A few years ago I wrote here about how school shooters and spree killers are made.
Much has been written and said about the role of masculine conditioning and patriarchal beliefs in cases like Eliott Rodger and the role misogyny plays in charging and inspiring their crimes.
The standard feminist theory (most popularly expressed by Michael Kimmel in books like Angry White Men) is that these young men – and they are almost if not quite always young men – are the extreme fringes of toxic masculinity and ‘aggrieved entitlement.’ Basically they are overcome by anger at not getting access to all the rewards, such as sex, respect and status, that they feel they deserve for their role as white men at the top of the social hierarchy. They then take that frustration out on their peers, on the world in a murderous explosion of rage.
My position has always been that this is probably true to a point, but misses huge chunks of the jigsaw. In particular, in every case where there’s enough biographical background to know, a spree killer does indeed feel disgruntled at their place in the world, but that is at most half the story.
The other half is that these men – these kids – have lived through either extensive emotional, physical or sexual abuse or (more commonly) through extensive and extreme bullying at school.
This is not, generally, a popular opinion. I’ve been attacked in the past for expressing it, because it might appear to suggest sympathy with the murderer, even look like a justification or a rationalisation. Cases like Eliott Rodger, I have been told, don’t need or deserve ‘nuance.’ Whether or not they have been bullied or abused is irrelevant.
But this is an issue where I think the academic theory is not just rarefied intellectual bubblegum. There is an urgent need to understand why these mass murders occur, and if it possible that real world policies and interventions could significantly reduce the risk of future massacres.
Last week academic newswires reported a fascinating new study which investigated the ‘shared characteristics’ of 31 boys who had been involved in mass shootings between 1995 and 2015. The press release (I haven’t yet been able to track down the full report, so I’m trusting the summary is accurate) is a striking – and in my opinion shocking – illustration of what is wrong with this debate.
The press release begins as follows:
Boys involved in school shootings often struggle to live up to what they perceive as their school’s ideals surrounding masculinity.
When socially shunned at school, they develop deep-set grudges against their classmates and teachers.
The shooters become increasingly angry, depressed, and more violent in their gendered practice.
A shooting rampage is their ultimate performance, says Kathryn Farr of Portland State University in the US.
So, from the outset, this is being described in terms of the boys’ personal shortcomings. They “often struggle to live up to what they perceive as their school’s ideals.”
Farr’s analysis suggests that boys’ social status in middle and high school is determined in great part by peers’ acceptance of them as “appropriately masculine.”
Their guidelines for gender appropriateness are found in a set of Adolescent Insider Masculinity norms that describe masculinity as the ideal that men are cool, heterosexual and tough, shy away from “sissy stuff” and embrace activities, behavior and mannerisms that are typical of “guys.” Falling short of this ideal sets some boys up for school-situated problems and reactions that are typical of adolescents.
“Falling short of this ideal sets the boys up for school-situated problems and reactions that are typical of adolescents” Again, the problem is with the individual. If only they had managed to live up to that ideal, everything would have been fine. And apparently the reactions of their peers are entirely understandable, because hey, that’s just what adolescents are like, am I right?
The report goes on:
“Ten of the 31 shooters had a history of serious psychiatric problems, while another ten grew up in extremely abusive households. The remaining eleven boys tended to react explosively and inappropriately to incidents that they perceived as unjustly discrediting them. Twenty-five boys were white and all but one identified as heterosexual.
“Many of the adolescent shooters had personal troubles that affected their ability to manage their social performances at school,” explains Farr. “Moreover, the potential rampage of a boy with severe mental illness and rampage-related risk factors could be especially injurious.”
Most were repeatedly and publicly tagged with homosexual and feminized epithets such as being a “homo,” a “cry baby” or a “fag.” All 31 shooters were made aware of their failings through their classmates’ emasculating bullying, rejection by girlfriends, and marginalization in general. Some reported being physically and sexually victimized by their male peers.
And here, finally, we get to the meat in this poisonous sandwich. “All 31 shooters were made aware of their failings…”
That sentence is appalling. Unforgivable. Shocking. It vividly describes a situation of classic, brutal bullying and four-square sides with the bullies. It implicitly accepts that being inadequately masculine is indeed a personal failing and accepts the inevitability, arguably even the acceptability, of bullying in response.
Farr continues to wave completely the wrong end of the stick all the way to her conclusions:
Farr believes that schools should teach their students about such shooting incidents, and the possible warning signs that need to be reported. In-school and referral services should be provided. School curriculums should also address adolescent masculinity issues and discussion-based forums about issues of gender should be instigated.
In other words she appears to be asking for schools to be on the lookout for inadequately masculine boys who are being viciously bullied by their peers – not because they are themselves in need of help but because they are at risk of going full Columbine any day now.
“How often are adolescent boys given the opportunity to talk with one another about masculinity norms and their challenges, including norms embracing violence or the effects of emasculating bullying?”
Or here’s a really radical solution – how about we refuse to tolerate the inevitability or social acceptability of ‘emasculating bullying’ in the first place?
Such classroom-based discussions could also help schools identify, provide and give value to activities that appeal to boys whose interests and skills lie outside the norms of insider masculinity,” Farr says.
She warned against unnecessary stigmatizing of troubled adolescents: “Although many boys display at-risk behaviors and attitudes, very few will actually become school shooters.”
Oh, righty-ho, thanks for that.
There has been so much said about school shootings as a social phenomenon in the US. The debate understandably focuses on gun control, not just the access to weaponry but also the culture that fetishizes guns and gun violence, in a society that was largely built on frontier cowboy mythology. Much has also been said about masculinity, toxic or otherwise, patriarchy and male entitlement. I’m more than happy to be actively involved in that conversation.
However there are a couple of other conversations that also need to be held and are not happening. The first is about the culture of bullying that seems (to this outsider at least) endemic in the lives of young Americans, from schoolyards to sports teams to fraternities, with their hazing rituals and all the rest. I find it staggering that a report like this one can be written and at no stage does the author suggest that reducing the amount of bullying might be a – or even the – solution.
The second is a more theoretical point about how we discuss masculinity and the policing and socialisation of male gender norms. It seems to me that the feminist mainstream is eager to condemn the brutality of masculinity and the violent excesses of men, but surprisingly reluctant to concern itself with the violent brutalisation of boys that instils that brutality in the first place.
If we genuinely want to challenge male violence, if we want to reduce male violence, if we want to dismantle the very foundations of patriarchy, it seems to me that is precisely where we need to begin.
Kathryn Farr’s research has unveiled a strong and terrible finding. Of 31 mass murderers, ten were survivors of severe and extreme child abuse; ten were identifiably mentally ill; all 31 had been bullied by their peers. Those boys and young men were responsible for the murderous acts they went on to commit, but not one of them was responsible for having been abused, for having been bullied. Responsibility for that lies with the rest of us.