“There have been at least 62 mass shootings in the US in the last 30 years, and 61 of them were committed by men.” (Mother Jones)
Today, we begin to take stock. Why did this happen? And what can we do to prevent it from happening again?
Like everything in life that matters, it’s more complicated than we can possibly imagine. And, at the end of the day, this one instance is probably unexplainable. But we can begin to look at patterns. If almost all mass shooters are men, let’s look at the lives of men in our country.
It begins at birth. Studies show that parents of newborn boys are less likely to go to them immediately when they start crying or to give them affection. This is ironic, because newborn boys are more vulnerable and actually need more care than newborn girls. As baby boys grow, parents are more likely to tell them to “suck it up” or “be a big boy” or “be tough” when they cry, get hurt, or are just frustrated about their relative helplessness. Boys learn that needing help is unacceptable, that showing their emotions makes them less of a man, and that the appropriate way to deal with problems is to hide it all inside. When they inevitably face emotional problems later (because emotional problems are simply part of life) they will have no learned ways of dealing with those problems. (Pink Brain, Blue Brain)
As soon as they start watching videos, children are exposed to violence, even if only in small amounts. Why does this effect boys differently from girls? Because most of the violent characters are boys and boys begin to identity with that. Even in Cars, a relatively harmless movie for young children, there’s a scene where the main character – a boy – is shooting up a field of victims. It starts early, and it only gets worse from there.
As young as eight (or maybe even younger for all I know) boys start playing first-person shooter games. These are not the games of our youth, where we shot ducks or tiny, pixelated monsters. These young boys are shooting people, incredibly realistic-looking people. And they’re often talking to others while they do it, shit-talking to the other guys as they hunt them down and kill them. All the while, inuring themselves to violence and fooling their mind into believing they’re capable of killing people. (Most people, even most soldiers, aren’t actually able to shoot another person when push comes to shove. But practice makes perfect, and realistic simulations (like video games) are even used by the army to help soldiers learn how to kill the enemy. (Live Science))
Boys go online and create new identities for themselves, allowing them to bully and demean others without the social costs that they would face in the real world. They see others behaving badly online (just look at any comments section of a major news site or popular blog) and they believe it’s a normal and acceptable way to behave. This insensitivity carries over to the real world, where they treat others with disrespect and believe that violence is the answer. (Bullied)
As they get older, boys watch movies and television filled with violence. Movies like James Bond and The Fast and the Furious, where even the “bad guys” are “awesome” and where a man with a gun is the sexiest thing around. Things like Law and Order: SVU and the Batman movies, where the villains are “crazy” but there’s no acceptance of the fact of mental health issues or any look at how they might be addressed. Where people who might be struggling are made to feel that it’s better to go down in flames than to admit the problem and seek help.
Of course, some violence is worse than others. Where there’s a clear “bad guy” and “good guy” and the violence serves the higher purpose of protecting others and the “bad guy” is eventually punished, it’s not as bad. But many movies these days feature gratuitous violence – violence for the sake of violence. Sexualized violence, purely there for the sake of selling more tickets and more DVDs. Movies that glorify the use of guns, only vaguely concealing, if at all, their phallic nature. Movies that show violence against men and women, making young men believe that fighting other men makes them sexy and that hitting their girlfriends is fine.
They watch music videos and learn that their favorite musicians love violence. The quick shots and intermixing of music and video hypnotizes the watcher, leading them to believe that what they see is reality. “Multiple laboratory and field experiments have demonstrated that exposure to sexual violence in music videos and other media desensitizes male viewers to violence against women and heightens a sense of disempowerment among female viewers.” (Harvard)
But, of course, millions of young men grow up in this culture and turn out perfectly fine, or with only a propensity to get into fist fights and disrespect their girlfriends. So what makes a few of them turn into mass murderers? We know that at least 60% of the mass shooters in US history had a history of mental health problems, and it’s likely that mental health issues played a role in the other shootings as well. (Mother Jones) But there is still a stigma around mental health in this country. And while women are increasingly likely to seek help, men are less likely to do so. It’s no wonder, given all the messages they’ve received throughout their entire lives about what it means to “be a man.” Because the fact is, while mental health certainly plays a role, there’s still the crucial fact that women face mental health problems as well but they almost never turn to mass murder. There must, it seems, be something about being a man in this country that leads them to this desperate step.
And when these tragedies do happen, the 24-hour news cycle jumps on them, thrilled at the chance for a jump in ratings if they just keep showing the shooter and trying to figure out why he did it. They sensationalize the tragedy, turning it into entertainment, and they glorify the shooter. If you can’t solve your problems, why not become an international celebrity before you die violently? (Newswipe)
It all seems impossible to overcome, but there are steps all of us can take.
What can we do?
Sign petitions and try to get gun control passed, if that’s what you believe and if you truly think it will help. But take the more involved and perhaps more difficult steps, as well.
From birth, love your children deeply and consciously. Give them affection and acceptance. Teach them how to effectively deal with their emotions and, for boys especially, teach them that it’s ok to ask for help.
Always treat your children with respect and always treat others with respect. Your children will watch how you interact with others and they will learn from it. You must show this respect both in person and online, to your friends and to those you disagree with.
Keep your children away from first-person shooter video games. Boycott movies and television with gratuitous violence. Discourage your kids from watching music videos. To the extent that they do play or watch any of these things, teach them that what they’re watching is not real and explain why it’s bad. Never shy away from teaching your children the important lessons.
Teach your children about guns. If you want to keep guns in your home for hunting or protection, keep them locked up and take the time to teach your children the importance of using them responsibly. Even if you don’t own any guns, teach your children about how dangerous they are. Don’t be afraid to teach your children about the possibility of violence, focusing on how important it is to avoid it.
Don’t watch the 24-hour news coverage of these tragedies. Don’t turn someone else’s pain into entertainment and don’t encourage the media to sensationalize the brutal murderers.
Studies have show time and again that culture is a much more effective way of regulating behavior than laws are. People will find ways to circumvent laws, but they are shaped by the culture they grow up in and they are incredibly responsive to the social norms of their peers.
If we want to change our culture of violence, we have to CHANGE our CULTURE of violence. It will be difficult but it’s not impossible. And the hardest part is this: everyone single one of us bears responsibility. And every single one of us must make these changes. It starts now.