What Men Dare Do! "O, what men dare do! What men may do! What men daily do, not knowing what they do!"

29Apr/131

Men and Violence

(h/t to friend GSL for inspiring this post)

I've had a post in me on men and violence for a while, ever since I went to a great conference sponsored by Boston University Law called "Evaluating Claims about “the End of Men”: Legal and Other Perspectives."  Apologies if it's a little rambly.

Men and violence.  Whenever there's a tragedy the kind of which we've seen far too many times in the past year, from the Tsarnaevas, to Adam Lanza, to Virginia Tech, to so many others, the question always comes up: why is it mostly men who commit these atrocities?

I think a lot of it has to do with how men are taught conflict resolution.  Men aren't given a very wide spectrum of emotions that we can articulate.  That is, men are socialized to be pretty unemotional.  Men are supposed to be "logical" and "rational."  Pretty much the spectrum of emotions that men are permitted to express are anger and lust.  Men aren't taught to be able to talk about their feeling in constructive ways. Men aren't taught ways of non-violent conflict resolution. If a little girls hit another girl, that's not "lady-like," but if two boys get into a fight, that's just "boys being boys." We socialize our children at a very young age on the appropriate ways each gender should resolve their conflicts.

A lot of the anger and frustration that I think a lot of men seem to exhibit has to do with how they perform their masculinity.  There's a very specific way to perform a white, middle-class masculinity: men are the breadwinners.  They go to high school, maybe college if they're lucky.  They'll get a good job for sure, and they can support a family on that.  That kind of "Leave it to Beaver" style of masculinity has been something that has permeated our culture for decades, and though it does not (and perhaps never did) reflect reality, it's how a lot of men choose to perform their masculinity.

But what happens what that performance is denied to them?  For the sake of argument, let's pretend that that kind of white, middle class dream existed in America and it was achievable once.  It's much less achievable now.  Real wages have gone down since World War Two.  Student debt is skyrocketing.  So for a man who's masculinity is tied to this notion of being a breadwinner, being able to support a family, getting a good job out of college, that's just possible anymore.  A college degree doesn't get you a job; you come out of school with tons of debt; and you often need two incomes to support a family.

So you get this group of men, again, mostly white, mostly middle class, who feel that they're deserved something that has been denied to them.  And what's being denied to them isn't just the job, the wife, the kids, supporting a family, but their masculinity itself.  Because that's how they perform it.

So what does a man do?  Well, I think he turns to these other hyper-masculine methods of performance.  And one of the few acceptably masculine ways to perform is violence.  It's gun culture.  It's lashing out.  All of these things are encouraged as acceptable ways for men to express their masculinity.

Another question: why don't women do it?  Women just aren't socialized that way.  Women are socialized to resolve conflicts without violence.  Women aren't socialized that they're "owed" the same things by society.  They're not "owed" good jobs, they're not "owed" being the breadwinner to support a family.  Certainly society places different kinds of expectations on women, but white, female sexuality seems a lot more flexible in how it can be performed.  There's a broader range of emotions that women are permitted to experience, besides say, violence and lust, which seem to be two of the ones society limits men mostly to.

This way of expressing masculinity does not just express itself in these (thankfully few) mass shootings, but also in other tragic ways.  As the MRA crowd is always swift to point out, men are overwhelming the victims of suicide compared to women.  I wonder if the same type of hypermasculine violent impulses don't influence that highly asymmetric statistic.  Rather than lash out at others, men turn their violence on themselves.  Although, I would note, women attempt suicides at higher rates, and part of that is explained by the methods used.  Perhaps the gender differences influence the methods chosen.

Where do we go from here?  Well, as I and many others have been advocating for more positive and broader masculinities.  If men are allowed to have a broader masculine experience, then maybe fewer of us will feel compelled to perform these hypermasculinities that hurt ourselves and others.  I hope!

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