Last week when I spoke to the students in my classroom about the mass killing at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, I started to cry. I didn’t want them to feel hopeless. Yet, as I stood in front of a mix of 16-year-old boys and girls in my American Literature class and tried to support them in the face of another slaughtering of innocent people, I couldn’t help but cry.
My tears freaked some students out. Some giggled nervously. Others stared wide-eyed. A few looked away as though they were witnessing something embarrassing. I told them it was OK. What’s happening hurts, and it is OK to show how much it hurts. We talked about the inhumanity we see around us and then moved on to the day’s reading.
I think more men need to do the same. I’m not saying we need to cry necessarily, although that wouldn’t be such a bad thing. But we do need to soften. Men need to be an example for young boys, showing them how to deal with painful, complicated emotions in nondestructive ways. Why? Because male aggression is fueling the violence we see today. Male aggression is the elephant in the room, stepping over the carnage again and again. And we refuse to call it out or examine it.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, men commit the vast majority of violent crimes in this country. Every mass shooter we have seen in recent years has been a man. Some politicians are trying to divert our attention by blaming mental illness. Yet, if mental illness were the cause of this violence, then why do women rarely commit such horrendous acts? They suffer from mental illnesses, but they are not killing our school children. Males are. If congressmen truly want to see the root of the violence in American, they can start by looking in the mirror.
Combining male aggression with easy access to guns is a recipe that will continuously lead to death.
Part of the problem stems from how we teach masculinity. American culture celebrates aggression as a defining characteristic of what it means to be a man. We encourage male dominance. These messages are ubiquitous. We see them in sports, entertainment, the workplace, and politics. Our political leaders unabashedly disregard or outright excuse male violence against women. The violence we see in our country is a malignant outgrowth of our rigid definition of what it means to be a man.
Combining male aggression with easy access to guns is a recipe that will continuously lead to death. This is why we also need sensible gun laws. We can understand the danger police officers routinely face when they bravely enter a home where a raging man has a gun, but, as a society, we seem unable to extend that understanding to the family that remains when there is no police officer around to protect them.
Such families are under constant threat. Across our country, families are privately terrorized by angry men with guns. Again and again, studies show that women living in homes with one or more guns are much more likely to be killed than women who do not. If we honestly care to stop such male-initiated violence, men need to own up to their own aggression and find new ways of expressing masculinity. And we need our federal government to create strong gun laws that limit the ownership and sale of guns.
In classrooms, we need to teach boys how not to transform their pain into violence. We need to show them how to cope with loss and embarrassment without lashing out physically. We need to teach them that it’s OK to take a back seat, to listen. We need to challenge a system that encourages male entitlement. Boys need to know that dominance is destructive.
And, as male teachers, we need to model these things by sometimes crying in front of them. We need to show that strength is not always about being in control and that accepting and showing our fragility is part of being human.
In the end, we don’t need to arm teachers with guns. We need to arm teachers with new ways of talking about manhood.