McCall: Toxic masculinity and mass shootings

The students who marched in the March For Our Lives this past Saturday have taken the issue of gun control into their own hands—not that they had much of a choice. Their politicians are deaf to the cacophony of cries for gun reform.

I’ve written previously about my stance on guns: We should outlaw private ownership of guns in the United States. However, I’d be naive to suggest that our mass shooting problem can be solved by outlawing the private ownership of firearms. Getting rid of guns in our country is not that simple.

Something more pernicious than the possession of firearms, when it comes to mass shootings, is the idea that violence is the best way to solve one’s problems. This mentality suggests that expressing one’s myriad emotions in one sudden burst of anger is not only understandable but, in a way, even justifiable.

I’ll be brief: Violence is not a solution to any problem. Violence is a vicious cycle. Violence breeds violence. From a young age, though, men are taught the opposite: that violence is the answer.

We’re taught that expressing any emotion other than anger is “something that girls do.” An uncountable number of boys have cauterized the flow of sadness and pain and loneliness from their chests in an effort to “man up.”

For many men, the problematic phrase “man up” came from their parents, or their football coach, or their friends, or their siblings or their relatives. For many others it came from their television, movie or video game role models. Most men have heard variations on the phrase “man up” countless times since their first memories, but it’s often more subtle than a explicit command.

“Man up” is implied by the jeers of siblings, friends or classmates when a boy starts to cry; it’s implied by the toys boys are encouraged to play with (“action figures” and trucks, not dolls and teacups); it’s implied by the selection of clothes in the boy’s section of the department store (blue and black, not pink and purple).

The concept of “toxic masculinity”—a term encompassing, among other things, the varied demands to “man up”—has been floating around our culture for a while. Too often it is misconstrued as a “feminazi” claim that all masculinity is toxic. This is a mischaracterization.

Writing for Salon, Amanda Marcotte defines toxic masculinity as a “model of manhood, geared towards dominance and control.” It’s the idea that men should suppress their emotions; that violence is the answer; that women are objects to be conquered and possessed, rather than people to be cared about and loved.

We’re taught these lessons from a young age, and the messages are not always easy to identify. They’re subtle yet infectious norms for behavior. When it comes to the tendency of men towards violence, the concept of toxic masculinity is particularly concerning.

Consider these statistics from the Netflix documentary “The Mask You Live In”: 90 percent of homicide perpetrators are male, and 94 percent of mass homicides are committed by males. Men and women have equal access to firearms in the United States. Why, then, do men commit a disproportionate percentage of the murders in our country?

The simple answer is that men are more inclined to violence. The reason for that inclination is toxic masculinity: As men, we’re raised this way. We aren’t explicitly raised to murder, obviously, but we are raised to think that violence is the answer to our problems. When it’s so simple to obtain a gun in our country, is it any wonder that we have a mass shooting problem?

Complex problems like toxic masculinity cannot be solved overnight. They cannot even be solved by legislation. Toxic masculinity is a cultural artifact, one that we’ve crafted over generations of raising young men.

We need to be better role models for boys. Just as the students affected by gun violence have taken matters into their hands, we, all men, need to do the same. We need to address the problem of toxic masculinity.

We need to teach boys that it’s okay to cry. We need to show them how to process and express their emotions in a healthy, nonviolent way. We should tell them that we love them. We can “be men” in a way that doesn’t encourage them to hide who they truly are.

Maybe we need to keep the phrase “man up” and change what it means. It means being strong and brave and honest, but it also means being vulnerable and emotional and loving. We need to be role models for young boys because, unlike the students who participated in the March For Our Lives, young boys won’t suddenly take matters into their own hands and learn to express their emotions properly. We need to man up, and we need to show them.

Thomas McCall is a second semester fourth-year student studying cognitive science, philosophy and math. Check out his other poorly written pieces on his Medium blog.