John Ungerleider & Bill Pelz-Walsh
Without even hearing the details of the the latest school shooting, we all knew right away that the shooter was a young man. Recent school shootings have triggered a widespread focus on men as the problem. While not the first time this gender issue has been identified, it is an insight whose time seems to have arrived in the mainstream media: numerous articles have appeared naming toxic masculinity as a key influence on the identity and behavior of mass shooters.
We know our boys are raised in a culture of violence. When hurting, they strike out in anger. That’s what our leaders do, what many of our fathers have done, and what our culture does. Our boys learn at a young age to shield vulnerability by directing violence at others: pets, playmates, schoolmates, and eventually at intimate partners. Sometimes this violence becomes lethal. Guns are too easy to get and Congress once again does not respond. We must find ways, individually and collectively, to stop this repetitive violence, so deeply woven into our broader culture of masculine identity.
Acts of violence committed by troubled, alienated individuals are promoted by poisonous rhetoric from broader cultures of masculinity, xenophobia, and racism. On top of family and personal issues, the school shooters have been exposed to broader negative influences that included hate speech, affiliation with a white separatist group, and military training (including how to shoot) in JROTC. Candidate Trump encouraged his crowds to physically attack protesters at his rallies. Now this President wants a military parade to show off dominant masculinity. Public blaming from leaders, institutions, and the internet can incite those unhinged or angry enough to take violence literally into their hands.
What is being done to change this culture of violence? In Vermont, we have seen hopeful results in domestic violence accountability groups for men. These programs raise awareness of how men have been wired for violence, why they attack others, and the impact of their abuses: how to shift from aggressive expression of unexamined emotions to a conscious exclusion of violence from the male repertoire.
One example is Taking Responsibility, a state-certified 30-week psycho-educational program that focuses on the dynamics of power and control in men’s intimate relationships. In a small group setting, we help men to understand how they were taught the benefits of having power over others. Our parental role models define early on what relationships look like. Then the boy culture takes over. If you were seen as “tough” you were safe; however, if seen as weak, you were subjected to taunting, bullying and abuse. Similarly, when perceived as weak or vulnerable, you were insulted as being “a fag,” “a girl,” or “a momma’s boy.” No wonder so many men struggle in their intimate relationships with women!
In our group sessions we work to understand the forms of power and control that a man can exert over a woman, such as verbal, physical, psychological, emotional, and sexual abuse.
Our domestic abuse program offers men an opportunity to examine the attitudes and beliefs that have supported the use of violence or controlling behaviors against women. We work with men on recognizing the negative effects of trying to control others: the hurt we cause to those we claim to care the most about, the loss of self-esteem, fear of intimacy, lack of trust, lack of empathy, poor self-care, and struggles in communicating feelings with others (to name a few). This pattern of abuse leaves many men feeling isolated, lonely, vulnerable and ashamed.
In an environment of accountability with respect, men are presented with the possibility that being a “real man” can include being sensitive, compassionate and respectful toward women (and all people). When challenged, men learn that underneath their anger lies a world of unexplored emotions – fear, joy, exhaustion, disappointment, love, determination, pride, and hope (again, to name a few) – that deserve to be understood. When more aware of their underlying feelings, and the roots of those feelings, men have more options in how they experience and communicate them.
While men are involved in the Taking Responsibility program they have the opportunity to be open, vulnerable and held accountable in front of other men. Rather than laughing at one another, men are quite capable of listening to, and caring for, one another. It is our hope that as men are presented with new models of what being a real man means, they will move forward in life with a stronger commitment to their own integrity and to accepting their partner’s right to safety and equality.
As educators, therapists, and caring individuals, we can present men with the tools to alter their use of violence. They begin to listen to women’s voices and to value them as equal partners. As fathers, men are coming to realize their responsibility to share these same lessons with their sons. Creating the space for men to enter into both challenging and supportive dialogue – among themselves and with women — can start to reverse the entitlement, anger, and abuse that has fueled the negative causes of the #metoo moment and these school shootings by young men.
This training and consciousness raising translates to men intending to take action to stop violence in themselves, their homes, and communities. More opportunity for honest self–reflection and shared analysis by men is critically needed today – not just when they get in trouble due to violent behaviors, but in schools, workplaces, and throughout American society. We must continue to challenge and support men to stop their violence. When that happens, our boys will have earned their parade.