The Man Problem

At Salon, a fellow named Joe Scott points out that many of our domestic mass shooters begin their shooting spree by killing their mothers or another female family member — a wife, a sister. He says,

On a practical level, these female victims represent potential barriers to commission of the crime—people who could talk down the perpetrator, contact authorities, or otherwise interfere. In the mind of the killer, these women also may have posed a symbolic barrier to a conscious or subconscious self-image as the perpetually wronged party, a man with No Other Options, the prodigal avenger called to teach the world a drastic lesson.

Unfortunately, whether racking up points for piles of bodies in a videogame or assassinating terrorists with drones, to kill in the West is to win. And in order to win, on some level, regardless of biological sex, a person must purge barriers to winning by suppressing characteristics perceived as culturally feminine: softness and gentleness, submission and openness, sympathy, mercy, or hesitation.

You know: Shoot first and ask questions later. Make my day. Don’t be a pussy.

The private killing of particular women who could stand in the way of multiple public murders embodies an extreme and ultimately violent suppression of any force, internal or external, that might temper or “domesticate” the code of take-no-prisoners cowboy manliness.

The pattern doesn’t always hold true, but IMO he’s onto something. It strikes me a number of these guys still lived with their mothers or female family members, or were still dependent on them in some way, and that dominant female was the first person he shot.

Adolescent girls famously go through a Hate Mother phase that sometimes leads them to self-destructive behavior, like anorexia, running away or getting pregnant. But if they survive adolescence, they usually get over it. Too many men drag themselves through their whole lives with Mother Issues, and they usually transfer their resentments onto wives. Indeed, show me a guy who is chronically angry and abusive toward his wife and I’ll show you a guy who never worked through his issues with his mother.

Reminded me of something I wrote about ten years ago —

A few years ago, following the publication of Robert Bly’s visionary book Iron John (Addison-Wesley, 1990), there was a men’s movement. The men’s movement started out with progressive intentions but was soon taken over by various troglodytes and misogynists and flamed out. I want to go back to early men’s movement lit for a minute, though, because what it originally tried to do was a very worthwhile thing that still needs doing. It is also essential to seeing what lies beneath our current political landscape.

In Iron John, Robert Bly tried to reconnect manhood with nature and civilization — with building and creation and husbandry instead of destruction, war, and waste. Bly used fairy-tale metaphors to describe a way for males to grow into a mature manhood rather than remain stuck in the perpetual adolescence that passes for “manhood” in our culture, currently represented by “The Man Show” on cable television.

Bly’s premise (picked up from Joseph Campbell) is that in our culture boys grow up lacking contact with men. Therefore, they are uninitiated into true manhood, and beneath their bravado — often subconsciously — they are fearful and insecure. This in turn causes men to be prone to violence and fearful of intimacy. (Iron John was a revelation because a man was saying this; however, nearly any woman over the age of 40 will tell you the same thing.)

The faux masculinity celebrated by our culture equates violence with strength and power with potency. It is a rogue thing that does not honor the principles of civilization or the processes of governance. Like most John Wayne characters, or Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, following the rules is for girls and sissies. Why bother with a justice system when you’ve got a gun?

Now, consider the meatballs who participated in the recent Gun Appreciation Day. Does that fit, or what?

What’s connecting with me today is that many of the mass shooters as well as the 2nd Amendment absolutist who equate disarmament with castration are products of the same social pathology. They are not opposites (good guys/bad guys) at all, but variations on the same theme.

What say you?

22 thoughts on “The Man Problem

  1. I think this is an important insight that is a large part of the dynamic that drives men to violence and gives it its particularly misogynistic character. I doubt it’s the whole story. Mass-shooting incidents do follow patterns, but they are still relatively rare, and each one has its own precipitating factors.

    Another important part of the dynamic is the social pressures men face – not unrelated to their relationships with women, but not the same thing. Many mass shootings occur in the workplace or school (the workplace equivalent for young people). These usually do not begin with the shooting of a close female family member, but often begin with the shooting of a supervisor or tormenting peers. Here, the dynamic has to do with power, humiliation, and feelings of frustration arising from the pressures on men to be independent and dominant in a system that forces them to be dominated and subordinate. Again, these forces also contribute to misogyny, but it’s a different dynamic from that which plays out in shootings that start at home.

    Then there is the small subset of religiously-motivated mass killings, and political or racial incidents. The men who do these things are also often misogynists, but, once more, the dynamics of their killing incidents are very different.

    Misogyny is inextricable from the many pathologies that men are driven, or tempted, into, but it is not the immediate cause of all their behavior.

    • KTK — I agree that misogyny is a symptom rather than a cause, but I think that’s kind of what I said in the post. And you can probably tie this to the shifting values of racial identity. Being white is still an advantage, but not the advantage it used to be. And increasing numbers of low-income whites are seeing themselves marginalized, economically and otherwise, to a much broader degree than was true in the past. So a lot of this pathology is being expressed by low-income white men.

      The cause might be that these men don’t know who they are, or who they’re supposed to be, and don’t see a respectable place for themselves in our culture. Strapping on a gun and screaming about the Muslim Usurper makes them feel like somebody; it gives them an identity that feels powerful and righteous. But ultimately it’s a fantasy, and taken to extremes it’s a destructive fantasy.

  2. Well, maybe their philosophy is, “If you can’t pack a powerful pecker, then pack a powerful pistol.”

    And yes, I think these people clearly have Mommy issues.
    And Daddy issues.
    And sibling issues.
    They ALL sorts of mental and sexual inadequacy issues that they use guns to compensate for.

    I’d openly laugh at every pistol-packin’ moron, and ask if they wished their pecker’s were as big and powerful as the pistols they was a-packin’? – but they’d probably go home, shoot the nearest female, and then come back, looking to finish me off.
    So, I keep my big fat mouth shut.
    Discretion is the better part of keeping your fat @$$ from being shot to pieces – dead.

    Maybe we need to add some X*nax to the water, to go with the Flouride?

  3. Am I correct in my recollection that Robert Bly was a poet, not a psychologist? He was on the right track, but I seem to remember his solution as heavy with tribe symbolism that, as you pointed out, didn’t become a remedy, but rather was co-opted by the problem itself.

    It’s interesting that the NRA keeps referencing mental illness as the root cause of gun violence, but misogynist/racist/religious-extremist acting-out is the core of the “mental illness” they keep harping about. They’re in complete denial about that.

  4. Hmm, no need to guess why my previous comment went into moderation. More seriously, I agree that most of the male human beings who are so obsessed with manliness aren’t men at all but frightened boys, but I’m not sure that a new model of manhood is what we really need. More like a new model of adulthood for both men and women. I’m not saying masculinity and femininity should go away, but I don’t think we’re at a place anymore, culturally or historically, where sex or gender should be at the core of anyone’s sense of self.

    And speaking of John Wayne, I saw Red River not long ago, which is a really great film, and really interesting on these issues. On the good guys/bad guys thing, Roger Ebert pointed out in his essay on the film that John Wayne’s character, Tom Dunson, wears a white hat at the beginning of the film and a black hat at the end. And the trajectory of the character is that the same masculine qualities that make him successful at first–he’s bold, decisive, fiercely independent–make him a monster later on. It also has a lot to do with the absence of women. There are only two women in the whole film, both small parts, but they’re extremely important to the story.

    And then you’ve even got the famous scene where Montgomery Clift and John Ireland admire each other’s pistols and then engage in a shooting contest, complete with dialogue like “Nice!” and “Keep it going!”

    And, lastly, one of the greatest lines in all of cinema: “The sun only shines half the time, Tom. The other half is night!”

  5. Don’t take this the wrong way, but the other half of the equation often feeds this problem. As the proverbial nice guy, as a young adult male it was ever-so-difficult to connect with a great majority of what passed for women (mostly adult-aged adolescent girls fixated on the marriage-at-all-costs paradigm). who proceeded back into another relationship with a manly man…

    We all have our training to overcome. Maybe motherhood makes that more likely for women, but it weren’t easy overcoming decades of “girls are just more mature than boys” nonsense while watching girls get away with the stupidest behavior…

  6. it weren’t easy overcoming decades of “girls are just more mature than boys” nonsense while watching girls get away with the stupidest behavior…

    I don’t imagine it was. But the men we are talking about here are not the proverbial nice guys… they are the violent ones. I don’t believe women are to blame for their behavior, any more than you decent men are.

  7. I think it’s more likely the biological need for female admiration that prompts a killer to target the females who know him best, because they are not going to be very impressed by the glory of his deed.

    Or, in the case of the father who had to go first – the one whose attention has been lacking. We certainly do have a problem reaching maturity in this country. Advertisers and the NRA know how profitable that can be.

  8. The cause might be that these men don’t know who they are, or who they’re supposed to be, and don’t see a respectable place for themselves in our culture.

    Hm. Throw in economics, and I think you’re really pushing on something. If there is no manhood, but men can go out and work hard and build a nice life, there will be “manhood” celebrated one way or another. But without the nice life, you have frustration coupled with that lack of belonging.

    If you had cultural manhood, that could survive a period of privation. If you had prosperity, that could generate an invented manhood. But with neither, you have people trying to build something, but not having any foundation upon which to build it.

  9. Well Maha luckily doesn’t have to worry about her son having mommy issues 😉 For some men, being raised by strong single mother leads to them having little to no issues with treating women with respect and seeing their opinions as worth of listening to etc. They are not threatened by a woman telling the what to door speaking her mind. Others spend their life flailing against that early emasculation.
    As for the plight of the “nice guy” thinking women are stupid because you didn’t get the cookie you think you deserved, is why you didn’t get that cookie.

  10. It’s interesting that the NRA keeps referencing mental illness as the root cause of gun violence, but misogynist/racist/religious-extremist acting-out is the core of the “mental illness” they keep harping about. They’re in complete denial about that.

    joanr16 …That’s because by pushing the mental health side of the issue the NRA effectively fragments the opposition into 300,000,000 +/- parts. The only possibility to reduce gun violence to any degree is to reduce the availability of guns.

    It might be my paranoia or my New York vigilance of always looking for the hook..But today I read that Newt Gingrich is calling for a Congressional panel to study mental illness issues regarding “Mass” shooting. I take that as a red flag, ears up, indication that the NRA is trying the best they can to lead the discussion down the rabbit hole.

    There’s no doubt that our nation has to address it’s mental health issues, but if it is addressed with gun violence being its sole focus..the result will yield nothing but a decoy for the NRA.

    And it goes without saying that Newt isn’t exactly a humanitarian..He doesn’t do anything for anybody unless his palms are greased.

  11. One of my favorite blogs is The Art of Manliness which is about trying to install a “cultural manhood” that’s neither adolescent nor macho. Articles cover things like being a better father, a better husband, and a better leader (mixed in with articles on how to do pull-ups, tie a tie, and start a fire). It’s a nice reminder that there’s another model of manhood out there — I just don’t know how to bring more men to it.

    (For fans of Friday Night Lights, think of it as Coach Taylor manliness.)

  12. Maha, I think your comment is right on. The loss of the lower educated, white man is significant. I see white boys/men graduate every year whom school is not ‘their thing’. These guys used to have some options, union factory jobs or the trades. But any more, and especially since the Great Recession, not many choices except the military. But at least the military will help them deal with their issues. (Sarcasm, if you couldn’t tell).

  13. Another thing related to the class issues that foment misery: Have we not all heard the blather about wanting to send every child to college? For a person who knows that college is either academically or interest-wise undesirable, that kind of idea creates an automatic doom/failure/inferior self-image. We have people who start out ok but are destroyed by their upbringing, which fails to recognize their good qualities and tries to force them into a mold that eventually breaks them. They may have been a bit fragile to start with, but they could have made it with some support for finding their way. Then of course there are the ones who are seriously ill early on. The teens and twenties are when some of the most devastating mental illnesses blossom into their tragic flowers. Whatever connections these sufferers have to the real world become more negative through perception or through actual treatment by those who do not or do not want to recognize their illness. Newt Gingrich, of course, is just using this as an excuse for inaction. Some of us have seen enough, though, and will support fixes at both ends of the barrel. And isn’t Newt just a formally undiagnosed narcissist himself?

  14. There are a lot of comments here that make sense to me. Like a lot of Americans, I am occasionally haunted by the question of how we got to this point. There is a constellation of causes, so there is no magic bullet. I started to write a longer comment trying to relate some of the causes and realized that I wouldn’t be adding anything to the conversation. Buckyblue’s comment touched on one of the threads I was trying to tie together. For a variety of reasons almost all of the shooters seem on the brink of complete powerlessness. Their gun is way of balancing this out. I think a lot of people obsessed with the bigger, better, more guns thing have this feeling. For some it becomes a pathology. To describe them as “socially awkward” would be charitable in the extreme. Meeting them would be like running into John Boehner in a bus station and have him suggest having a drink together. Something about them just creeps people out. For the “socially awkward” relationships are difficult, and relationships with members of the opposite sex doubly so. So the anti-feminine sentiment seems unavoidable. The last election showed that sexism is still a potent force among some segments of our society and we have a long struggle ahead. But, that’s another tangent.

    Okay now for some BS.

    The frustrated novelist in me, sees the LARP/video game aspect as someone trying to escape their real world identity and escaping into a CGI of themselves. It’s like they’re trying to reverse the polarity of reality and virtual reality. Their mothers would be both literally and symbolically, the gateway in and out of this world. They seek self annihilation. The murder spree is a kind of ritual that exchanges the fantasy and reality. When their real world self is destroyed the confusion, pain and powerlessness all disappear and all that is left is the digital image.

    Wow, kind sound like a sinister version of “Tron” . I guess I should stay away from armchair psychology. Maybe I could write a novel about gardening or something.

  15. “They seek self annihilation. The murder spree is a kind of ritual that exchanges the fantasy and reality.”

    Which is why most of them include a suicide (sometimes by police) in their plan.

    The guy from Aurora seems to be an exception, and his case will be interesting as the exception.

  16. This is off topic about why and who these shooters are, but it is very much about guns. It is late in this conversation but I have been thinking about this issue a lot. It dawn on me that decades ago I was a pit bull owner..before the breed was the problem it has become. I still had old pit bulls when cities started to out law them.My dog, Motley, was way cool. He attended the Sturgis rally where he walked the streets around about 450 thousand people in wearing sun glasses, and ended up in the Easy Rider mag “In the Wind” , Sturgis addition in 1988. Everyone wanted to pat the cute 120 lb dog wearing shades , and they did.

    But own a pit bull now! Yikes. You can’t live in some cities. And if you want to live in many with a pit bull you have tight restrictions you must comply with or you lose your dog. My city requires a special homeowners insurance policy. Only one company in town offers it and it costs a lot.In addition to that there are rules about how you must keep them. The fence must be so high, and covered . They must be muzzled when outside the house/yard and in public. ect. This is to own a DOG. I will guess that 98% of pit bulls go their entire lives never causing an issue. Never harming anyone. They are a great dog when their owners handle them in the proper way!

    Now I am not saying that they do not have the potential to do grave danger. Any big dog could have that potential, but I am un – aware of any situation where a dog was turned loose to kill a entire room full of humans in the way guns have. Yet we have no problem restricting these animals which are vast in numbers. Don’t believe me? Look on the craigslist pet section- or go to your local shelter. In 2011 pit bulls killed 22 people total( I could not find numbers for how many were children).

    So when I hear people say we are a gun culture and we can’t change that I don’t agree. Like the laws that regulate pit bulls , which has not solved the issue but it has chipped away at the problem prove we can make changes. If we can make changes here where only 22 people a year die, we can do it with any issue..

    That leaves the question of how to reduce the number of guns. Lets start with something justice Roberts says Obama has the right to do. TAX. A firearm tax on every new weapon sold. A friggin HUGE ONE. Close that big fat gunshow loophole and create a federal “weapons tax” and also require states to charge a large one too and if they don’t comply their check from the federal government gets a 10% cut. Make states use the money they collect for medical costs. Federal dollars collected could go towards medicare, Obama care , ect. Make the taxes so large on guns and ammo it becomes un- affordable. Then, to go further, pay a yearly tax on your weapons. To hunt you must prove you have paid your tax on your weapon before you get a deer tag. Same for a concealed carry permit. In order to renew that permit every year you must have your paid tax reciept and a yearly training certificate. Along with the ability to pass a criminal back round check. I know of people who got permits, have been later convicted of domestic violence and keep their permit because they only have to pass the check once. Loss of revenue for states and safety for us.

    If you don’t want to pay a yearly tax on all of your guns it is simple, you don’t have to own them, but all person to person gun sales should have to go thru a licensed dealer, who also makes revenue (say 5%) for handling the sale.That way the sale can be documented for “tax” purposes.

    Also I think it is time to put pressure on homeowners insurance companies to increase the rates and have special insurance for gun owners because of the increased liability. That is why the increased cost for pit bull owners to insurance rates..guns are far most costly to insurance companies and their consumers who end up paying in the long run. I dont want higher rates because billy bob has a gun. Yet if billy bob and i have the same insurance company I am….So come on all you patriots…pay your gun and ammo taxes..

    And one final thing we need to consider: Our first responders..I am reminded of being a young teenager and buying my first Harley.It came in a box from some guys garage and I had to put it together. I needed some parts for a old WW2 bike and I was taken to a old creepy victorian home where military vehicles from ww2, and korea and Nam lined the driveway. A guy came out in full cammo gear, gun and two knves showing, boots military issue. He walked us to his garage while he dug for parts..military crap was everywhere. A live grenade laid on the top of a giant tool box with all of his “bullet making ” materials were…yep, he made his own. We found our part and boy did I ever want to leave, but no the guy who had brought me wanted to go inside the house and talk about guns. Crap!. The house could have been on hoarders..guns and ammo, solider of fourtune and other gun mags were stacked every where..thousands of them. You couldn’t get past the front room if you had wanted to and I was praying not to have to pee ( i made it).. Guns sat everywhere next to full ashtrays and gas masks. I was terrified to sit or touch anything for fear it may either explode or get me dirty..The parts I bought were still in the military issue packaging from Harley( a gasket set) and were primo decades later. It was amazing. But the dude had several screws loose , my friend said the war had left him that way. He drank from a canteen..He told us how people had tried to steal from him and that he had one of his other nam buddies living with him and that “one of them was always on duty” ..a large one eyed man also missing half a leg who “didn’t talk” wow…

    Years went by and their house caught on fire. At least a decade before haz mat ( another story for another day) was even thought of, fire fighters responded, they had no idea what they were walking into. Fire fighters went in trying to save the one eyed gun, but he shot at them..they no sooner retreated when the house went off like a rocket..ammo and grenades exploded throwing metal and burning house pieces everywhere. Thankfully no first responders were killed ..there were some injuries but I don’t recall them being life threatening, but the entire neighborhood had to be cleared and no one was allowed back to their homes until fire was hot ashes. 2 days later it still burned and firefighters stayed until it was 100% out , fearing what else may explode from the basement once the house caved in. Our first responders, especially fire fighters need to know when there are fire arms and ammo in a home. These things put them in danger when responding to fires or chemical spills ect and they need to know if there are 5 pallets of machine gun rounds in the basement. They should be required to have a plaque or at least be on a list for first responders to consult so they are aware of the explosives.

  17. At the most fundamental level women as “mommy” figures become a symbol of helplessness in infancy that persists into adulthood to the extent that men are unable to harmoniously adapt to their adulthood circumstances. It’s hardly a novel idea that adulthood can be spent acting out the fundamental struggles of childhood. Mommy figures are not threats of harm that might be seen in other men but rather a reminder of helplessness on which agression might be unleashed in an infantile rage as a symbol of frustration.

    Justme tapped a favorite topic of mine, Pits. The English are aghast at what Americans have done to the line of smallish, loyal family dogs….the Staffordshire Terrier. The American lines have been bred for aggression against other dogs and submissiveness to humans. Some canine behaviorists suggest that 30% of behavior is attributeable to breeding and 70%. But take a clueless owner who can’t make up for agressive breeding…who even nurtures the dogs anxiety and there’s an accident waiting to happen. It gets hard to parse blame. There are still some pits here as sweet, calm, loveable and tempermentally sound as the English lines produce but it’s easy for their to be unknown temperamental problems lurking and a potential for agression if one does not know their own dog’s lineage.

    I have gentle high energy but non-agressive labs and have grown so weary of little men with big pits, many who’ve been run off by the dog park community where the worst of them seem to take a perverse pleasure over serious injury the intact, unsocialized males have caused. One in particular seems to enjoy it, takes little action to stop his two huge pits which, curiously enough, only seems to show agression towards the dogs of women. I live in CA but lived in the south at one time and met many a young redneck, pit owning thug who used their dog as an instrument of provocation.

    While owners can exhibit antisocial behavior putting others at risk the cycle of cruelty inherent in posisoning the lineage of a potentially great breed takes the psychopathology to sickeningly new heights…it’s like the eugenics of their own insecurity.

Comments are closed.