The gruesome and violent tragedy in Colorado last week put some noticeable strains on the national psyche. Interestingly, many facts were clear early on: a young, white man planned and perpetrated a shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, CO during the screening of a summer blockbuster. The violence appears to have been both premeditated and random (in that no specific people were targeted, as far as we know) and it has captured our imaginations.
The questions that the media asked were immediately about motive: who is James Holmes and why would he do this? The obsession with the particulars of Holmes’ life is understandable as we aim to understand and rationalize violence of a seemingly random nature. But others, concerned with the broader questions of violence in our society and with our gun control policy, have attempted to pivot this conversation into a socio-structural one. That, to my mind, is the best use of our collective energy. It’s productive and it might actually help us prevent such terrifying incidents in the future.
Over at Time.com, Erika Christakis argues that what we are missing in our collective understanding is the gendered nature of mass homicide.
We’ve been down this path so many times, yet we keep missing the elephant in the room: How many of the worst mass murderers in American history were women? None. This is not to suggest that women are never violent, and there are even the rare cases of female serial killers. But why aren’t we talking about the glaring reality that acts of mass murder (and, indeed, every single kind of violence) are overwhelmingly perpetrated by men?
On one hand, I find this question really illuminating. I work at an organization called Men Stopping Violence that addresses violence in exactly that context — as a gendered phenomenon. The acknowledgement of “male violence” without conflating it with all different kinds of violence is particularly useful, because it helps us contextualize the violence in our society as a function of patriarchy and sexism. Christakis’ analysis goes some distance in helping to make that case, which is under-acknowledged, to be sure.
There a few points I’d like to raise here that complicate Christakis’ analysis of the “maleness of mass homicide.”
1. The analysis relies on some essentialist framing of the problem of violence while trying to address it as a social phenomenon. This is a confusing trajectory. Christakis pathologizes male violence via analogy by likening it to “a deadly disease that disproportionately affects men” while charging us to think about gendered violence explicitly. In fact, she goes so far as to say that the silence is inexplicable on this matter:
The silence around the gendering of violence is as inexplicable as it is indefensible. Sex differences in other medical and social conditions — such as anorexia nervosa, lupus, migraines, depression and learning disabilities — are routinely analyzed along these lines.
Actually, the silence is not inexplicable at all. It is the means by which we make social justifications, it is functional.
Note here the conflation of sex and gender. These are two different identities, and they cannot be used interchangeably when we are trying to understand social phenomena.
This is precisely where essentialist framings do us wrong, we cannot parse these identities in this way without resorting to biological definitions or alternatively, to shallow socio-cultural definitions. Those definitions serve us very narrowly when we discuss social and political phenomena. Male violence, against women and male violence more broadly is a socially enforced imperative. While we might be able to make public health claims about its prevalence, we certainly can’t make those claims without a deeper analysis of male identity, inclusive of sex and gender analyses, alongside an analysis of race and class. Which leads into my second point.
2. Christakis’ argument for public health interventions is interesting, but insufficiently presented. She obscures race and class in her assessment of the problem and also in her call for a public health centered solution. For example, Chirstakis gives us these numbers:
…Men are nine to 10 times more likely to commit homicide and more likely to be its victims. The numbers are sobering when we look at young men. In the U.S., for example, young white males (between ages 14 and 24) represent only 6% of the population, yet commit almost 17% of the murders. For young black males, the numbers are even more alarming (1.2% of the population accounting for 27% of all homicides). Together, these two groups of young men make up just 7% of the population and 45% of the homicides. And, overall, 90% of all violent offenders are male, as are nearly 80% of the victims.
This data is not public health data, it comes from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. It is highly problematic to point out the racial differences in rates of violent crime without offering any social context about why the numbers might be different in communities of color. Further, this data conflates the numbers on homicide with the numbers on mass murders and serial killers. These are all different phenomena, and have different nuances when looked at through a race/class/gender lens. In fact, in this argument, there’s no analysis of structural economic inequality and poverty at all. To really grasp the complexity here, we have to be clear and honest about how male violence functions across all social strata. Jumping from homicide numbers (without contextualizing race or class difference in those numbers) to an argument about mass murder is insufficient if our goal is to understand male violence as an inherently socio-cultural phenomenon.
3. And to put an even finer point on the limits of this analysis of male violence, Christakis completely ignores police violence, colonial violence, and questions of war. All these social phenomena have a lot to do with mass murder and male violence, all in the context of race and class, and we can’t ignore their prevalence in our society when we address male violence.
4. Finally, there’s a level of nuance missing in the argument. It’s illustrated by the way that Christakis locates male violence and it’s origins:
For millennia, human society has struggled with what to do with young men’s violent tendencies. Many cultures stage elaborate initiation ceremonies, presided over by older men, which help channel youthful aggression into productive social roles. But in contemporary society, we have trouble talking about the obvious: the transition from boy to man is a risky endeavor, and there can be a lot of collateral damage.
Here at Men Stopping Violence we work with men of different ages to understand how violent behavior becomes normalized and reinforced throughout their lives. To locate that in the transition from boyhood to manhood is to elide how the use of violence to maintain systems of patriarchy is an everlasting and ongoing experience for most men.
And that is why I find the kernel contained in Christakis’ article most valuable: we have to name male violence as a socio-cultural phenomenon – one that occurs in the context of race, class, gender, citizenship, ability, sexuality and so on. To name it without interrogating the intersections won’t take us as far as it seems Christakis would like us to go.
A special thanks to my colleagues at MSV for their input on this piece: Ulester Douglas, Bernard Ellis, Lee Giordano, ramesh kathanadhi, Sulaiman Nurridin, and Shelley Serdahely.