Sunday, March 25, 2018

Guns, Violence, Misogyny, and America's Masculinity Problem

From the #MeToo movement to this weekend's March for Our Lives, Americans are confronting some of our societal challenges head on, calling out and naming the problems. The voices are demanding change and offering solutions. Of course, the first step is always admitting you have a problem. And, despite our strengths and assurances from Steven Pinker that we're actually living in the best of times, we have some issues to talk about. As I've watched and read during the past week or so, I've been leaning toward one interpretation of the problem - it's our manhood. Or lack of it.

Incidents of gun violence and misogyny seem to have a pretty clear correlation to skewed ideas of manhood and masculinity, and if that is so, it's a problem and a challenge that we can most certainly address and solve. A key voice in this discussion is, and must be, Michael Kimmel, a sociology professor specializing in gender (specifically masculinity) studies at Stony Brook University. The Denver Post has a review of Kimmel's latest - Healing From Hate: How Young Men Get into - and out of - Violent Extremism.  Kimmel researches and shares informative, yet baffling, stories of young men who are drawn into groups like the Islamic State or Neo-Nazi and white nationalist groups. To them, it's not about politics or ideology as much as "it was about being a man; acting like a man ... I felt like I was doing something noble; it gave me meaning." It's not hard to see information from his research connecting to the problem of skewed ideas about proving themselves through abuse of women and incidences of gun violence.

As I read about Kimmel's research, I was reminded of several pieces about guns and gun violence recently, and I couldn't help but wonder about this problem we have with firearms. Chuck Plunkett of the Denver Post poses "Let's Stop Wearing Our Guns on our Sleeves," and I agree with his sentiments about guns and gun ownership. Unlike anywhere in the world, we fetishize guns and obsess over the concept of having them. Having grown up in southern Illinois in the 1970s, I too recall a time when guns were clearly a part of life, but not fetishized and flaunted as they are today. And I recall going to a couple NRA-sponsored day camps that were entirely about gun safety and responsible possession. We can return to those days, but it will take leadership from the gun owners. Doing so will require many men taking a wise and mature stand on the issue.

The problem of outward and even aggressive gun possession is the connotation that goes along with being "armed and ready," and I think much can be connected to the American males concept of self and manhood. We could learn much by pondering the thoughts in Jennifer Carlson's piece for Vox, "Why so many American men want to be the 'good guy with the gun.'" It's related to our ideas about masculinity and the need to prove it in only one way - aggressively. How can we educate our boys so they don't see misogyny and violence as a manifestation of manhood? We could start by paying attention to thinkers and writers like Kimmel and Lewis Howes, whose research and program about The Mask of Masculinity offer insight into the male mindset and how it can go right and wrong in a society and culture that too often sends the wrong message. 

We can do so much more to address our challenges, for as Vox writer German Lopez writes, "I've covered gun violence for years. The solutions aren't a mystery." But I'm not just focusing on ideas about gun regulation - I'm talking about how we perceive the problems associated with skewed ideas about masculinity. In my class, I've just finished reading Tim O'Brien's incredible novel about Vietnam and storytelling, The Things They Carried. One of its most powerful lines is "I was a coward - I went to war." American society and culture are built upon traditions of individual character and self reliance, but the nation would not have survived and thrived without that character coming together in support of the community. There is much in good in us and our young men - but we can do much more to support the positive character that builds strong communities. Addressing our challenges of gun violence and misogyny are potentially our next great civil rights movement.

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