Why Are Boys and Young Men Committing Mass Murder in School Shootings?
October 3, 2006
As we struggle to come to grips with the tragic shooting at Dawson College Canadians are listening to the sometimes contradictory opinions of experts. We repeat the same questions. Could the shootings have been predicted and thereby prevented? What was it about this young man that drove him to commit such an extreme act of violence? What role did Goth culture and violent media play in motivating this terrible violence? Are our educational institutions safe and should we increase security measures?
As each expert weighs in, drawing from her/his own area of expertise we get a cacophony of conflicting opinions. We missed the warning signs and missed an opportunity to intervene; someone should have reacted to his postings on the Goth website; many youth express similar angry feelings and post comparable images and feelings on internet sites; it is a violation of individual rights for the criminal justice system to intervene when no crime has been committed and we are whipping up an unnecessary amount of hysteria about these sorts of postings; the criminal justice system failed to respond to an obviously dangerous young man; proper gun control measures could have prevented the shooting; gun control measures failed to prevent the shooting. We need to beef up security in educational institutions; to impose rigorous security measures on educational institutions violates the spirit of public education.
The danger of narrowly focusing in on each of these debates is that we will lose sight of the broader picture and we will ignore the starting place of not only this school shooting but also those that have preceded it. That is not to suggest that the questions are irrelevant, far from it. Together the questions reflect a complex reality that must be carefully examined. Together the questions can help to shape efforts to respond with measures to prevent reoccurrences of such horror.
But there is a question missing in our public reflections and debates; “Why are boys and young men committing mass murder in school shootings?” As Michael Kimmel noted in an article after Charles Andrew Williams, after he killed 2 people and wounded 13 others at his high school in California, “We continue to speak about ‘teen violence,’ ‘youth violence,’ ‘school violence’ without ever noticing the fact that all those ‘teens’ and ‘youth’ are boys.
In a world that thrives on aggression and physical force, violence has become an all-too frequent response to the frustration and anxiety that fill boys’ and men’s lives. While most boys do not take up a gun and randomly open fire in their local school or college, boys and young men do commit the majority of these violent crimes, including homicides and suicides in general. This is not to say that boys and men are naturally violent. They are not. However, we need to name “violent masculinity” as one of the complex cultural forces behind these recent school shootings, in
Confronting the issue of masculinity in these shootings would mean analyzing the stated motives of the shooters, taking a critical look at the recurring themes of bullying, shaming, harassment, and anti-gay taunts and asking the question – what is the link between the explosive rage of the shooters and the pressures to conform to the cultural standards of a “real boy/real man”? We live in a culture with highly constricting gender rules, and showing aggression is the surest way to assert masculinity. By becoming violent in the
Obviously, not all boys and young men respond to the pressures of masculinity by taking up arms and knives. As Kimmel puts it, “in most cases, boys learn any number of coping strategies to deal with the daily taunts of their classmates. Some turn inwards, self-medicate with drugs or alcohol, become loners. A large number of teen suicides contain stories of such daily abuse. And, in a very few cases, the anguish of having one’s masculinity challenged, ridiculed, denigrated builds until it explodes in a cathartic rage that seeks to destroy the entire world”.
In the wake of these tragic killings, there is an urgent call for us to find alternatives to the rigid sex roles that box boys and men in, often rewarding them for violent behaviour. Boys and men need to learn new rules and new roles in personal relationships and in the world at large. Bringing an end to violence will require vast structural and systemic change in our society. This means embracing new values of equity and non-violence in relations between countries, in the media, in sports, in schools, and all other institutions and systems through which non-violence can be modeled, enforced and passed on from generation to generation.
This article has been co-written by a group of anti-violence educators currently collaborating on the