Boys to Men: Lessons from Another Mass Shooting

March 1, 2018

Columbine. Sandy Hook. Charleston. Pulse. Sutherland Springs. Las Vegas. Parkland.

These are only a few names that have become household as Americans navigate the collective trauma that follows an act of violence.  

It can be easy for us to look at mass shootings and immediately arm ourselves with information to debate: mental illness or stricter gun laws? While both of these issues are important, we need to dig deeper to understand that this is a multifaceted problem and examine the ways in which entitlement and passivity contribute to violence in the United States. While stricter gun laws are imperative, and taking symptoms of mental illness more seriously are necessary, there is more to discuss: namely privilege, specifically white and cisgender-male privilege, and how it functions to perpetuate a trajectory of violence from catcalling on the street corner to domestic violence to mass shootings.

The arguments for more resources toward mental health are important, yet most traditional mental health services don’t address masculinity and male privilege in their approach to assessment and treatment.  As Dr. Jonathan Metzl writes, there is “very little evidence [that] supports the notion that mental illness in and of itself causes assaults on other people, let alone gun crimes or mass shootings.”[1] What this psychiatrist is referring to is something that all mental health professionals or researchers are familiar with: correlation does not equal causation. In layman’s terms, simply because there is a small pattern of some shooters having a history of mental illness, this has no significant bearing on whether they would have committed the crime had they not had a history of mental illness. Why is this relevant in the landscape of this conversation? It remains that mass violence is committed indubitably more often by individuals without mental health diagnosis than those with them. The DSM V is the Bible for mental health professionals, yet it has serious flaws in that matches behavioral symptoms with mental health disorders and does not draw any implications from the sociopolitical experiences of people’s lives--power, privilege and oppression, and how those influences may shape one’s beliefs and behaviors.

Reducing the shootings to mental illness is an injustice, and while gun reform is necessary, it doesn’t get to the deeper roots of what perpetuates violence against others. As we have seen time and time again, white, cisgender men are committing terrorist acts against American citizens. And, we also know that rates of domestic violence continue to soar.  At the heart of these issues is a topic much less wrestled with in the national discourse:  that white, cisgender men firmly believe that they are entitled to happiness, that they are entitled to obtain what will make them happy be it property or people, and that they will largely be given the benefit of the doubt because of their gender and skin color.

[1] Dr. Jonathan Metzl’s Politico piece can be found here.

In order to get to the bottom of this notion of entitlement, we must discuss white and male privilege and how it operates in everyday life and can lead, in extreme circumstances, to mass violence.

What is privilege? Simply put, privilege is being given certain unearned advantages because of skin color, sexual orientation, gender and class. It is those whose identities are favored in a capitalist, patriarchal, heteronormative and Eurocentric society.  Privilege is institutionalized through laws that support those who benefit from and are expected, in return, to uphold white supremacy, classism, misogyny and homophobia. For example, white individuals can shop without being followed, drive without fear of being profiled and pulled over, and expect that any neighborhood they can afford to live in will welcome them into the neighborhood.  It is an endless list of options and opportunities that as a white person one never has to think twice about, and is often surprised when pointed out. 

How does privilege, specifically white, cisgender-male privilege, relate to power inequities in relationships and in extreme cases, mass shootings? Well, let’s start with family life.  Men coming to the Institute for Family Services, as they go through a process of exploring society’s messages about masculinity, often report having fewer good friends that they talk to about intimate details of their emotional relationships. They recall being told they are weak, called “sissy” or other misogynistic references, if they don’t “man up” and do what they need to do.  So, men tend to keep it all it in, and often the rest of us accept that and don’t question men even when there are warning signs of upset and even signs of violence.  We know that a majority of mass shootings have been committed by cisgender men. It is a fact that the majority of these acts of violence (or terrorism) have been performed by white, cisgender men. It is a fact that most of these assailants have a history of domestic violence toward women and others. Why is it that women, and to a much lesser extent men of color, not show up as offenders of extreme violence like Parkland?  We would argue that the level of entitlement, stemming from white privilege, that is solidified through legislation and the judicial processes can drive white cisgender men to this extreme.  Consider how privilege is embedded in our systems in the following ways:  Viagra has been covered under health insurance but not birth control; how on average white, cisgender men make anywhere between 21-46% more income than cisgender women across races[1]; it is how social change movements like Black Lives Matter and the Women’s March can be attacked but massive damage and violence from white nationalist groups can be excused; and how, time and time again, white, cisgender men are able to commit horrific acts of violence (especially against women) and be described as poor, troubled, and having had a bright future.[2]


Entitlement is then a byproduct of privilege. When one becomes accustomed to viewing the world through a lens that caters to them by virtue of sameness, one learns to expect certain things. The expectation that people and policies will favor, coddle, or desire you is entitlement. In the case of white and cisgender-male privilege, society conditions these individuals to demand to be recognized, whether they are cognizant of this or not. It shows up in the way that white, cisgender men expect women collectively to desire them, and refer to them as explicatives or physically, verbally, or sexually assault them when they experience rejection. It shows up in the way that white, cisgender men demand ownership of jobs, homes, titles, and, more relevantly, guns over the comfort or safety of other demographics. It shows up in the way that white, cisgender men have exhibited patterns of violence and have flown under the radar of passivity, being given the benefit of the doubt by virtue of “not being a threat,” only to commit mass amounts of armed violence.

Until we tackle privilege and start providing avenues to have conversations about it, we will never be able to help men explore alternatives to traditional masculinity and the consequences to themselves and others.  The question to begin with, really, is how do we create spaces for white cisgender men to think about all of the messages they have received since birth about being a man, a “real” man, and how those messages have driven their choices to misuse their power whether verbally, physically and sometimes even to the extreme like murder and mass attacks. 

At the Institute for Family Services (IFS), we have these conversations and make connections to how this contributes to struggles in their relationships with their partners, with their children, with their physical health, even men’s shortened life expectancy.  We carve out a space for men to talk about privilege and accountability, and for their family members to share their hurt and hope for change. These spaces are critical to healing and resilience, both for families and communities where words and bullets alike leave indelible wounds.  We have seen the Parkland survivors create these spaces of collective healing on national television.  IFS creates this space for families so that boys and men can learn different definitions of masculinity and ways of being that create healthier relationships and communities.

[1] Gender Wage Gap, 2016.

[2] For example, Brock Turner, a young white boy, was described as an all-American swimmer, having a once-promising future instead of as a rapist in the media, whereas Trayvon Martin, a young black boy murdered by George Zimmerman for walking down the street, was portrayed as a thug in a hoodie with a history of possession. Bitchmedia and CNN are two examples, but there are plenty to google from.

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