One of the many lessons that the school shooting in Parkland, Florida has taught us is that we need to radically redefine American manhood.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that men are predestined for shooting up schools. But, according to a 2017 study published in the journal Gender Issues, 31 males were involved in 29 mass shootings between 1995 and 2015, and, according to Mother Jones, 97 percent of all general mass shootings since 1982 were perpetrated by men. Chances are, if there is a shooting — in a school or otherwise — we won’t have trouble guessing the shooter’s gender.
There are, of course, several concurrent narratives explaining why the overwhelming majority of school shootings, sexual assault and domestic violence is committed by men. One of the misleading claims that has been gaining steam recently is that men are being crippled by the lack of discussion about their feelings. This lack of discussion, so the narrative goes, curtails their ability to be emotionally vulnerable, and thus men are more prone to spouts of violent emotional release and deadly killing rampages.
This narrative paints men as prey of a crude cultural pigeonholing in which they must conform to society’s rigid conceptions of masculinity in order to reap the benefits of the male privilege afforded to them. This claim chalks up all of the pernicious effects of toxic masculinity to a helpless male victimhood in which machismo is internalized and stoicism is valorized — not by choice, but by culture.
Comedian and actor Michael Ian Black says just this in his op-ed in The New York Times, “The Boys Are Not Alright.” According to Black, boys “are trapped in [an] outdated model of masculinity,” and because they lack the language to discuss their feelings, many men “feel isolated, confused and conflicted about their natures.”
He’s only partly right. Conversations about men’s emotional vulnerabilities are either nonexistent, or are stigmatized because they’re at odds with the orthodox notion of masculinity in which men must be tough and brave. But I take issue with the universality of the resulting feedback cycle of repressed emotions, resulting emotional frustration, lack of social recourse and last resort actions that range from mansplaining to sexual assault.
This characterization of “the plight of men” is dishonest because it overlooks the social implications of such a cycle. For example, by this metric, the eight members of DKE who were accused of sexual assault are only victims of a storied Anglo-American culture that inculcates boys with an unattainably high bar for emotional expression. Because of this, those guys were prone to the amoral, and so deserve our pity … not our disdain.
Or, those men grossly and criminally abused their social capital and power.
This feedback cycle of unattainable masculine standards has been discussed in other columns in the News. The “normative Yale Man” has been described as a fleeting ideal, one that is essentially unattainable, and a source of frustration for Yale men who fall short.
And so, the paradox of masculinity is that it would be absurd to paint men as victims of our culture. And yet, it does seem as if the very power structures that are in place to fortify our culture as patriarchal also demand conformity from men, in the sense that there is no room for emotional vulnerability or perceived “weakness” — whatever this may mean — in these power structures. This notion suggests that men are sorts of victims.
But again, how honest is this? Part of the historic and systematized privilege that is afforded to men allows them to choose their destinies. Boys are cultured to think that the world is theirs for the taking, and to think that the only thing standing in their way is themselves. This conditioning of boys and men to think they have nothing to lose also encompasses their ability to turn inwards, to self reflect, to be, yes, emotionally vulnerable.
Of course, while there may not be any actual inhibitions to men’s introspection, there is a significant vein of the American and British subconscious that dictates that men ought to be strong and respected — and that the only road to respect is to not cry, but to “be a man” and to suck it up. This qualifies the conditioning of our boys. The subconscious pressure that men face acts as a prerequisite to their understanding that they can do whatever they set their minds to.
Breaking down this masculinity paradox requires that we stop giving credence to alpha and beta male distinctions, that we stop socializing vulnerability out of our children and that we cultivate a male psyche that accepts emotion as a strength rather than a weakness. The safety of our boys and our institutions depends on it.
Sammy Landino is a first year in Hopper College. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .