Raising Boys to Love and Care, Not Kill By Rob Okun
Heart contracts; tears collide. Ten dead, 13 wounded; this time in Santa Fe, Texas.
If we're ever to end these tragic bloodbaths in the United States, we have to put gender at the center of the national conversation about mass murders.
News flash: The location of the killings is only one way to describe the murders; highlighting the shooters’ gender is essential to gain insights to prevent future tragedies. While not all mass murders occur at schools—think churches and movie theaters—virtually every murderer is male, almost always white. Dimitrios Pagourtzis, 17, who opened fire at Santa Fe High School on Galveston County's Gulf Coast, is no exception. We ignore that truth at our peril.
In gun-friendly Texas, memories are still fresh from last November’s mass murders at a church in Sutherland Springs (27 dead, including the perpetrator, 26-year-old white male Devin Patrick Kelley). The Santa Fe tragedy was the 22nd school shooting of 2018 —that's more than one a week. Yet the national conversation focuses on gun access, mental health, school building security—anything but the gender of the perpetrator. Perplexing, since gender is central in another arena where men are perpetrating violence: sexual assault.
In the past 12 months, there's been a powerful shift in our cultural narrative, with the #MeToo movement inspiring more women to speak out—and be believed. So why are we reluctant to call a mass shooter a male mass shooter? If women were doing the killing, you can bet gender would lead every broadcast and news story.
In talking about men, phrases like “toxic masculinity” (or “healthy masculinity” for that matter) do men a disservice. They obscure deeper issues about manhood, especially the most important one: how we raise boys.
Let's be truthful: the majority of boys and men do not commit mass murder; do not enter public spaces brandishing automatic weapons; do not mow down pedestrians with cars careening down city sidewalks. Those men are the hawks in the coal mine; we need to pay attention to the canaries.
Any middle or high school student can identify the canaries—isolated, alienated boys with low self-esteem, products of a culture indifferent to boys’ social anxieties, disillusionment, and loneliness. Addressing their struggles as teenagers is too late; we must begin helping boys in preschool, learning from discerning early childhood educators and insightful psychotherapists about how we, as adults and role models, can raise happy, healthy men.
In considering both mass shootings and #MeToo, we’re told men have been largely silent. That's only partially true. How many readers are aware of the four-decade old anti-sexist men's movement that has been challenging men's violence against women (and other men), since the 1970s? How many know about the initiatives and organizations that have dotted the landscape since then?
Decades ago, when Gloria Steinem famously said, “Women want a men's movement. We are literally dying for it,” some men were listening. In the aftermath of a tragedy like Santa Fe, there is a treasure-trove of resources addressing contemporary masculinity. Men are helping; men want to help. Demonizing all men is a losing proposition.
Of course, there is never any justification for the twisted belief that men are “entitled” to a girlfriend or to sex. Troubled, lonely males are made, not born. A culture that refuses to consider the health of our boy children, and fails to acknowledge the gender inequality girls and women have experienced for, well, forever, will continue to produce wounded men, a tiny number of whom will become violent. Without early counseling and support, though, many will turn to extremist online misogynist groups for validation.
Boys can grow to be beautiful men if society is willing to re-evaluate how they are socialized. If Congress won't fund the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to conduct a comprehensive public health study of male socialization, then every state legislature should take up the cause. To honor the memories of the murdered in Santa Fe, Texas, Parkland, Florida, and all those who came before, we have to act. Now.
Rob Okun is editor of Voice Male magazine and a member of the steering committee of North America MenEngage. A new edition of his book, Voice Male: The Untold Story of the Profeminist Men’s Movement, was published earlier this year. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article first appeared in The Dallas Morning Union and The Telegraph in London. It is syndicated by Peace Voice.