Monday, December 17, 2012

A White Man Talking to All of Us: Post Adam Lanza and Sandy Hook, America Needs to Talk About the Dysfunctions of White Masculinity

A few more days to go.

If you want to see more of this type of unique and direct type of writing, and want to increase the platform and reach of the conversations we have here on We Are Respectable Negroes, do try to support the site if possible in our first ever donation drive. One of the reasons I want to grow the site, and to move it forward, is precisely so that we have a venue and space to talk about these difficult issues of race, politics, culture, and other matters that many folks are afraid to engage with in a forthright and direct manner.
The relationship between white masculinity and mass shootings is a national crisis, a public health emergency, and a threat to the common good. However, because the conversation is fundamentally about questions of identity, it is critically important that white men give voice and sound off on the issue.

I am very mindful of avoiding the trap where Whiteness, because of its social power, somehow always manages to recenter itself--even in conversations which are critical of Whiteness as a social construct.

Consequently, I want to allow space for white men to speak honestly and candidly about Adam Lanza and the possibility that a crisis in White Masculinity has lead to the many incidents of mass murder via the gun that the United States (and other countries) have been subjected to in recent decades.

Like clockwork, one of our guest essayists, the indispensable Werner Herzog's Bear has a great piece on this very subject that is worth reading. Mr. Bear's website Notes from the Ironbound deserves a much larger audience. He tells it like it is; he does not hold back; and is one of the few folks who are willing to talk plainly about these issues of white masculinity as they relate directly to matters of social justice, citizenship, and the Common Good in the United States.

I think that Werner is really hitting on an important point in his essay "It's Time to Talk About the Dysfunctions of White Masculinity" when he suggests that many white men "are socialized to be the masters of their fate and able to use violence to maintain control over their lives. These same men lack the tools to handle adversity, and are often left to their individual resources, even if they are mentally disturbed." 

His observation sounds like something my grandmother told me, a woman who was a maid in the Jim and Jane Crow South and later on in New Haven, Connecticut. Never discount the wisdom of the elders: despite all of their privileges and how society coddles them, many white folks have piss poor coping skills.

Is Mr. Bear onto something here?

Whenever a horrible event like the massacre in Newtown takes place, we try to find ways to explain it. This is often a futile exercise, because many people merely superimpose their larger beefs with society onto these events, rather than examining them with any real analytical and factual framework. Hence, we have people like Louie Gohmert saying the teacher should have had her own assault weapon, or Mike Huckabee lamenting the loss of God in public schools. 

 We should be very careful of monocausal explanations that oversimplify things. There are a lot of factors at play in the Newtown massacre, from the perpetrator's mental state to the availability of semi-automatic weapons. However, I would like to echo others out there in the blogosphere who want to examine the role of white masculinity in all of this.

Of course, there have been other mass shootings in other countries, and the worst such shooting in this country was perpetrated by a Korean student. That being said, this country has witnessed the lion's share of mass shootings, and disproportionate seventy percent of the shooters have been white men. I hardly think the connection is coincidental. Ever since the Aurora tragedy this summer, I have been contemplating this issue, trying to connect the dots to explain the connection between white masculinity and mass shootings. I finally feel like I have some speculations worth sharing.

Masculinity more generally in this society is defined to a great extent by violence and control, and violence used as a means of maintaining control. I have long been amazed and appalled by how many public figures in this country who have abused their wives and girlfriends have been allowed to stay on the pedestal. That sad fact is to me evidence that masculine control through violence is implicitly accepted as legitimate in America. Action movies predominate at the box office, and the orchestrated violence of the NFL is America's most popular sport.

Furthermore, white men in this country are taught that they are the masters of their own destiny, and are usually not confronted with the same limitations of possibility that men of color are. When white men fail, an experience our society gives them few resources to confront, they often lash out at those they hold responsible, or turn inward and commit suicide. Most mass shooters seem to want to do both, as Adam Lanza did. 

The completely atomized nature of white middle class society contributes as well. Shooters are usually described as "loners," men disconnected from others and hence unable to empathize with the human beings they kill. We are an increasingly individualized society, which means that those mentally unstable, frustrated white men with access to deadly weapons are so rarely stopped before they kill. 

 They sit on the margins, alone, without any kind of cohesive social structure to bring them in. Adam Lanza had stopped going to school and interacted with few outside his home, Eric Harris was able to plan his rampage in a home where his parents took evidently little interest in his doings, James Holmes had been expelled from his university and lived alone in a city far from home. While atomization is occurring in all groups of American society today, in middle class, white culture it has probably been the most egregious and damaging.

We have a situation where white men are socialized to be the masters of their fate and able to use violence to maintain control over their lives. These same men lack the tools to handle adversity, and are often left to their individual resources, even if they are mentally disturbed. When some of the most mentally unstable of these men experience soul-shattering setbacks and are given access to semi-automatic weapons, we can only expect the worst. 

 We need to educate young men (especially white men) to not see violence as the answer to their problems, or to phantasize violent solutions. We need to equip them with the tools to withstand failure, and to keep the more troubled of their number from slipping through the cracks. Last, we need to talk seriously and openly about the nature of American white masculinity, and stop pretending that it isn't problematic.


jenicillin said...

all of the above. I can't even watch mainstream entertainment media anymore without constantly picking it apart re: sexist/racist/homophobic etc. tropes. It is such a huge, overarching problem, but these ideas are so prevalent and deeply embedded in everything we consume that it's disheartening. HOW exactly is one to raise young men not conditioned to violence and entitlement? Aren't we going to have to make massive social changes, eliminate economic and social injustice? Do we legislate against depictions of violence being manlyish? The mental chaos that is inherent in modern life can be overwhelming. Recently I saw a PBS thing about technology and what it may be doing to us. They interveiwed a drone pilot, asked him if he thought he had ever maybe hit innocent civilians. As he replied strongly to the negative, he was vigorously nodding his head. Cognitive dissonance much?

chaunceydevega said...

@jen. check out the documentary I posed on killing. Grossman talks about these dynamics there and in his own books. Scary stuff.

jenicillin said...

will do. i must say, i am absurdly pleased that the white male violence conversation has spread internet-wise so thouroughly. hee! Look! It's a Real Thing! progress, i guess?

jenicillin said...

and i did raise a young man who is not violent, homophobic, racist or sexist. i really don't know how much of that is attributable to my influence or just that he is a genuinely gentle soul. anyway, i can't take credit, i can just thank the genetic roulette that he turned out not an asshole.

chocdave said...

Another thing to note is that the white shooters are almost always young men clearly not going to live up to the stereotype...geeky, and without exception they have been on medication to help them cope with life. I wonder, do they decide to end it all but first want to have a few minutes of feeling like Stallone? And their victims are almost totally white as well, and usually as young or younger. Yes, we need to have this discussion. Gotta start somewhere.

chocdave said...

Very good, thoughtful piece you wrote here.

chaunceydevega said...

@chocdave. spot on their too. that is what i don't get--these white men are killing other white people, but so few seem to want to talk about it. is there something paradoxical here about self-preservation where feeding kids to Moloch is somehow preserving the symbolic power of Whiteness?

this my man mr. bear's essay. do check out his site.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

Thank you CD for the platform on your blog, and thanks for the compliments from the commenters.

To your point, CD, if white folks finally admit that they have a problem with the way they socialize their children, it will tear down the false and unearned internalized assumptions of superiority at the heart of Whiteness.

To chocdave's point, the dissonance between the masculine ideal and the men who commit these acts is definitely there, and something I should have commented on.

Anonymous said...

Can we objectively discuss white male pathologies without discussing "abandonment/repressed racial self-hatred" manifested in the maltreatment of black women and its impact on the collective psyche of the race as well as the socioeconomic and cultural implications. The black male, by elevation of the white female above himself and his own has done more to empower and legitimize the sickness of white superiority than Jim Crow.