ALLAN G. JOHNSON'S BLOG
I first wrote this post a few weeks after the mass murder of children and teachers in Newtown, Connecticut. Then, as now, in the aftermath of Orlando, I watch news outlets as they rush to gather significant ‘facts’ about the shooter to help us understand what he did—his age, religion, affiliations, place of birth, marital and parental status, occupation. Anything but the one thing he shares with almost every other mass murderer—the fact of being male.
Four years ago, in the aftermath of the mass murder in Aurora, Colorado, I watched the PBS Newshour display photographs of the four most recent shooters as the moderator posed to a team of experts the question of what the perpetrators all had in common. They looked at the photos and shook their heads. “Nothing,” they said, going on to explain that there were no significant overlaps in the men’s psychological profiles. All men, with nothing in common.
I watched again after the massacre in Newtown as a PBS moderator expressed her exasperation at the steady stream of killings that seem to defy explanation, adding to her earnest question, Why is this happening? what seemed almost like an afterthought—that all of the shooters are young men and might this hold a clue. The expert replied as if he hadn’t heard, and she did not bring it up again.
I pick on PBS only because they are so enlightened and serious compared with all the rest, and if they can’t see what’s right in front of them, then I don’t know who among the media can.
But, of course, the thing is, they do. I used to think they actually didn’t on account of ignorance—fish not noticing the water because it’s everywhere. I don’t believe that anymore. They have eyes that see and they’re not stupid. We know this because if you point out to them that all the shooters are male, they don’t say, “They are?” They know what they’re looking at and, even more, some of them feel moved to ask about it. So why, then, do they—and just about everyone else of consequence, it seems—act as if they don’t, as if the question isn’t worth the asking, much less a serious reply?
Many are in a state of denial or the wilful ignorance that Martin Luther King saw as the greatest threat. But denial and wilful ignorance are used for self-protection, which raises the question of what these educated, sensitive shapers of public policy and opinion are so afraid of.
The most immediate reason not to ask about the connection between men and violence is, quite simply, that men won’t like it if you do. We are a nation tiptoeing around men’s anger, men’s ridicule, men’s potential to withhold resources (such as funding for battered women’s shelters and sexual assault programs), men’s potential for retaliation, violent and otherwise, men’s defensiveness, and the possibility that men might feel upset or attacked or called out or put upon or made to feel vulnerable or even just sad. In other words, anything that might make them feel uncomfortable as men.
I have seen this again and again over the years that I’ve worked on the issue of men’s violence. Whether testifying before a governor’s commission or serving on the board of a statewide coalition against domestic violence or consulting with a commissioner of public health, when I point out that since men are the perpetrators of most violence, they must be included in naming the problem—as in men’s violence against women—the response has been the same: We can’t do that. Men will get upset. They’ll think you’re talking about them.
Even when children are gunned down at school—shot multiple times at close range so as to be rendered unrecognizable to their own parents—people in positions of influence and power show themselves all too willing to look into the camera and act as though they cannot see and do not know.
As a result, when men engage in mass murder, the national focus is on the murder but not men, beginning with a nationwide outpouring of broken hearts and horror and disbelief that this is happening yet again. All of this is undoubtedly heartfelt and sincere, but it gives way all too quickly to this country’s endless debate about controlling guns. Yes, we must talk about guns because they do kill people in spite of what their defenders say. Killing someone (including yourself) with a gun is far easier and quicker (harder to change your mind) and more certain and therefore more likely than is killing someone with a baseball bat or a knife. The rest of the industrialized world shows clearly how limiting access to guns lowers rates of murder and suicide. So, yes, we must talk about guns. And we must also talk about violence in the culture, from movies to video games. Even the National Rifle Association wants to talk about that.
But those debates are endless precisely because they are such effective distractions from what just about everyone is working so hard to ignore, which is the obvious connection between men and guns and violence. It is much easier to argue about immigration or the best way to fight terrorism or the fine points of the First and Second Amendments than to take seriously the question of what is going on in all of this with men. Such distractions enable us to avoid talking about the underlying reality that is driving it all, which, strangely enough, isn’t strictly about guns or politics or even violence. Or even, in a way, just about men.
Guns and violence are not ends in themselves. People are not attached to guns because of guns. Nor is violence glorified for itself. Guns and violence are used for something, a means to an end, and it is from this that they acquire their meaning and value in the culture. It is that end that we must understand.
Guns and violence are instruments of control, whether used by states or individuals. They otherwise have no intrinsic value of their own. Their value comes from the simple fact that violence works as a means to intimidate, dominate, and control. It works for governments and hunters and police and terrorists and batterers and parents and schoolyard bullies and corporations and, by extension, anyone who wants to feel larger and more powerful and in control than they otherwise would. The gun has long been valued in this culture as the ultimate tool in the enforcement of control and domination, trumping all else in the assertion of personal control over others. Can anyone forget the scene in Indiana Jones when ‘our hero’ is confronted with the huge man wielding an equally enormous sword, and the white man unholsters his gun and the crowd roars its approval as he calmly shoots the other man down? The gun is the great equalizer with the potential to elevate even the most weak, shy, or timid above anyone who lacks equivalent firepower. What this makes clear is that violence in this country is not an aberration or a simple product of mental illness. It is an integral part of the American way of life.
The key to understanding gun violence and the fact that all these shooters are men is this: an obsession with control forms the core of our cultural definition of what it means to be a real man. A real man is one who can demonstrate convincingly an ability always to be in control. Because violence is the ultimate and most extreme instrument of control, then the capacity for violence—whether or not individual men may actually make use of it—is also central to the cultural definition of manhood.
Every man and boy faces the challenge of signaling either their own capacity for violence or their support if not admiration for that potential in other males, if for no other reason than to solidify their standing as real men (or boys), if not to deter acts of violence and ridicule directed at them. It is a dynamic that begins early—in locker rooms and schoolyards—and extends in one form or another throughout men’s entire lives. However men and boys choose to deal with it as individuals, deal with it they must.
No one, no matter how powerful, is immune to this imperative of manhood as defined in this culture. Every Presidential candidate must first and foremost demonstrate their qualifications to be the nation’s Commander-in-Chief, which is to say, their willingness and readiness to make use of and direct the U.S. military’s massive capacity for violence in the overriding interest of controlling what happens in other countries. The record is clear, for example, that Lyndon Johnson kept us in the Vietnam War long after he knew it was unwinnable, for the pathetically simple reason that he was afraid of being seen as a President who could not control the outcome of that war. The horrific cost of protecting his manhood and the nation’s identification with it was not enough to keep him from it. The choices he made have been repeated by every President since, with the electorate’s enthusiastic support, right down to the present day where drone strikes routinely take the lives of innocent women, children, and men who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, including weddings, family gatherings, and schools.
Men’s acceptance of the cultural association of manhood with control makes them complicit in its consequences, including the use of violence. Acceptance need not be conscious or intentional. Individual men need not be violent themselves. Mere silence—the voice of complicity—is enough to accomplish the effect, and to connect them to the violence that other men do. When a young man who is feeling wronged or is insecure in his manhood straps on body armor and takes up a gun, he is pursuing by extreme means a manhood ideal of control and domination that has wide and deep support in this society, including among men who would never dream of doing such a thing themselves. That our culture is saturated with images of violence—from television and video games to the football field—is not the work of a lunatic fringe of violent men. Nor is the epidemic of actual violence. All of it flows from an obsession with control that shapes every man’s standing as a real man in this society.
It would be a mistake to end the analysis here, as if the problem of violence was simply a matter of men and manhood. The Newtown murderer, after all, used weapons belonging to his mother, which she had taught him how to use. She would not be the first woman attracted to guns because they made her feel powerful and in control. It might seem that this would nullify the argument about manhood, control, and violence. But, in fact, the involvement of women merely extends the argument to a larger level. The argument, after all, is not that men’s violence is caused by something inherently wrong with men, but that such behavior is shaped and promoted by a social environment that includes women.
A patriarchal society—which is what we’ve got—is, among other things, male-identified, which means that men and manhood are culturally identified as the standard for human beings in general. Consider, for example, the routine use of ‘guys’ to refer to both men and women even though the word clearly and unambiguously points to men (if you doubt this, ask people to raise their hand if they’re a guy and see how many women you get). Or that for years, medical research on heart disease focused only on men, based on the (false) assumption that the male body could serve as the universal standard for the human being.
In a male-identified world, what works for men, what is valued by men, is generally assumed to work for and be valued by human beings in general. So if the obsession with control associated with true manhood includes defining power and safety in terms of domination and control and, therefore, the capacity for violence that comes with owning a gun, then this is seen as not merely manly, but as universally human. Cultural ideas that would preclude women being both feminine and interested in guns have been a device for excluding and marginalizing women and keeping them dependent on men for protection (from other men). As such limitations have been broken down by the women’s movement, it is inevitable that some women will adopt male-identified ideals about power and control as their own.
But the analysis of violence rooted in an obsession with control must go farther still, beyond issues of gender, because the obsession shapes every social institution, from economics and politics to education, religion, and healthcare. Our entire history has been inseparable from a continuing story of control and domination directed at the earth and nonhuman species, at Native Americans, at enslaved Africans and other people of color, at those who resist the building of the American empire and its exercise of global power, at workers, at immigrants. As Richard Slotkin argues in his brilliant history of the making of the American mythology, violence has played a central role in that history. Although the heroes of that mythology have always been men, the larger idea of America shaped by it—of American exceptionalism and superiority, and freedom as the right to dominate and act without restraint—is about more than manhood. It has become the heart of who we think we are as a society and a people.
Which may be why there is so much ambivalence about guns and violence, and such a narrow focus on the crazy individual and not what this is really about, which is ourselves and an entire worldview that informs our lives, with cultural ideals about manhood at the center. The national silence about manhood and violence is about much more than either. It is about protecting a way of life even if it means failing to protect our children.
Any society organized in this way is a frightening place to be—people afraid to go to the movies unless they’re packing heat, parents afraid to send their kids to school. And the solution offered by that same society is, of course, still more control. If someone has a gun, get your own. Arm the teachers. Arm yourself. Arm your kids.
But every crisis is also an opportunity. Here we are once again. The prohibition against talking about violence and manhood in the same breath puts us in a state of paralysis which is where we find ourselves today. And that’s where we’ll be when this happens again, as it’s all but certain to do if it hasn’t already.
Unless we do something to break the silence. History is full of examples of the power of ordinary citizens speaking out—on slavery and race; on the rights of working people, gays, immigrants, Native Americans, people with disabilities, and women; on the exploitation and abuse of children; on the degradation, exploitation, and destruction of the earth and its species; on capitalism and the power of wealth. We have done it before and we can do it again.
For an explanation of patriarchy and how it works, see Allan’s book,The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy.
It is spring in the place I call home, the animals out and about, and time to tell this story again.
I was driving home when I saw the deer lying in the middle of the road. I turned on the flashers and stopped the car so that others would have to go around.
When I got out I could see it was a fawn. She was trying to lift her head. I bent down and spoke to her in a soft voice. I didn’t want her to be afraid, although I don’t know how she could not. A few cars came by, some drivers shooting me a look, wanting to know what was so important they should have to go around, then noticing something in the road before turning their eyes back to where they were going.
Someone stopped and to ask if they could help. I said if they had a cell phone they could call the police.
Most people went on by, like I imagined the driver of the car that killed the deer, which is what this was turning out to be. She wasn’t lifting her head anymore. In a little while, as far as I could tell, she was gone. The police arrived and then a pickup and they lifted her into the back and drove away.
As I got back into the car, I wondered how many had come by before me. I wondered why the driver didn’t stop, what went through their mind, were they frightened or just in a hurry or some mix of the two. It could have been just an accident, the fawn running into the road as they will do. A possum once ran into the side of my car. Still, how do you not pull over to see what you can do, if only to make it so the fawn doesn’t die alone?
Before driving away, I looked around the woods on either side of the road for signs of other deer, the mother perhaps, but there was nothing that I could see. They’re very good at hiding when they don’t want to be seen. To her I would be just another of that species with its big machines that come barreling down the road.
Whoever it was, the most likely reason the fawn is dead is they were going too fast. There is a lot of that around here. The roads are narrow and winding and the woods come down to the edge so you really can’t see what’s standing there until you’re almost on top of it. The only thing to do is slow down, which most people do not. There is one stretch on my way home that goes up a long hill, and I can look in the mirror before starting the climb and see no one behind me for a quarter mile and by the time I’m halfway to the top, there are four cars close behind. And I can tell from how they ride my bumper that they’re wanting to know just why am I going only five miles above the limit.
You’d think they were driving ambulances with someone dying in the back.
On that day, the face of the deer still fresh in my mind, the way she tried to lift her head, it was hard not to feel angry, asking myself what is the matter with people, one of those questions that doesn’t include me, of course, except when it does.
I haven’t killed many animals with a car—a few squirrels, a bright yellow bird that crashed into the windshield on a highway in northern Mexico. Nora and I grazed a moose that suddenly ran across the road in Maine, but no harm was done on either side. I could tell myself it’s because I’m a better driver or that I’m not in such a hurry, but that would be only part of the story. The fact is, I have also been lucky. They’ve been lucky.
All it takes to bring me down to earth is to recall the school bus on that morning when the rain was coming down in sheets and I was on my way to meet a friend for coffee. I was running late and hadn’t slept much the night before. It was another of those narrow country roads, the school bus stopped in front of me, red lights flashing, stop sign coming out. I waited while the kids hurried across the road from where their mother stood in the driveway. Then the red lights turned off and the stop sign folded out of sight, but the bus just sat there with rain coming down in buckets and me wanting to get going. And then I figured the driver must be speaking to the mother standing in the driveway and suddenly I just turned the wheel and put my foot on the gas and went out alongside the bus.
Those next few seconds haunted me for the rest of the day. It wasn’t that I had broken the law or hit someone—I had not. What haunted me was my reckless state of mind in that instant when I decided I shouldn’t have to wait, as if an extra thirty seconds was more important than whatever might happen on the far side of the bus. It was how a part of my mind just switched off, impervious to the possibility of something unforseen, not supposed to happen, beyond my control—a child getting back off the bus to retrieve a lunch box and the driver not turning on the flashers soon enough—that’s all it would have taken. A life literally might have hung in the balance while my mind was somewhere else for the second or two that it takes to kill someone with a car.
What I couldn’t shake was the memory of my impatience, the anger at having to wait, at the mercy of ‘those people’ holding me up. If I had put words to how I felt sitting in the car, it would have been, “You’re in my way.” And I realized that’s just what other drivers are expressing when they ride my bumper, get out of my way, because they are in a hurry, because what they have to do is more important than whatever someone else might have in mind, including—especially a deer or a squirrel or a turtle—just living your life for one more day.
And then I ask myself, what could be so important that it’s worth taking a life for no other reason than my not wanting to slow down? Who do I think I am?
It’s one of those questions that stops me in my tracks, because I know the answer already, that whatever I am, it’s a lot less than what I think. But the question is more than that. I would really like to know: Who do I think I am? What do I have to say to the young deer lying in the road that might explain what was so important that she should be knocked down and left to die alone, like countless others before her? Or what could I have said if something truly horrible had happened that morning in the rain? That I was sorry?
I was haunted by the confrontation with my own private arrogant exceptionalism, that my life, my agenda is somehow special, more important than the person in the car in front of me or the animal in the tall grass beside the road. In an instant, everything is reduced to an obstacle in the way of what I want, what I think I deserve, where I think I ‘need’ to be and when. The car only amplifies the effect, insulating me from everything and everyone outside this bubble carrying me swiftly down the road.
I was not only haunted, but humbled to realize that in fact I am not special at all. And only the blink of an eye separates the arrogance of living my life as if it were unconnected to all the life around me and being brought face-to-face with some horror that I have done while I was thinking about something else or in the grip of my impatience.
I was humbled by the reminder that we literally exist only in relation to everything else, that the idea of humanity as something set above and apart, independent, unaccountable, superior, is not only pure fiction, but bizarre and dangerous. Not to mention that I could imagine myself as separate from everything outside the content of my little mind as ‘I’ drive ‘my’ car to where ‘I’ think ‘I’ am supposed to be.
The other day I was driving along when I saw a turtle in the road, trying to get to the marshy water on the other side. I put on the flashers and stopped the car in the middle of the lane and got out and walked over to where it stood and eyed me from the pavement.
I leaned down and grasped the outer edges of its shell just as it tried to reverse its course and scurry back to where it started. A car approached, slowed, and then stopped as I held up my other hand and walked across the road, speaking softly to the turtle which had disappeared inside its shell. I set it down just beyond the sandy shoulder, pointing it toward the marsh a few feet away.
The car went on by, children trying to see the turtle making its way down the slope toward the water. The driver waved, smiling.
I resisted the temptation to think I had just done something virtuous. It was far more elemental, a simple act of kindness, as in kin and kindred, being naturally well-disposed to my own kind, a being with whom I share important things in common, beginning with wanting nothing more in that moment than to get safely to the other side of the road.
One of these days I’m going to have a bumper sticker that reads, It’s not about you.
I don’t know why, exactly, it keeps coming into my mind. It could be just a note to myself, but, then, of course, it would be just about me.
I’ve also been wondering if it’s an accident that the country that made individualism a sacred principle, also invented solitary confinement as a form of punishment.
I find that when two things present themselves like that, one after the other, they’re often connected, which is what Roxie and I are down here this morning to figure out.
I should note that she can appear to be sleeping when she’s not. This is work, and yet she has an uncanny way of maximizing her efficiency by making rest and labor simultaneous. She reminds me of those ducks I read about who can put half their brains to sleep while the other half is wide awake.
But enough about her.
I want the sticker because it seems that everywhere everything is all about you, the universal me—your me, my me, their me—which wouldn’t be a problem, if everything was about me and you, which, in case it needs to be said, it is not.
I might mention, for example, the global pandemic of men’s violence against women, and there will always be a man protesting in an injured tone that he’s never raped anyone.
Okay, I say, well done. But so what? I wasn’t talking about you.
Which he doesn’t grasp because he cannot see past himself, as if something can involve him only if it’s about him. The curse of individualism. And the refuge.
Like the white person so earnest about not wanting to be seen as racist that it can be easy for a person of color to feel invisible in their presence. Because, in the thick of that white preoccupation, what racism does to other people’s lives is not the point.
Which is why a black friend of mine once said that the most useless thing she could think of was a white person feeling guilty, because guilt can so easily take us to that place where it’s all about me and how I feel about what I’ve done or failed to do.
My effect on you is reduced to an occasion for my own feelings, which, come to think of it, might give me reason to reconsider whether I really hurt you after all, or how much, or was it really necessary to make so big a deal of it, considering how bad you’ve made me feel.
Teenagers can be especially artful in this, countering your complaint by resenting you for making them feel bad because of what they did. If only you’d been good enough to keep it to yourself.
And who knows, maybe you even had it coming.
Slippery, isn’t it?
How making it all about you can make it not about you at all.
I’m surprised there aren’t places where you can sign up for lessons. Then again, maybe we’re automatically enrolled the moment we’re born.
By which I don’t mean just men and whites, this being a general product of our cultural madness for the individual. It’s just that systems of privilege give dominant groups more opportunity to put it to use, including those who are sincere in wanting to make a difference.
I’m recalling a group where a conversation about race turned to the subject of hope, and I said something about not believing in that, it being too close to despair. What I do believe in is faith, by which I mean our capacity to not be afraid, to not become the fear that would keep us from what needs to be done.
What I remember most is the silence that followed and the very different reaction of whites and blacks in the room, with black people nodding in agreement as they looked about, and white people staring down at the table and shaking their heads.
I don’t know what they were thinking, because I didn’t ask, not knowing them well enough and too taken by what I saw. But I have a hunch about what was going on.
Hope and despair are for quiet moments of solitary reflection when you’re free to wonder about the meaning of it all. Like depression, despair is a private thing that does not seek company, as in the middle of the night when you’re feeling helpless, that there is nothing you can do that will make a difference you can see.
Out of the darkness, hope appears as an antidote, but suited more to the feeling than the problem, for it does not so much galvanize as soothe. Hope comes riding to the rescue, its banner whipping in the wind, promising to lift our hearts, that things will work out, somehow, someday, against the odds.
Whether we do anything or not.
Which can make hope into a luxury, a refuge from despair, that does not hold us to account.
But faith is what comes of having to wrestle with the angel of fear, whose power faith would harness into action. Faith is what turns a crowd of individuals into a march and then a movement. Where hope is passive and content, faith has an agenda and makes demands.
I suspect that people of color cannot afford to spend themselves on hope, because oppression is too immediate, every day, and has forced them to pull together, to find strength in solidarity built on faith. Because they know that in the moment of confronting power, the kind that hurts and even kills, the choice is not between hope and despair, but faith and fear.
White people have the luxury of being able to watch from the sidelines, or to know that at any moment, they can withdraw to the relative safety of being white. And hope it will turn out okay.
In other words, for people of color, racism is more a matter of we and us, while for whites, sliding down that slippery slope, it’s more likely to be all about me, or not at all.
Which brings me, oddly, to solitary confinement, first introduced as a form of punishment almost two hundred years ago in Philadelphia, famous for the Declaration of Independence and the Liberty Bell. If ever there was a place devoted to the principle that it’s all about you, it would have to be one of those tiny cells, little bigger than a closet, where prisoners may be confined for years or even decades.
Why, I wonder, has it taken so long to consider how barbaric and inhuman this is and, even now, with arguments on either side? I have a hunch that such punishment has persisted because it is seen as a natural extension of what we’ve been taught is the normal condition of a human being.
After all, if it’s all about you, what else is there? And how much room does it require?
Which sounds to me like the loneliest, most desolate place there is, the modern self, a tiny cell just big enough for me. And yet, we are supposedly the point of it all, not together, but separate—the you and the I—and this singularity is what it’s all about, the reason to exist, to be celebrated and defended at all costs, the freedom to be lonely, imprisoned by the illusion that a single human being could possibly be enough to make a life.
We are snookering ourselves into hell.
For in the moment that I make it all about me, I make you invisible, and turn myself into a ghost.
Which is not what it is to be a human being, which I know from how it makes us crazy.
Crazy in the prison cell, crazy in the frantic pace of the ‘individual’ life racing around so as not to pause long enough to see the emptiness we have become. Crazy in all the desperate measures to deny our embeddedness in other people’s lives, to escape the loneliness and insufficiency of self, with drugs and alcohol, compulsive sex, the sculpted body, the endless text, the 70-hour week, the next thing to buy. Does it not occur to us how pervasive it is, the desire to escape, to be anywhere but here, trapped inside the fiction that who we are goes no further than our skin?
Roxie looks at me, puzzled that anyone would choose to be this way. It is so simple, so obvious, and yet, why so hard, to see through the paradox that I am not the point, even of myself.
I remind her that she is a pack animal, which makes her the Queen of knowing it’s not about her, not that she won’t occasionally blow me off when I call. Still, there is always the moment when she turns and comes running, as if that’s what she had in mind all along.
Or I look up from my thoughts to see her standing off in the woods, still, intent, as she looks at me, always knowing exactly where we are.
We think we are not pack animals, the human beings, making it easy to imagine that I stand alone, autonomous and independent, when I do not. To think that what happens to you does not happen to me, that my life is a simple function of who I am, as if there were such a thing, separate and complete, that there is nothing larger than myself connecting my life and yours, that my end of the boat can sink while yours does not.
Every indigenous people has known what our ‘civilization’ would have us deny and forget, and then tell ourselves we are superior for having forgotten, which may be why we have worked so hard to make them disappear.
It’s not about you.