Could greater compassion for men curb mass shootings?

Emergency medical responders prepare to enter the Cascade Mall in Burlington, WA, in September after a gunman fatally shot five people. (Photo by Sgt. Mark Francis for Washington State Patrol via Twitter.)
Emergency medical responders prepare to enter the Cascade Mall in Burlington, WA, in September after a gunman fatally shot five people. (Photo by Sgt. Mark Francis for Washington State Patrol via Twitter.)

I’d never felt so devastated in my life. On hearing about the mass shooting in downtown Seattle last Wednesday, I cried — sobbing, out of breath, the way I did as a child and when my grandfather passed away. I don’t want to believe it, and yet it seems as though something like this was bound to happen again. According to

The Seattle Times, last week’s downtown Seattle shooting is the eighth of its kind in Washington state this year. The news punched me in the gut.

Our current gun violence problems come from an amalgam of issues; racism, our Constitution’s 2nd amendment, access to education, drugs and countless other factors. But I and many others want to know why the majority of homicide violence that has become our daily news staple are committed by men. According to the FBI, in 2014 at least 63.1 percent of homicide offenders were identified as male. That percentage is possibly an undercount, because in 28.5 percent of the cases the sex of the offender was unknown.

I am not here to bash men. On the contrary, it saddens me that I have to consider this correlation at all. This suggests there is more to our gun problem than a person’s political position, the National Rifle Association, inequality, gun control laws or the lack thereof.

It’s a warning bell signaling something wrong in how our culture treats men and boys.

Our culture exalts toxic masculinity, a concept feminist writer and blogger Amanda Marcotte frames as “a manhood that is geared towards dominance and control. . . that views women and LGBT as inferior, sees sex not as an act of affection but domination, and which valorizes violence as the way to prove one’s self to the world.” Shows of brute strength, untamed sex-drive and the bottling up of feelings and emotions have become the hallmarks of “manliness.”

Elliot Rodger shot and killed 14 people near University of California Santa Barbara in 2014. His motivation came from sexual frustration, as he targeted young women and sexually active men. Omar Mateen, who walked into a gay bar in Orlando and killed more than 50 people, was misogynist, homophobic and an abuser of his ex-wife. His motives were political and are often linked to religion, but his rationale intersects with a violent expression of masculinity to create tragedy.

Locally, Aaron Ybarra, currently on trial for fatally shooting one student and injuring two others at Seattle Pacific University in 2014, has been documented as someone who felt misunderstood and helpless. (Nov. 16 update: a jury found Ybarra guilty of first-degree murder.) Ybarra, who has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, struggled with psychosis and OCD, and was described as a lonely child. In 2012, a police officer who was checking on his mental health described that Ybarra felt “no one cares about him and he wishes he were dead.”

Ybarra’s journal pages also reveal a hateful anger that informed his choice to lash out violently.

“If my routines, my belongings, and if my life were respected, I wouldn’t be so miserable! It’s true what they say, when you go through a lot of stress from humiliation for quite a while, you can lose sense of emotion,” he wrote.

The connection between these cases is gun violence as a means of expressing control and power.

Expressions of masculinity will look different depending on where you grew up, the kind of opportunities available to your community, historical circumstances, and yes, race, immigration and economic status. But common phrases like “boys don’t cry” are thrown around every day, and the suggestion that men who are sensitive and enjoy the arts should be interested in more macho pursuits. Just as women have been historically put in a box, so have men. Our nation’s gun problem has as much to do with a lack of compassion for our men and boys as it has to do with economics, world affairs, and religious tension.

In the book “In Search of Respect,” ethnographer Philippe Bourgois ties together hypermasculinity, systemic racism and a lack of economic opportunity to a community’s struggles with drugs and violence. The men in his book desire to make an honest living, but barriers to education, opportunity, the recession, and employment make their confidence  plummet. Finally, they turn to dealing drugs for profit.

I would argue that this pattern runs rampant the world over. There are other rationales for drug cartels, ISIS and conflicts all around the planet. But broken systems where men are unemployed and cannot fend for their families, and where daily life is a struggle, can be breeding grounds for violence.

I look at the blurred image of the Skagit Valley shooter from September’s news. I shudder at the thought that this was close to home, and that someday someone might come in armed to a mall while I’m shopping for winter sweaters. At the same time, I feel a deep pain for the person who is so emotionally wounded that he has to take up arms.

One possible solution is to redefine masculinity and — our culture. Men and women are layered human beings, rich and full of complexity. A culture that says masculinity depends on a limited set of characteristics, domination, and a lack of vulnerability denies a person, and everyone around them, their full humanity.

In the documentary The Mask You Live In, which explores toxic masculinity, a young man incarcerated at at San Quentin Juvenile Lifers Program reflects on his experiences during a workshop.

“When I was stuck in that man box, I felt a sense of incompleteness. I felt that I always never was the person I was meant to be… . Once I got out of that man box… . I felt like I stand 10 feet tall. I feel that I’m worthy, I have a right to be loved, a sense of belonging. . .and I feel whole.”

Wholeness needs to be central in how we redefine our culture.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the number of victims in the 2014 Seattle Pacific University shooting.

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3 Comments

  1. This article can be summed up in one music video from the mid 1990s.

    “Jeremy” by Pearl Jam. The story of a neglected boy, by both parents an authoritarian if not apathetic faculty at school, who went crazy and shot up his class.

    This is not a new problem. If anything with the greater frequency of these happening it should puzzle you why this has not been addressed for so long. The best answer I could find would be what some would call
    “The empathy gap.”
    This is the amount of attention and care from one person towards another.
    When it comes to boys and girls and men to women. The glaring differences are staggering.
    A good look into the subject further would be, “The Red Pill” movie.

  2. I point your readers towards the “Red Pill” movie, for a very specific reason. The one movie sited in the article “Man Up” and indeed the author of the article is that there is something inherently wrong with being born or socialized as a man. Second, is the book where that author looks at only the negative parts of masculinity. If there needs to be any “redefining” in the first place at a cultural level there is need for other voices and perspectives on the matter.

    1. I absolutely agree with you that we need to consider other perspectives on the issue to really do any redefining. This article is by no means comprehensive, its just one piece of the puzzle. I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong in being born male or being socialized as a man – its the empathy gap that is the real issue, as you point out. I will check out the Red Pill Thanks for your comment!

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