Monday, May 21, 2018

Okay. Let's Not Talk About Guns

I know there are earlier examples, but it really starts for me with Jody Billingsley.

Jody was one of my former students, part of a class of students that I really enjoyed for their spark, their joy, their bravery, their curiosity. She was a star athlete, smart, kind-- the sort of decent human being you want your own children to grow up to be.

When she was only 38, she was murdered near Pittsburgh in an LA Fitness Center, gunned down by an angry white guy.

It was 2009, so nobody was talking about InCels yet, but this guy (I'm not printing the son of a bitch's name) fit the description. Angry that life had not delivered the money and female attention that he believed he deserved, he kept a journal of his grievances (because, of course, some day the world would listen to him and pay attention to what he had to say) and made several false starts at his little murder spree (four dead-- barely noteworthy by our current standards). All three of his victims were women; he then killed himself.

And now we have the most recent shooting in Santa Fe, where a student killed ten, despite the school's fully-rehearsed plan and fully-armed officers. The shooter was not a sad loner, but he had been rejected by one of the girls that he murdered, and had pursued her so relentlessly that she ultimately had to publicly embarrass him to get hi m to back off. Only, I guess, he maybe didn't.

So as we look at the long string of deaths and mass murders including the school shootings of the past two decades, we can draw-- and have drawn-- a line between all of these and the use, usually, of America's all-too-plentiful guns.

But this is America, and we don't want to talk about guns.


If we're not going to talk about guns, let's talk about the other pattern that is increasingly noticeable.

Let's talk about angry white guys.

Lots of folks have made the observation, usually after whatever the most recent shooting was. Here's Elle after the Las Vegas shooting:

Stephen Paddock was an angry white man with a gun. Robert Lewis Dear, who killed three people and injured nine at a Colorado Planned Parenthood, was an angry white man with a gun. Dylann Roof, who killed nine people and injured one at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, was an angry white man with a gun. Adam Lanza, who killed 28 people including 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary, was an angry white man with a gun. Hell, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who killed 15 people and injured 24 at Columbine High School, were two angry white boys with guns. The Columbine massacre, which sparked a national conversation about the need for better gun control, was in 1999. It’s been 18 years of angry white men with guns appearing next to ever-more-enormous body counts, every few weeks, ever since.

We've also had plenty of discussion of why these white guys are angry. And, in fairness, we have had the contrarian "maybe it's not that bad" takes as well. But even if we've got a proportionately appropriate number of angry white guys killing people, the sheer numbers seem to demand some attention.

At a minimum, we need to learn from the pattern. School shooters are usually guys with a specific grievance. Some folks argue that if we "harden the target" and make schools less easily shoot-uppable, shooters will go shoot up something else, something softer. But shooters like last week's murderer do not pick schools because schools are soft targets-- the pick schools because they want to shoot the people who are at the school. Hardening the target will not deter them into some other pursuit.

The Toronto attacker prompted a look into the InCel world, and that's pretty chilling all by itself. These are angry white guys who, like the SOB who gunned down Jody, believe they have been cheated out of what they deserve, as if the world is a vending machine into which they have pumped quarters only to get nothing in return. They are the terrifying realization of the line that men worry about women laughing at them and women worry about men killing them.

As a culture, we've asked for this. My students know that if they bring up the Twilight book series, they'll get a rant out of me, not because of the laughably bad writing, but because of the romanticizing of stalker behavior. Edward ticks off every single item on the "your boyfriend may be a future abuser" checklist. And that has been marketed as the Great Romance of the 21st century.

That's not a new thing-- from the Phantom of the Opera to Seven Brides for Seven Brothers to John Cusack standing in the rain with that damn boom box, the message is that men need to wear women down, be persistent. For young men, romance is supposed to be a simple formula-- make the correct moves, and it should unlock a girl's heart like a video-game achievement. And, at least in the halls of my school, girls buy into this-- I have lost count of how many girls I have heard explain that they "have to" go out with this guy they don't really want to go out with because he did X.

Are we in a new peak of angry guy-ness? I'm not sure; it may just seem worse because the pinnacle of angry white guyness is our President (seriously-- President of the United States of America and he is still perpetually pissed off and aggrieved). I'm sure it's not the whole picture, but I'm equally sure that angry white guyness is part of what got him elected. It's also why things like "p***y grabber" comments and stiffing subcontractors and barely-concealed racism help rather than hurt him-- he has been and is still living the angry white guy dream, where you say or do or grab what you want and people don't keep telling you no, people don't insist that you don't have the power to do that. Angry white guys hate feeling like someone has taken away their power. Hell, isn't that the root of the whole gun argument as forwarded by that army of angry white guys, the NRA-- you can't take our guns because then we lose the power to really hurt bad people who might want to take away our power.

Can we get rid of all the angry white guys? Of course not-- there will always be outliers. Could we do a better job raising young men? Yes. Yes, we could. We could teach them to respect women (and not just as a complex part of getting women to do what we want them to). We really could explain the whole "no" and "yes" thing better, because men have to own women with confusing signals because too many women have grown up in a world where a blunt, clear "no" dangerous. We could, as men, hold each other accountable

As schools, we could intervene more aggressively in abusive relationships. We can create an environment where toxic masculinity does not work-- and we can and must explicitly teach alternatives. And for the love of God, can we please teach our young men how to cope with their feelings by some means other than releasing them in occasional burst of maladptive rage and violence.

If we won't talk about guns, then let's talk about the rest of this. If we want to pitch Social and Emotional Learning for schools, let's talk about creating a more emotionally healthy environment for young men. Not only could we maybe save a few lives, but we could definitely make a whole lot of lives better. We would certainly make schools better environments for learning.

I know this wouldn't be magical, and it is damned hard to get a culture to shift direction. But it would certainly be a more useful conversation than talking about making schools more like prisons or locking students behind a single door (and praying for no fires, ever) or all the other foolish things that are proposed just so we won't talk about guns.


  1. I have a question about your use of numbers: Recent census figures show 56 percent of the population is white, while 61 percent of mass shooters for the last few decades were also white. Meanwhile, 12 percent of population is black, while 16 percent of mass shootings have been by black triggerman. This seems proportionally in line. No? Also, I read you regularly but am disappointed at the "white guy" argument here. The casual ease with which "white men," especially older versions, are demonized is not useful for any improvement in any way. Especially since a lot of people in all classifications are angry.

    1. A lot of people in other classifications have every damn right to be angry. White men have power and privilege. Their anger comes from not having it all, like women on demand (see above examples). What the hell does the president of the United States have to be angry about for pity's sake?


    3. If you're interested in unpacking the data sets that support this claim, Politifact did that work for you, but you probably won't like the answer. The 'casual ease with which white men are demonized' is a sane reaction to historical precedent.

  2. We need a positive vision of masculinity that does not include the Marlboro Man. We need to ask men how they are feeling, encourage them to have friends, and not romanticize stoicism. Shut down bullying and cruel behavior wherever you find it and ask communicate regularly with your kids. Ask them if know about bullying, have been bullied, or are involved with it. Listen to their experiences. If your child has trouble with social skills, think about some ways to help them develop positive peer relationships. Don't bury your head in the sand. Don't have weapons in the house if you have a troubled youngster and for gods sake keep them locked up.

  3. Um, should "angry white gayness" be "angry white guyness"? (Twice)

  4. Add in the fact that 7-10 yrs ago there was a switch to all day kindergarten. This had children playing less and sitting more. Recess was shortened to next to nothing or was done away with completely. No more tag or dodge ball because that would mean that children would touch each other and that was not allowed. No free play or recess means that children (especially boys) don't have time for conflict resolution or confrontation of the bully. Yes, we have angry youth and the teen boys are much angrier than the girls. Add testosterone into the mix and it's a recipe for disaster. "You reap what you sow."...this is what I tell my son's MS Principal on a regular basis as the 8th grade kids (especially boys) are just off the wall crazy with poor behavior.

    1. Oh my god, did a couple of moms just solve mass shootings?! More recess, less shooting, pack it in problem solved. I'm so glad you read Peter's thoughtful essay, ignored it wholesale, and volunteered your opinions. With this breakthrough and a bucket of rocks, no one will ever get shot in a school ever again.

  5. "let's talk about creating a more emotionally healthy environment for young men." What WOULD that be like?