Toxic Masculinity and Murder

Can we talk about men?

Jim Young / Reuters

About a thousand people gathered in Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn on Tuesday night. It was a candlelight vigil, the borough rallying in solidarity with the LGBT community, and against what’s at this point simply being called hate. Near the impromptu stage, hand-drawn on white poster board, a sign read “Love conquers hate.”

After the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, in the context of several savage years—from Sandy Hook to Aurora to Santa Barbara to Orlando—the common enemy, now distilled at rallies and across social media, seems to be this emotion.

Stemming the violence, then, means deconstructing hate. It means considering every element in the creation and enabling of so many psychopaths. And one that tends to be overlooked— widely known but narrowly considered— is the simple fact that almost all mass murderers are men. As of 2014, Time cited the number at 98 percent. That makes masculinity a more common feature than any of the elements that tend to dominate discourse—religion, race, nationality, political affiliation, or any history of mental illness.

In Salon this week, writer Amanda Marcotte argues that the “national attachment to dominance models of manhood is a major reason why we have so much violence.” She points to the Orlando killer’s history of aggression: his 2013 investigation by the FBI for threatening a co-worker, his reported rage at the sight of men kissing, his physical abuse of his wife, who required help from her parents to escape her own home.

This seems a quintessential case of what has come to be known as toxic masculinity, as Marcotte defines it, “a specific model of manhood geared towards dominance and control.” When men seek that control—when we feel it’s our due—and don’t achieve it, we can resent and hate. Toxic masculinity sets expectations that prime us for disappointment. We turn that disappointment on ourselves and others as anger and hatred.

As the psychologist Arie Kruglanski told The Washington Post this week, the most primal act a human being can take to ameliorate self-loathing is “showing one's power over other human beings.” (As a small, non-masculine philosopher once said, “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”)

“If toxic masculinity was just about men posturing around each other in a comical fashion, that would be one thing,” writes Marcotte, “but this persistent pressure to constantly be proving manhood and warding off anything considered feminine or emasculating is the main reason why we have so many damn shootings in the United States.”

Whether it’s the main reason is necessarily speculative, but examining the role of masculinity in hatred is overdue. There was some discussion after the Santa Barbara killer’s 137-page manifesto literally said “my problem is girls,” who denied what he felt he deserved. And after the Washington Navy Yard shootings in 2013, amid a national argument over whether to blame gun control or mental illness, NPR asked simply “Why Are Most Rampage Shooters Men?

The story lost the trail, though: Sociologist Lin Huff-Corzine posited that “men are more comfortable than women when using guns, whereas women are more likely to choose knives.” Criminologist Candice Batton suggested that men are more likely than women to “develop negative attributions of blame that are external,” which translate into anger and hostility toward others. Women, though, are more likely to blame some failing of their own, “directing anger inwardly into guilt and depression.”

This feels closer to an explanation—women are twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with depression. But it ignores the reason that men and women tend to cope differently, the role of masculinity in teaching men what they are supposed to expect and how they are supposed to deal. This manner of coping is not inherently violent, but it does not pair well with ignorance and firearms.

The Orlando murderer appears to have been a violent bro who, in the moments before his death, bizarrely identified with the Boston Marathon murderers, with whom he had nothing apparent in common but a violent quest for self-actualization. ISIS seems to have been a vehicle for his hatred, which was more fundamental. The Orlando Sentinel reported yesterday that the killer frequented the nightclub Pulse, where he would “get so drunk he was loud and belligerent.” He also “express[ed] his intolerance toward homosexuals,” his ex-wife recalled, corroborating his father’s accounts.

Taken together, his intolerance seems a textbook case of outwardly directed self-loathing. If a different culture of masculinity had encouraged him to accept his sexuality, would he have had that anger?

“Being able to stockpile weapons and have ever bigger and scarier-looking guns is straightforward and undeniable overcompensation insecure men trying to prove what manly men they are,” writes Marcotte. “This isn’t a discussion being held on the plane of rationality, but a psychological drama about these men’s fears of emasculation.”

This is where the argument risks losing traction, in that it has made men across the Internet defensive. “Not all men” has been a boorish rejoinder to critiques of masculinity, but an informative one. No one wants to be implicated in this violence—not all gun owners, not all bipolar patients, not all people who identify with a religion, and not all men. In each of these cases, the vast majority of the group are people who are humane and compassionate people, horrified by the violence at hand. The worst that can come of any preventive analysis is to further divide people. The danger in analyzing violence, the task before us all, then is in painting too broadly.

Or, at least, in being perceived as painting too broadly.

As President Obama said earlier this month, he can’t discuss gun regulation without people fearing that he means to confiscate all firearms. The author Sam Harris has attempted to deconstruct the role of theology in violent sects and has been labeled a “Muslim-bashing demagogue.” Even Ben Affleck condemned him. It’s just as difficult to talk about mental health care after a shooting, which invites the criticism that mental illness is already stigmatized, and should not be mentioned in conversations of violence. The marginalized status of people with mental illness—like that of people in the U.S. who are not Christian—loads any discussion from the outset.

By comparison, masculinity is straightforward. Men are not the marginalized gender, and much of what we call masculinity is malleable, in many ways learnable and unlearnable. If anyone appears to be condemning masculinity broadly (which Marcotte is elsewhere explicit that she is not), then the discussion devolves. The idea of toxic masculinity is—critically— not a sweeping indictment of bros or gender. It’s an admission that masculinity can be toxic at times.

Toxicity of anything in life is only ever a matter of context. And today’s context is one where a dangerous, militant sect is trying to radicalize volatile people who live in the country where weapons are the most plentiful in the world. Today’s context is that on top of all that, there are men who are full of insecurity and expected to express themselves only in certain, limited ways.

No cause is singular, and each inroad incremental: Preventing firearm abuse does not seem immediately politically realistic; divides created by religions will persist; no system will soon provide comprehensive mental-health care. The arbitrariness and pervasiveness of masculinity, though, make it especially actionable on a personal scale, day to day and minute to minute. It’s probably something between painting your nails and giving up all expectations of control. Though both of those would be fine.