Thursday, July 26, 2012

White men and guns: male privilege hurts us all

Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris in Littleton, CO. Kip Kinkel in Springfield, OR. Luke Woodham in Pearl, MS. Mitchell Johnson and Andrew Golden in Jonesboro, AR. James Holmes in Aurora, CO. Jared Loughner in Tucson, AZ.

What do all these people have in common? Yes, they perpetrated mass shootings that left many dead and wounded (and scores more, though physically untouched, emotionally scarred). Yes, all share dubious emotional stability. But there's something else that they have in common--something that's hidden, as the saying goes, in plain sight. All of these killers are also young, white and male, and to my mind, that is something important. To (loosely) quote Alison Bechdel, if one of these shooters were black or female, all this discussion about what's wrong with the generic youth of today would get awful specific, awful quick.

But why young, white men? It's not just a numbers game; nearly 100% of US mass murderers in the past twenty years have been white guys, and they certainly don't make up a commensurate proportion of the population. Part of it, of course, has to do with men's greater affinity for guns (the same reason men are more likely to complete suicide than women--they have access to and use firearms more often than the ladies, who are more likely to try pills or cutting and thus survive). Yet something else plays a part: what the sociologist Michael Kimmel calls aggrieved entitlement.

From birth, white guys in America are promised the world. No, there's never an explicit promise made, but look at who's in power in business, in the legislature and on the Supreme Court. Turn on your television and see who's being marketed to, whose tastes are considered the norm, who's courted and flattered. Being white and male in America is supposed to get you power (that dream job), money (that dream job again, a car, a house), love, and perhaps most of all respect. They deserve to succeed.

As a result of this conditioning (see, women aren't the only ones hurt by cultural conditioning), it's not surprising that many white young men develop some degree of entitlement--after all, they've been told for years that the position at the top of the totem pole is their birthright. So what happens when someone stands in the way, cutting them off from "what's theirs"? When a stagnant job market and failure in school forces a man like James Holmes to go looking for an entry-level job (doubtless experienced as degrading)? When he's turned down romantically? When the world just plain doesn't deliver the life of success and respect that he feels entitled to? Most likely, he gets pissed (who doesn't get angry when someone reneges on a promise?), and when he gets pissed, someone has to pay.

When women get angry, they tend (cultural conditioning again) to turn that anger inward. A young woman in Holmes' position, and even with his same constellation of psychiatric symptoms, would be much more likely to self-injure, or fall victim to an eating disorder, or become depressed/attempt suicide. Men, on the other hand, tend to externalize anger--and when that tendency is combined with American society's acceptance of violent masculinity, a sense of thwarted entitlement (and a whole slew of other things, from the breakdown of the mental health system to lax gun laws), you have the toxic stew from which tragedies like Aurora emerge.

This is not meant to be a man-hating post. Nor am I trying to deny the role that mental illness or other extenuating circumstances play in such violence. I'm hoping, rather, to explore and explain the ways in which the current American model of masculinity (and entitlement) ultimately hurts us all.

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