Another day, another mass shooting in the United States. Mental health has come up as a possible cause; extremist views; lax gun laws. But the elephant in the room, writes Ben Pennings is still not being discussed.
One essential ingredient has been ignored in the analysis of the latest U.S. school massacre. Again.
Nikolas Cruz is a man.
Cruz’s mental health, ethnicity, political beliefs, school behaviour and access to weapons have all been critiqued. I have yet to see one politician, criminologist, law officer or media commentator highlight his gender.
This is despite 95 per cent of massacres in schools and universities having been committed by men, from Andrew Kehoe killing 44 people in a 1927 school bombing to the massacres at Montreal, Dunblane, Sanaa, Columbine, Osaka and Erfurt.
In fact, more than 90 per cent of mass murderers, serial killers, murderers, rapists, child molesters, and domestic violence perpetrators are male. The alarming level of men’s violence towards women and children will not stop until men accept that it is their responsibility to prevent it.
If it was a woman who gunned down 17 people, her gender would be a central part of the narrative. How a woman ended up a killer, betraying the sex that gives life. Female violence gains added attention because it is an anomaly, not expected and therefore more shocking. Male violence gains less attention as it has become normalised, is expected, and on most occasions, fails to shock.
Imagine if our society had two equally represented ethnicities and one perpetrated more than 90 per cent of the violent crime. Would ethnicity be ignored as much as gender currently is?
In December 1989, Marc Lépine roamed through the buildings at the University of Montreal calling out, ‘Bring me the women! I want the women!’ In each room he separated the men from the women and shot the women. He slaughtered 14 young women in total, and then killed himself. Australian singer/songwriter Judy Small wrote a powerful song about it that asks vital questions:
And don’t you wonder why, as you try to make sense of this
Why is it always men who resort to the gun, the sword and the fist?
Why does gunman sound so familiar while gunwoman doesn’t quite ring true?
What is it about men that makes them do the things they do?
So what is it about men? Why are they extremely more likely to rape women, children and other men, and to assault partners they are meant to love?
These questions lead to the age-old debate of nature versus nurture. Is masculinity and its associated behaviours socially constructed and changeable over time? Or are they biologically innate and historically constant? Or do we have multiple masculinities due to variabilities in upbringing or biology?
Blaming ‘nature’ is a cop out. Men are not genetically or hormonally more likely to be violent. They have the physical size and strength to be able to use violence more successfully but they individually choose to use violence.
There is nothing more pathetic than a man saying he couldn’t help it. As though he somehow slipped on a banana peel when he murdered or raped. Or his rape had something to do with an uncontrollable sexual urge. Rape is an active choice, an expression of power and control.
One of the idealised traits of manhood is the ability to be objective, logical, unswayed by emotional considerations. This includes the ability to be objective about other people – that is, to treat them as objects rather than confuse oneself by viewing them as people with their own thoughts and feelings. It is hard to shoot someone, even in a ‘just war’, if you spare too much thought for their loved ones.
The consequences of objectification have also been questioned in relation to pornography. Does demeaning and objectifying women and children through pornography assist men in committing the horrific level of sexual violence towards women and children?
It has been women, particularly women involved in feminist movements, who have highlighted male violence against women and children. They have forced legal changes and demanded services. Men have fought them every step of the way. ‘Men’s rights’ and ‘family values’ advocates regularly attempted to wind back the clock by challenging some of these hard won gains. The defensive phrase “Not All Men” is used to attack, shut down the voices of women and children.
Public displays of solidarity like White Ribbon Day are important but can also lead to smug self-congratulation. A man wearing a white ribbon should be a sign of responsibility; for attitudes, actions and inactions that contribute to sexism and male violence. However, it seems futile now that ribbons adorn male politicians willing to take money away from vital support services.
Male violence against women and children will never be stopped until it is repositioned as a central issue in men’s lives, not just one day a year. Violence against women and children is a men’s issue because some men do it, most men allow it, all men benefit from it, and men as a whole have the power in our society to stop it.
It is a minority of men who abuse women and children. The ‘silent majority’ of men have to speak up to stop it, help create a culture where abuse and silence are unacceptable. Men can and must speak out and step in when male friends and relatives insult or attack women or children.
Most men do love and care for women and children. These loved ones have lives limited by male violence, whether they are survivors or not.
Yet, the level of male violence will not be an election issue this year, or next. There will be little mainstream media coverage focusing on violence as a gendered issue. There will continue to be a lack of funding for academic analysis, service provision and violence prevention programs.
The good news is that most men, no matter how hard some try, do not fit in with the constructed and idealised notion of competitive, aggressive and objectifying masculinity. This so-called ‘toxic masculinity’ is being actively challenged by women, increasingly by men too.
It’s time men get less defensive and more reflective, be supported by other men to examine deeply held and devastatingly damaging cultural beliefs. Until then, we can expect scores of men will follow in the bloody footsteps of Nikolas Cruz.
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