Monday, December 17, 2012

The boy problem

In the wake of the horrific violence in Newtown, Connecticut, folks seem to be analyzing the event from every possible angle. Two tasks are of particular importance: finding the reason why this happened and doing what we can to make sure it doesn’t happen again. I have heard a lot of talk about increasing gun safety, as well as doing more to address the problems of mental illness. Both of these discussions are long overdue, and I’m glad we’re having them. But I hope we don’t fool ourselves into believing it’s that easy. This is a complex issue with many contributing factors.

We have been forced to face unspeakable events like the one in Newtown too many times. Yet, there is one aspect of these mass murders that I haven’t heard many people mention, and it concerns me. It may be so obvious that we are ignoring it, but the fact is, all of these events have one glaring commonality. They have all been committed by men -- in most cases, those who are barely men. We will not uncover the reasons for these senseless acts of violence until we are willing to dig deep and ask the larger question, “Why is this a boy problem?”

I am indebted to my friend Philip for raising my awareness of this. He also directed me to an article online that names the problem for what it is, “The Newtown Shooting and Why We Must Redefine Masculinity.” The author, Wendi Gilbert, points out how, of the 62 mass shootings in the United States over the past 30 years, all but one of them were committed by men. After citing these startling statistics, Ms. Gilbert quotes Jackson Katz, who wrote in the aftermath of the Columbine shootings: “accessibility of guns, the lack of parental supervision, the culture of peer-group exclusion, or the prevalence of media violence, all of these factors are of course relevant, but if they were the primary answers, then why are girls, who live in the same environment, not responding in the same way?”

Gilbert is involved in a film series called The Mask You Live In, which examines “what it means to be a man in our society and the extremes of masculinity imposed on our boys and men. It further uncovers how American culture reinforces a rigid code of conduct on boys that inhibits their capacity for empathy, stifles their emotional intelligence, limits their definition of success, and in some cases, leads to extreme acts of violence.”

Gilbert suggests it’s time to start teaching boys and young men that being emotional and empathetic are part of what it means to be a man. That sharing one’s feelings to sort out a problem is a masculine trait. She calls for “some new definitions of ‘manly’ so our boys can express and know their full selves, not just the culturally accepted ‘extremes’ that predominantly exist today.”

This rings true for me. Why do we continue to teach our boys that the way to prove you're a real man is by wielding power over other people? Why is it so widely acceptable for men to resolve problems with violence? Yes, males seem to have an innate desire to protect and defend those they love, and we can certainly admire that. But we need to make it clear that this is not the same thing as obliterating anyone who gets in your way. Why do so many of our boys and young men come to believe that masculinity and compassion are mutually exclusive? This twisted way of thinking scares me. 

I fear that with all of our discussions about how to address the shootings in Newtown, if we don’t include a deeper examination of how we teach boys to become real men in our culture, we are losing sight of the larger picture. This has to be a part of the conversation.

1 comment:

john mason said...

Nancy, how about a reflection on this issue in the context of gender identity vs. biological sex. The traits of empathy, nurturing, and compassion are often considered or described to be female. For a male to demonstrate any of these traits is to renounce his manliness. Dominance and violence prevail because "men" must renounce the behaviors that civilized humanity in order to be accepted into male society. Check Sheri S. Tepper's book, "The Gate to Woman's Country" (ISBN 0-553-28064-3). It describes an interesting approach to managing the "boy problem" or maybe better the "manliness problem".