us. If a privileged young man finds the rest of the world is not particularly concerned with him or his personal desires, how will he handle that? If a mother enlists her young son to sell drugs on the street, how does the boy process that? If a man returns from war and is reinstated as “man of the house” in a community with traditional gender assumptions, when does he discuss his own fears and feelings of vulnerability? If a boy notices he is attracted to other boys but he is living in a conservatively religious household, who does he tell his thoughts to?
The most accessible example of the way our society approaches manhood is American football. Men are allowed to ram into each other at full speed for entertainment, but we are uncomfortable watching those same indisputably masculine men express struggles with degrading treatment in locker rooms, and quite a few people can’t stomach their emotional outbursts or honest displays of affection. We are obsessed with teaching boys how to be men, but somehow we’ve decided that means they should show little to no outward emotion.
Do most guys talk to their friends or fathers about feelings like those Elliot Rodger expressed in this video? A lot of women and girls do. In fact I remember quite a few conversations with friends over the years where we all questioned our desirability. Thankfully, when those thoughts come out they are usually returned with nuanced thought (a bi-product of diverse human experiences)– affirmation that yes, there are amazing things about you, or that yes, maybe you can be a bit of a brat and need to keep yourself in check. But if thoughts and feelings of inadequacy, betrayal, insecurity, and fear all remain in the head of an individual living with those feelings, they compound and create isolation.
Extreme examples of people snapping are seen on the news, but while you may not know a man who would ever in a million years go on a shooting spree, you probably do know one who has been called or who has called someone a “pussy,” or a “bitch.” You probably have seen at least a few males get uncomfortably and inappropriately aggressive (if you went to college you definitely saw this). We write it off as “normal male behavior.” We have normalized the idea that men just aren’t as emotional as women. But men aren’t from Mars, and women aren’t from Venus. We are both from the planet Earth, and we are all human, with the same range of cognitive capabilities for emotion.
This is also not a race issue. When mass shootings in America happen people are quick to point out that the shooters are usually white, but this definitely transcends race (look at the death rates in high crime “urban” neighborhoods). In every way our society chooses violence as an acceptable form of expression. Just take a look at your nearest TV, computer, or silver screen. It’s easier for a fantastically violent film to get a standard film rating (R) than for a fantastically sexual one to get the same. Elementary school boys are some of the biggest fans of televised fighting, and video games allow them to casually simulate killing every day. Yet somehow we are surprised when people take violence out of the bounds of the screen. That’s some serious psychological disconnect.
Yes, America has a gun problem. In the cities, in the suburbs, everywhere. But this isn’t just about guns, or mental illness. This is about men, and what it “means” to be one.