In the recent and tragic Elliot Rodger shooting spree we can find nearly all our causes– misogyny, male entitlement, race (he was half-Asian and described feeling like an outcast), the banality of consumer culture, ubiquitous access to guns and undetected mental illness. That he, like all the school shooters in the U.S., is male has long been obvious. That the shooters are angry and disturbed young men is also painfully clear.
Seldom, though, do we dig deeper. Why are we creating so many angry young men? What can we learn from this tragic incident that makes us look not just at the Elliots, but at all of us?
First, while we lament the latest of the school shootings and mourn the victims, we must not overgeneralize. The vast majority of killings in the U.S. are not carried out by aggrieved, middle class young men. Most happen in low income neighborhoods where unemployment is rife. Most men who kill in the U.S. don’t leave articulate blogs, and their families don’t buy them BMWs. Their aggrieved masculinity is based in poverty and the toxic childhoods that poverty brings for too many young women and men.
This too is clear: while 90% of those who commit homicide worldwide are men, biology has little to do with men’s use of lethal violence. What the world’s killers have in common is being socialized into impossible ideals of manhood. Nearly everywhere we look masculinity is constructed as a contest. We constantly measure ourselves against other men and we never feel we live up.
Young men I have talked to in urban slums from Brazil and South Africa and Chicago affirm the same syllogism: no work and no respect means no manhood. They also affirm, like middle class young men, that being men means being sexually active (and heterosexual), not backing down from a fight, and being faster, stronger, tougher or richer than the guy next to you. Few are able to escape the feeling of being in a brutal trial to prove they are real men. We’re not allowed to complain or question, nor to show vulnerabilities. We are told: Man up and move along.
In far too many cases, manning up means feigning indifference in the face of daily violence, bullying and shaming. In global surveys we have carried out, nearly 80% of men report having experienced some form of violence growing up – at home, in their neighborhoods or in schools. Boys aren’t born violent; we beat it into them.
But that still isn’t enough to make men kill. Men who become killers generally have had toxic childhoods devoid of stable care and connection. The institutions that should have supported them – family, school, social service agencies – have all let them down. Often they are men who come from generations of poverty that in turn feeds into substance abuse and family violence and creates stressed and damaged parents.
Elliot’s story, though, is not of poverty. His is one of trouble in paradise – a movie industry father, a BMW and a comfortable apartment near the Santa Barbara coast. But he was decidedly stuck in the same rigid notions of manhood that affect many men the world over. He was also, from what he can tell, deeply yearning for meaningful human connection. Elliot’s tragic life is both a condemnation of our impossible and harmful notions of manhood combined with a lack of true connection.
How can we question these dangerous versions of manhood and foster the connections that might prevent the next school shooting? There are no facile solutions, but we know something about what is required. We need parents who have the support they need to connect to children, neighbors connecting to neighbors, and teachers and youth workers who see children for who they are and what they need and not as statistics.
While our nation’s lawmakers debate the Common Core for basic, nationwide standards in educational curricula, perhaps we also, and equally urgently, need a pact for Common Connection. This would be a set of standards for human connection, support and caregiving. These are standards that could make our schools, workplaces, and health care facilities into places where we truly see, care for and communicate with each other.
It is not a random occurrence that school shootings occur in schools. We see again and again how schools – which we exalt as the hope for equality – have become more unequal and spend more time enforcing discipline than they do teaching and creating a sense of connection. They are also spaces where versions of rigid masculinities are lived out.
In 1977, in my high school in Houston, Texas, I witnessed a high school shooting – long before we called them that. A young man killed another young man, supposedly in a dispute over a girl. We knew it was much more. We had seen the bullying these two boys had used and endured. And we had seen the version of manhood enforced at our school.
As teachers escorted us outside the school the day of the killing, there was a striking gender difference: girls were crying and hugging each other. Boys were kicking the ground and saying things like: “Dude, did you see that?” Women teachers were consoling the girls. Male teachers were taking control. We had witnessed the death of a fellow student and the boys and men could not express our sadness and our humanity. The great wall of manhood told us that we were not supposed to show emotions. We were supposed to man up.
It is not simply questioning manhood that will fix the toxic childhoods that turn some men into killers. But to acknowledge that the humanity of all of us is damaged when one of us kills or is killed is to begin to heal our crisis of connection. And it is to end the rigid ideas about manhood that affect not just Elliot Rodger and the women and men he killed, but all of us.