When Men Kill

More than a few people and organizations pay attention to the gendered nature of gun violence, including but unfortunately not limited to what happened in Newtown, Connecticut, last week.  There, all of the adults murdered were women, and around half of the first-graders murdered were girls.

From the International Action Network on Small Arms:

“Women are disproportionately affected by gun violence. Although men comprise around 90% of deaths by guns, they are almost 100% of the buyers, sellers and users.  Women are also victimised by sexual violence at gunpoint, through threats and other trauma, and through their role as caregivers and survivors. In this way, armed violence is a heavily gendered phenomenon.”

And this:

“While male-dominated societies often justify small arms possession through the alleged need to protect vulnerable women, women actually face greater danger of violence when their families and communities are armed.”  Barbara Frey, UN Special Rapporteur, Small Arms & Human Rights.

Not too long ago, we were talking about Jovan Belcher, who shot and killed his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, before turning the gun on himself – both shootings taking place in front of other people.  At the time, I referred to Kevin Powell’s analysis:

Too many of us have been taught manhood in a way that is not healthy. Be tough, men do not cry, man up — these are the things I’ve heard my entire life, and I now cringe when I hear this relayed to boys or younger men by teachers, coaches, fathers, mentors and leaders.

Or we use derogatory and sexist or homophobic words to describe men or boys who do not meet the “normal” of what a male is supposed to be. Some of these male authority figures mean well, or are simply repeating what they were socialized to be or to do, and do not realize that they are unwittingly teaching that manhood has little room to express hurt, disappointment and sorrow.

Yes, they had been arguing, Belcher and his girlfriend, but in my work as an activist, including around gender violence prevention, I’ve seen the tragic pattern across our nation of men who, in the heat of rage, have killed their girlfriends, wives or lovers, as if they had no other vocabulary or emotion to deal with the disagreement or the break-up.

William Hamby at Examiner.com this week, brings a lot of significant pieces together:

Most likely not coincidental is the fact that since 1982, one very specific type of mass shootings has been almost entirely perpetrated by white males.

Rachel Kalish and Michael Kimmel (2010) proposed a mechanism that might well explain why white males are routinely going crazy and killing people. It’s called “aggrieved entitlement.” According to the authors, it is “a gendered emotion, a fusion of that humiliating loss of manhood and the moral obligation and entitlement to get it back. And its gender is masculine.”

(Here is a link to the piece by Kalish and Kimmel.)

Hamby points out that the Columbine shooters are just one example of this.  He goes on to connect the phenomenon to larger social trends and patterns.

At the risk of getting too existentialist, I’d like to propose a very simple and elegant explanation for not only school shootings but a host of other barbaric acts in recent years: White men are having a crisis of both aggrievement and entitlement. One need only look at the 2012 election season to see less brutal but equally mind-numbing examples of white men going mad because they are losing their power. The “Republican Meltdown” is a perfect example of men who previously had all the control escalating to madness when that control was lost.

When else have we seen frenzy around a president’s birth certificate?  What was the race of those asking to see it?

When else have we heard the most unscientific nonsensical statements about women’s bodies, rape and pregnancy from politicians?  What was the gender of those politicians?

Hamby continues, to the way in which so many of these gun tragedies end – Newtown and Belcher’s included:

There’s another point of commonality for many — perhaps most — of these crimes. Most of the perpetrators end up dead. Many kill themselves at the end of the spree, while others commit what is known as “suicide by cop,” forcing police to shoot them rather than submit to arrest. This tendency is consistent with aggrieved entitlement. Masculinity, for many white men, is identical to sense of self. To be a man is literally the same as being masculine. This is particularly true of men in strongly Conservative Christian areas where homosexuality and femininity are equated. For some of these men, to be stripped of masculinity is to be redefined as nothing worthwhile. When someone feels like nothing, suicide often feels like a reasonable option. For someone who’s really, really mad about feeling like nothing, taking revenge first may add a bit of satisfaction and righteous vengeance.

The too-tight-linkage between white-maleness and controlling power is the problem.  When others who are not-white and not-male gain power, identity crises ensue if there is no other option.

There are other options that can help us solve this massive culture problem.  We must talk honestly about how this hegemonic white masculinity strangles the humanity of boys and men, and too often results in violence against anyone who gets in the way:  a mother, a girlfriend, a first-grader, a teacher, a principal.

We have got to fix this.  Knowing the problem is just a step.

Gender symbol via Word;  Tough Guy image via.

UPDATE:  Jessica Valenti has just shared this photo on her Facebook page, an advertisement for the gun Adam Lanza used in Newtown.  Any questions now?

About Caryn Riswold

Caryn D. Riswold is a feminist theologian in the Lutheran tradition. She is Professor of Religion and also teaches Gender and Women’s Studies at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, where she has worked for over a decade teaching undergraduates to think critically and creatively about religion. She earned her Ph.D. and Th.M. from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, holds a master’s degree from the Claremont School of Theology, and received her B.A. from Augustana College in her childhood hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

  • KMFDM72

    It was just a matter of time before feminists exploited this tragedy to advance their male bashing agenda.

    • Caryn Riswold

      No males have been bashed in this blog. And yes, I am advancing my feminist agenda of a safer & more equitable world for women and men, more humane constructions of gender for our boys and our girls, and more honest conversation about the cost of failing to do so.

    • pagansister

      How has Caryn exploited this tragedy? How did she engage in male basing? Certainly you must have proof of your statements. I didn’t find that reading the blog.

    • Pseudonym

      It was just a matter of time before someone said this.

  • Pseudonym

    Yes, all of the adults who were killed were women. To be fair, the vast majority of primary school teachers are women. It’s very difficult for men to get into a career in early childhood education no matter how talented they are. Not only is the pay is lousy considering the education and training required (men are culturally expected to “provide”), men who want to work with young kids are sometimes greeted with suspicion.

    Having said that, I think that the identification that pretty much all perpetrators are male, and that this may have something to do with a notion of stolen masculinity, is spot on.

    For some reason, I’m reminded of this fairly insightful piece from cracked.com. Warning: It’s cracked.com; expect a certain amount of strong language. Nonetheless, it lays out the issues in a way that almost everyone can understand.

  • pagansister

    Caryn, I find it a bit disturbing that from what we read/hear Adam Lanza’s mother owned the automatic weapon (s) he used. He didn’t have to go far to find his weapons to carry out his carnage. Yes, he was a white male, but he had a white mother who also had a thing for guns! She bought them legally—and obviously he had easy access. Would she be considered a feminist because she liked shooting big guns? I certainly don’t think you were male basing at all. It is what it is. At this time, more white males seem to be doing horrible things with guns!


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