- DECEMBER 14, 2012
- BY: WILLIAM HAMBY
It's a tragedy. One of the worst in American history. Twenty-six people dead, including twenty children. Dozens more children who will live their lives with the terrible memory. Tens of thousands of parents who will wonder quietly whether it might one day happen to their child. A community in utter shock and disbelief. For the family and community members directly affected by this tragedy, it is their day to grieve. For the millions of Americans that have been affected by gun death, today may be a day to relive grief and loss. For the rest of us, we can take today to think critically about the problem of mass shootings to try to come up with a solution. This is how we who are not directly affected can honor the dead. In this spirit, I will offer one perspective which may help explain why these things are happening.
Through history, there have been a lot of suggestions as to the cause of mass shootings. In the 60s, it was the permissive culture. In subsequent decades, it's been the teaching of evolution, working mothers, birth control pills, and "evangelical jockocracies." The interesting thing about all of these suggestions is that they may point indirectly at a much more plausible explanation. To begin with, we must ask who is offering these explanations in the first place. Overwhelmingly, the answer is white males. Most likely not coincidental is the fact that since 1982, one very specific type of mass shootings has been almost entirely perpetrated by white males.
Rachel Kalish and Michael Kimmel (2010) proposed a mechanism that might well explain why white males are routinely going crazy and killing people. It's called "aggrieved entitlement." According to the authors, it is "a gendered emotion, a fusion of that humiliating loss of manhood and the moral obligation and entitlement to get it back. And its gender is masculine." This feeling was clearly articulated by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the perpetrators of the Columbine Massacre. Harris said, "People constantly make fun of my face, my hair, my shirts..." A group of girls asked him, "Why are you doing this?" He replied, "We've always wanted to do this. This is payback... This is for all the sh*t you put us through. This is what you deserve."
At the risk of getting too existentialist, I'd like to propose a very simple and elegant explanation for not only school shootings but a host of other barbaric acts in recent years: White men are having a crisis of both aggrievement and entitlement. One need only look at the 2012 election season to see less brutal but equally mind-numbing examples of white men going mad because they are losing their power. The "Republican Meltdown" is a perfect example of men who previously had all the control escalating to madness when that control was lost.
Until the 1980s, when semi-random spree murders "inexplicably" became the province of young white men, there was no need for young white men to resort to this kind of thing. Whatever happened in society, they would be the winners. These days, it's still not the worst thing to be a white male -- not by a long shot -- but it's not nearly as cushy as it used to be. Women's rights have grown by leaps and bounds in the last 30 years. Marriage has become more advantageous to women than men since no-fault divorce and custody policy favoring women have become the norm. We have... (gasp)... a black president . If someone grew up indoctrinated into the God and Country of the White Man, it's easy to understand how regardless of personal circumstance, feelings of entitlement and superiority could already be on shaky ground. One need only look up any of the hundreds of "Men's Rights Movement" websites, which are often thinly veiled hate groups , to see examples of (usually white) men who seem to be feeling very emasculated and powerless.
I want to say this next bit very carefully. It is absolutely true that white men have lost a lot of power in the last few decades. Inasmuch as these shooters are angry about feelings of powerlessness, their feelings are at least understandable. However, white men needed to lose a lot of power. Without exaggerating, one could say that a history of America is a history of white men lording power over ... pretty much anyone who wasn't a white man. If America was ever going to truly be a land of equality, white men needed to lose their power.
The thing is, losing power hurts. That's the "aggrieve" part of aggrieved entitlement. It's one thing for a bunch of white men to feel hurt because they are no longer the kings of their own private castles, rulers of all they survey. It's another thing for them to feel like they're entitled to power, and more importantly, entitled to punish others for taking it away. And that -- aggrievement plus the feeling of entitlement -- is what may well drive people like Adam Lanza to these horrific crimes.
There's another point of commonality for many -- perhaps most -- of these crimes. Most of the perpetrators end up dead. Many kill themselves at the end of the spree, while others commit what is known as "suicide by cop," forcing police to shoot them rather than submit to arrest. This tendency is consistent with aggrieved entitlement. Masculinity, for many white men, is identical to sense of self. To be a man is literally the same as being masculine. This is particularly true of men in strongly Conservative Christian areas where homosexuality and femininity are equated. For some of these men, to be stripped of masculinity is to be redefined as nothing worthwhile . When someone feels like nothing, suicide often feels like a reasonable option. For someone who's really, really mad about feeling like nothing, taking revenge first may add a bit of satisfaction and righteous vengeance.
Speaking of strongly Conservative Christian areas, it's probably not a coincidence that almost all shootings of this nature happen in rural communities. Today's shooting is no exception . In America, conservative religiosity is most prevalent in rural areas. I think it's important to at least entertain the idea that strongly conservative religious communities which indoctrinate young white men into male superiority are breeding grounds for these kinds of criminals. The Conservative Christian model of masculinity and male power is simply not the reality of how America works today. Pretending that it's so is just setting males up for disappointment. And feelings of emasculation. And aggrievement. And... entitlement to revenge.
There are, of course, other perspectives. Already, the internet is abuzz with reports that the shooter may have been mentally ill. We know that previous shooters have had mental health issues, sometimes very serious. We have been tempted in the past to suggest that insufficient mental health care is the real solution to the problem of mass shootings. Certainly, it might be part of the solution, but ascribing these killings to mental illness isn't sufficient. People in all demographics have mental health problems. Why is it nearly always a white man going on a shooting spree? Why do all the white men have such similar profiles? Why do they live in small towns? These are questions that demand answers, and aggrieved entitlement plausibly answers them all.
To be sure, there have been mass murders committed by people of all races throughout history, and not every mass murder since 1980 has been committed by a young white male. However, this one subset, which centers around schools, has enough unique characteristics that it seems to demand its own answer.
What if my hypothesis is correct? What if the main reason these shootings keep occurring is that white men aren't handling equality very well? There aren't, I believe, any easy answers. Even so, we can take this perspective with us, and we can work to think of ways to help young white males grow up in a society where the expectation of privilege is never indoctrinated. We can teach them early in life how to cope with rejection. We can realize that pointing fingers and blaming others might feel good in the short term, but in the long term, only working towards positive solutions will really help. And yes, we can absolutely continue to advocate for better mental healthcare. Finally, I think we need to be brave enough to have conversations like this one. We need to admit the possibility that by perpetuating the lie of white male superiority despite strong societal and scientific pressure to change, we may have created our own monster.
Source: Kalish, R., & Kimmel, M. (2010). Suicide by mass murder: Masculinity, aggrieved entitlement, and rampage school shootings. Health Sociology Review, 19(4), 451-464.