After yet another horrific school shooting last month, an article from psychologist Michael C. Reichert addresses the underlying issues of systemic violence and toxic masculinity: Why men are gaslighting this celeb for suggesting ‘boys are broken’ in the wake of Florida shooting. In the article, Reichert mentions the White Ribbon Campaign, a nonprofit whose website proclaims: “Toxic masculinity hurts everyone. White ribbon is changing that.”
What does normative masculine socialization, built into boyhood, have to do with preventing violence? Boys first learn to assert themselves with aggression and even violence to “ward off or eliminate the feeling of shame and humiliation,” in the view of psychiatrist James Gilligan, author of Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic. The problem is that from very early on boys contend with peer norms legitimizing meanness, putdowns, and domination. To survive, each boy learns to harden his heart, suppress natural feelings of empathy, and exhibit a public face meant to deter efforts to take advantage of any weakness. Violent men are not monsters, Gilligan argues, but become nearly unrecognizable as experiences of profound loss and violation degrade their humanity.
Boys are “broken” by the system. No one is born a killer, our culture creates them by withholding affection and encouraging emotional repression, disconnectedness, and egocentric, capitalist values.
But this morning, as I spend time with my toddler grandson, I cannot help noticing the warmth in his countenance, how alive he is, and how much faith he has in the goodness of the world. From my many years of listening to boys of all kinds, I know that each was once just like this. A commitment to ending violence requires us to do a better job at protecting such openness.
These themes are further discussed in books that I’ve mentioned here before, The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love by bell hooks, and How Can I Get Through to You? by Terrence Real. I’m also looking forward to reading James Gilligan’s Violence (mentioned above).