Op-Ed

'We all have a part to play' in cultural change that could stop mass shootings

Nikolas Cruz is lead out of the courtroom March 14 after an arraignment hearing at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Cruz is accused of the shooting rampage that killed 14 students and three school employees at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on Feb. 14.  Karen Burke, executive director of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services in Bellingham, suggests "toxic masculinity" and deeply rooted cultural beliefs about gender are behind mass shootings in the U.S.
Nikolas Cruz is lead out of the courtroom March 14 after an arraignment hearing at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Cruz is accused of the shooting rampage that killed 14 students and three school employees at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on Feb. 14. Karen Burke, executive director of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services in Bellingham, suggests "toxic masculinity" and deeply rooted cultural beliefs about gender are behind mass shootings in the U.S. Amy Beth Bennett

By Feb. 15, 30 mass shootings – defined as four or more people killed in a single incident — had taken place in the United States in 2018. That is nearly one shooting every 1.5 days. Active shooter training is becoming commonplace in schools and workplaces across the country. In fact, Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services participated in one this month.

Our country is once again entrenched in conversations around the accessibility of semi-automatic firearms, the mental health of the shooter and why this kind of extreme violence continues to happen. But each time a shooting happens there is an important piece of the conversation that gets missed: the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter, like the Orlando nightclub shooter, the Sandy Hook Elementary shooter, the First Baptist Church shooter, and almost all others, was male. In fact, 98 percent of mass shooters are men.

Is there something more we need to ask ourselves about this? If 98 percent of mass shooters were women, I cannot help but think that fact would dominate public conversation. Instead, the focus is on the shooter himself: how he was a loner, suffered from mental illness, or believed in white supremacy. Women suffer from mental health issues at nearly the same rates as men. Women can be loners, have strong ideological beliefs, and have the same access to firearms as men. Yet women are not mass shooters. Why?

The answer is rooted in our cultural beliefs about gender. Our society strictly divides human behaviors, characteristics and emotions into categories of masculine or feminine. Being active, strong and tough is masculine; while being sweet, pretty and helpful is feminine. Then, through years of both subtle and overt conditioning, we all come to accept, at least to some level, the roles society assigns us. Rigid gender roles not only limit the full expression of our humanness but some of us become so strictly indoctrinated into these roles that they become deeply damaging and dangerous.

When boys and men devalue, and even deny, the characteristics and emotions in themselves that are in the feminine category and overvalue those in the masculine category, the gender role becomes what is known as “toxic masculinity.” Similarly, when girls do the same it is “toxic femininity.” The effects of toxic masculinity can impel some men to become extremely violent and controlling, driven by a belief that they are entitled to get what they want, especially from women.

This is particularly important to me because these are the same cultural norms and behaviors that allow epidemic levels of domestic violence, sexual assault and sexual exploitation.

Not coincidentally, domestic violence is the driving factor in many mass shootings. In well over half of mass shootings in recent years, perpetrators targeted current or former intimate partners, many times killing children and others in a final act of control.

If we dig a little deeper, we find that even in mass shootings that are not a direct act of domestic violence, the perpetrator has a history of violent acts or attitudes against women or girls.

Toxic masculinity does not allow for males to express tenderness, grief or vulnerability, and can make men feel out of control when they have these natural experiences. When people do not feel in control, we search for ways to feel powerful. That, coupled with a society that encourages anger and violence in men, creates a dangerous combination that can result in the seeking of power through perpetrating domestic violence, sexual assault or, in very extreme situations, mass shootings.

We need to stop looking at each incident of violence as “random” or “unimaginable.” The roots of these horrific crimes are deeply embedded in our culture and are shaped by social constructs and systems of oppression. This doesn’t mean that they are natural or inevitable, but it does mean that the answers lay in deep cultural change. In this, we all have a part to play.

Karen Burke is executive director of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services in Bellingham, which operates a 24-hour hotline at 360-715-1563.

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