As Mizzo always says, “Change the Narrative.” The Starting Five takes a critical look at the Newtown, Conn. shootings and how gender affects complex social problems. – CA
Newtown Bee/ZUMA Press
The tragic events in Newtown, Connecticut shocked America to its core. On Friday Dec. 14, Adam Lanza, 20, of Newtown killed his mother, Nancy Lanza, 52, before carrying out a horrific shooting rampage at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. He forced his way into the school wearing a bullet-proof vest and carrying three semi-automatic weapons. Lanza walked into a classroom, killing 20 children and six teachers and administrators, and turned the gun on himself.
The question on everyone’s minds is why did Lanza do this? People want to see action to prevent mass shootings. The common suggestions are: stricter gun control, greater mental health evaluation and treatment, enhanced school security, or even arming school administrators.
But an overlooked aspect in the discussion is gender. When one looks at past mass shootings, the majority, if not all of them, are committed by men. So why is gender, more specifically men’s actions, not being examined? Jackson Katz, a leading anti-sexist activist and scholar of violence, has been asking this question for years.
Katz is involved in gender violence prevention and has worked extensively with men and boys in sports culture, the military, and in schools. He has pioneered work in critical media literacy and is the creator and co-founder of Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP), the first program in the sexual and domestic violence prevention field to advocate a ‘bystander approach’ to prevention.
He is the creator and co-creator of three documentary videos. They are Tough Guise: Violence, Media, and the Crisis in Masculinity, Wrestling with Manhood: Boys, Bullying & Battering with Sut Jhally, and Spin the Bottle: Sex, Lies, and Alcohol, with Jean Kilbourne. These films are widely used as educational tools in the U.S. and around the world. He is also the author of two books, The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help, and Leading Men: Presidential Campaigns and the Politics of Manhood.
I caught up with Katz and we discussed how gender, manhood and masculinity shaped the tragic events in Newtown, Connecticut.
You’ve been saying for years that mass shootings have a lot to do with masculinity. Why is this a problem and why does it persist?
There’s long been a reluctance — in the mainstream media and even in the progressive media and blogosphere – to critically examine power. Whether it’s whiteness, masculinity or heteronormativity, it’s much easier to talk about the victims of violence than it is to examine illegitimate exercises of power by the dominant group.
When gender is talked about, it’s almost always talked about as a women’s issue or concern, as opposed to its being about the dominant gender, men. This invisibility of the dominant group is one of the ways that dominance functions.
Getting people in mainstream media to talk about white masculinity — which is the central factor in this as in so many other rampage killings — is difficult because so many people are uncomfortable talking about this. In some cases they don’t even have the language to talk about it. That’s not unexpected; it’s how power works. We often lack the very language to uncover the mechanisms by which dominance functions.
Based on what you’ve seen and what you’ve read so far, how is masculinity playing out in regards to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings?
First, I would say it’s the most important factor in virtually all rampage killings. I’m not saying other factors aren’t important (such as mental illness, access to guns, drug and alcohol abuse, etc.) but they are secondary. The first line of inquiry needs to be about gender – specifically (white) masculinity.
But most people don’t think about masculinity when they hear the word gender. Since they think “gender” equals “women,” many people assume that when you’re talking about Newtown and gender, you must mean it has to do with the fact that he killed his mother, or because many of the victims were girls and the psychologist and principal were women.
They don’t get that what you mean is that the young man who committed the shooting is a gendered being, and that his gender is arguably the single most important factor in his perpetration.
Right, mass shootings in Paducah, Kentucky; Bart Township, Pennsylvania; Springfield, Oregon; Columbine High School; Virginia Tech; Sikh Temple of Wisconsin; Aurora, Colo. and Newtown, Conn. were all committed by men.
For decades, the experts who get called on to explain these mass killings say the same things over and over again. They de-gender the conversation and miss the main point.
I just listened to Dave Cullen, author of Columbine on Rachel Maddow a couple of nights ago. I did not hear him say one thing about gender. He ran through a set of psychological profiles for school shooters without mentioning that they’re virtually all boys and men, most of them white.
A widely circulated Mother Jones piece documented 62 mass killings over the past thirty years. All but one were done by a man, but there was no discussion of gender in the piece. I’ve been saying this for a long time, but you would think that someone would look into this as a meaningful statistic, not just some ancillary point. Imagine if 61 out of 62 mass killings were done by women. Would people just dismiss that and say, “Oh, that’s interesting,” and move on? No, it would be the first thing people were talking about. Everyone would say “Why are women doing this? What’s going on for women? What is it about women’s life experiences that would lead them to do something like this?”
But when 61 out of 62 incidents are perpetrated by men, it’s all about mental illness, alcohol and drug abuse problems, brain injuries, etc. Gender is barely on the radar screen.
How does masculinity drive men to do these kinds of acts? Especially toward children?
I’m sad to say this … but I think those children were props in Adam Lanza’s performance of his aggrieved manhood in some sort of revenge fantasy he plotted and enacted. I’m only speculating, of course, because we don’t yet know enough about his psyche. But I think the children were used more as props than as targets.
It’s similar with the shooting at the Sikh temple outside of Milwaukee. So much of the media conversation was about racism, ethnocentrism, resentment toward foreigners. My thought from the beginning was that it wasn’t fundamentally about those people. It was about the white male shooter – his anxieties, fears, perhaps self-hatred. Once again, the victims were props in his performance of his angry white manhood. I think when the facts come out we’ll see this is true of Adam Lanza.
Killing innocent, defenseless children was his way of making an even stronger statement. He may have thought (and I’m speculating):
“I’m going to kill children so the world can see how much pain I’m experiencing” or “I’m so angry that I’m going to break this taboo and actually kill children so you can see how angry I am. And you’re going to suffer like I have.”
That’s one of the gendered aspects of these types of killings: men’s externalization of their internal pain. They’re making a statement. Instead of turning the gun on themselves and internalizing their pain, they turn it outward. That’s the gender piece. Plenty of girls and women feel despondent, frustrated, said, helpless or emotionally in turmoil. But very few externalize the way men do. It’s like:
“I’m feeling badly about myself … I’m feeling helpless or hopeless and I’m going to take it out on somebody else. It’s somebody else’s fault … it’s the world’s fault … my mother’s fault … and I’m going to externalize my feelings of inadequacy and shame by taking it out on someone else.”
And then they kill themselves, or arrange it so the police shoot them.
What is the allure of guns to men and how is it connected with masculinity? Why is this a concern we should be aware about?
Guns are an instrument of violence that can be used against another person or against oneself. They certainly make the externalization of violence much easier. They are easily available and their power is seductive because it is so tangible and immediate.
The whole gun debate needs to be infused with a discussion about manhood. It’s frustrating to hear debates about gun rights vs. gun control, and yet very few people say what’s hidden in plain sight: it’s really a contest of meanings about manhood. I talk about this in my new book Leading Men. The NRA and the right-wing understand this. Of course there are women who own and love guns; Adam Lanza’s mother was one of them. But the right is skilled at framing the gun as a symbol of men’s potency and freedom: the freedom to defend themselves and protect their families.
One of the things I noticed about Adam Lanza was how he was armed. He wore a bullet proof vest and carried three semi-automatic weapons: a Glock 9-mm handgun, Sig Sauer 9-mm handgun and Bushmaster rifle. What would drive a man to go to that extreme? How does masculinity explain his whole appearance when he committed the killings?
I think that’s part of what’s going on here. Doug Kellner, a colleague of mine who’s at UCLA, writes a lot about these types of events in terms of media spectacle. Adam Lanza in a sense created a movie in which he had the starring role. Whether it’s a flak jacket or guns blazing, Lanza was engaged in a performance of his manhood. That’s what it appears he was going for. His transgression of the taboo of killing children – in a public space sure to be heavily covered by media — was how he was going to reclaim his manhood.
James Gilligan wrote a couple of very important books called Violence and Preventing Violence. One of the many great insights he shares is that a huge percentage of what is called “senseless violence” is not senseless at all if you’re the shooter. There is an internal logic to their actions that makes sense. In a huge percentage of cases where men commit heinous acts of violence you see they’ve experienced shame in a profound way. The way the culture helps to shape their response to these feelings of shame is to create and even glamorize narratives for how they can externalize their pain and reclaim their manhood.
The story in many of these men’s heads goes something like this: someone has taken something from me, so I’m going to take it back. The victims of that “taking back” aren’t necessarily the original perpetrators or bullies of these guys. As I’ve said they’re merely props in a gendered enactment of revenge. But people don’t want to face this uncomfortable fact. Better to put it in a category of “mental illness” and not delve too much further into it. He just snapped, and so on.
But James Gilligan, a psychiatrist who worked with really violent men for many years, says it’s not true. It’s not how it works. These guys aren’t detached from reality and unaware of what’s going on around them. They’re intentional with what they’re doing and why.
This makes people very uneasy. They’re more comfortable with the idea that he’s a sociopath, or he just went off.
End of Part I