An updated version of this article was published on Dec. 14, 2021. Read it here.
Today, Dec. 14, we mark the fourth anniversary of the unfathomable loss of children and teachers at Sandy Hook. Our nation’s mourning is amplified by the surge in mass shootings nationwide. Last month, my city of Des Moines, Iowa mourned as two police officers were shot dead.
After the December 2012 tragedy and amid my city’s current grief, I watched as politicians make the now ritualistic “thoughts and prayers” statement.
Thoughts and prayers are not enough. As someone who specializes in youth studies, I would argue for a deeper exploration of the problem. A social-contextual analysis would examine how shooters’ shared characteristics interact with their surroundings to make them capable of the unimaginable acts they committed.
The Sandy Hook tragedy is part of a venomous chain: Aurora, Colorado; Charleston, South Carolina; and other public mass killings. These repeated mass shooting-suicides and gun violence that occur when troubled boys and men turn to guns are far too similar to each other. Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook murderer, seemed to fit the pattern.
In the aftermath of this tragedy, too many explanations described these horrible events as peculiar to a deranged individual or due to the sole factor of mental illness. An overly simplistic explanation of shooters as mentally ill is used as a diversionary political tactic against gun reform. This explanation is both terrifying – because the actions of someone like this alleged killer can come out of nowhere – and comforting, in that we do not hold any obligation or responsibility.
Buried problems, buried people
They apparently were living in emotional pain. They demonstrated signs of a traumatic life, like severe social isolation, school or job failure, or family estrangement.
But these shootings, I would argue, are symptoms of a public health crisis that we are not talking about. Scholarship on mass shootings demonstrates a pattern for school shooters, in particular, in which the predominant understanding of masculinity (hegemonic masculinity) becomes combined to toxic effect with the cultural script of spectacular mass violence.
As sociologist Michael Kimmel found, most school suicide-murder shootings after 1990 were carried out by white boys. Instead of exhibiting resilience or asking for help, white boys who are bullied, under threat or disrespected turn to aggression and revenge as a toxic salve, using prior accounts of past shootings as a script for their own acts of suicidal mass violence.
This way of imagining manhood amplifies the worst messages our culture offers – that men should not demonstrate pain and vulnerability or seek help. Instead, a toxic masculinity emerges to put forth the idea that when white men are hurting, they are entitled to act violently against others to cover feelings of vulnerability.
The extreme spectacle of mass shootings is not the only place where this toxic white masculinity is manifest. The link between the taboo on white male vulnerability and toxic white male violence permeates everyday life. Boys are four times more likely than girls to think that everyday aggression, like cutting in line or fighting, is acceptable.
Often, debasing of other’s humanity does not involve guns, but has racist, sexist or homophobic components that are not seen as violent. The worst possible insults strewn on vulnerable men is that they are feminine or gay. They reside in the cultural ether, occasionally emerging in the form of ugly jokes, unwanted gropes or racist cartoons. Other men may inflict these values in ways that create pain but are not immediately lethal – think about sexual harassment or emotional abuse of wives or children.
Everyone is exposed to this cultural smog that send men messages of unearned entitlement and superiority. Some damaging elements of white masculinity even feel normal and unremarkable, such as when a parent tells a boy child to stop “crying like a girl.” Many men live with this smog or actively resist it. But when mixed with pain or mental illness, these toxic elements take a devastating turn.
A public health crisis
Repeatedly, we have seen instances in which white boys who feel vulnerable descend into a horrific sequence of practices that look eerily familiar. The Sandy Hook shooter’s motive remains unknown, but he painstakingly collected stories of other mass shootings as he planned. The cultural script of committing violence against vulnerable others becomes a blueprint for boys to regain respectable masculinity.
This argument isn’t about condemning white men, or any men. Instead, I suggest that a public health crisis exists in which men suffer from undiagnosed depression and a lack of social connection which are embedded in toxic masculinity. It’s about eliminating a cultural contaminant that provides only terrible options for men to fall back on in tough times when they need to be able to treat their pain.
In acknowledging mass shootings as a cultural script and the limits of how we construct masculinity, we can begin to consider how to change it. We can work to reassemble a social order to give alternative directions or encouragement to men facing vulnerability.
Just as the current definition of masculinity is transmitted through multiple channels – the family, media, entertainment, schools, college campuses, politics and the military – we can interrupt it in these venues, too. White parents can teach our boys another way to “be a man.” We can speak up against the everyday cultural actions that attempt to see masculine aggression as expected or natural.
If we want to actually change the climate that is enabling these horrors, mourning rituals are not enough. We can push back at the empty “thoughts and prayers” sentiment and support public figures who take responsibility for changing how we teach white boys what it means to be men. Public health interventions against violence rightfully advocate tighter gun control and gender-conscious mental health care for white men. We can think nondefensively about dominant constructions of white masculinity in everyday life provides fodder for feelings of entitlement present in suicide mass shootings. While talking about how entitlement, racism and violence contaminate masculinity is a tough conversation, continuing to endure the consequences is even worse.