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Mass Murder, Men, and Whiteness

Updated: May 1, 2023

Tackling the mass shooting debate on mental health

Last week I saw two distinct sides of an emerging debate surrounding our country’s mass shooting (mass murder) problem.

On the one hand, some people say the root cause of the shootings is mental illness, and are therefore calling for a “solution” of better awareness and treatment for mental health.

On the other hand, people are calling the root of the problem racism and sexism, and are therefore calling for an individual and cultural acknowledgment and dissolution of white supremacy and toxic masculinity via patriarchy. (And of course since that solution would take a while even if everyone was on board, these people are typically also calling for better gun control in the meantime.)

I see these two sides going back and forth, more or less like this:

a – “These people are ill, they need help!”

b – “Would you say the same thing if it was a black or brown person? You ever notice that we only worry about the mental health of WHITE terrorists?”

a – “Sure, racial biases are real, but THIS ISSUE is about mental health, and we can’t get better until we address it!”

b – “Treating it like a mental health problem excuses the blatant racism/sexism at play, and makes them seem like an outlier rather than a fairly normal result of being taught entitlement and supremacy.”

a – “It’s not normal to kill people!! Mentally healthy people don’t go on shooting sprees!”

b – “Ok but neither do women, even when they’re mentally ill! And frankly black and brown men who have been through plenty of disenfranchisement and trauma and abuse aren’t going around shooting up white people to get revenge either. This is a problem predominantly affecting young white men, not mentally ill people.

Perhaps you’ve seen this too?

All of these perspectives have merit, and I’d like to speak into the middle here, after having spoken with quite a few people on both sides this week in an effort to better understand.

First of all, I want to say that nobody on the progressive left is arguing that these shooters are mentally healthy. Anyone who can do such a thing has issues and probably needed intervention and support a long time ago. Mental and emotional health is an important issue, and it should be addressed on a massive cultural scale.

That said, a lot of the progressive left feel that discussing mental health derails from the real core issue here: racism and sexism. So while they may not want to call mental health the cause of mass shootings — and therefore call mental health interventions the solution to mass shootings — they are not saying the shooters are mentally healthy, or that mental health is unimportant.

Discussing mental health is significantly more comfortable than discussing racism and sexism, and these people are simply saying that the topic is often used to avoid and derail conversation about the more important core issues around race and gender.

It’s also true, of course, that most mentally ill people never go on shooting sprees.

In fact, women with mental illness practically never seem to become motivated to “get revenge” on men who have done them wrong by killing as many of them as possible, and mentally ill black and brown men never seem to go on shootings to “get revenge” for injustices perpetrated by white people.

Most other countries in the world also have mentally ill people of all races and genders who never find themselves committing mass shootings. (Perhaps they want to, but can’t due to a lack of easy access to such deadly weapons of war– but that’s not something people in the US seem willing to explore.)

So the short version of why we need to stop talking about mental health in the context of mass shootings is that while there may be a mental illness correlation to mass shootings, mental health issues do not appear to be the root cause of mass shootings.

All we know for sure is that 96% of mass shooters in the US are men, and the majority are young and white. (Though, for the record, this depends on how you measure these statistics: 75% of people who go on shooting sprees don’t end up killing more than 4 people, which keeps them out of the statistics on “mass killings” and some reports measure shootings based on outcome while others base it on intent.)

Another thing we know is that there is a pattern of the shooters feeling entitled to something just by virtue of being them: friends, a girlfriend, sex, respect, a world free of the kind of people they don’t approve of, or supremacy/dominance in some form. A lot of the shooters are linked to groups and posts online spouting hateful rhetoric about women or immigrants for seeming to take or withhold something the shooters perceives as rightfully belonging to him: sex, affection, connection, respect, white spaces, jobs, etc.

When these men didn’t get what they felt they were owed/entitled to, they experienced it as an “injustice,” and they set about getting revenge by killing people.

We see sexism and misogyny in the way many shooters were seeking revenge after being rejected or not being granted “access” to women’s bodies or affection, such as the incels (“involuntary celibate” men) who are vocal online about their vengeful rage aimed at all women who “withhold” sex from them– and in the histories of domestic violence against women that a lot of them have. This echoes the deadliness of domestic violence murders, which are especially lethal right after a woman has finally left her abusive partner, and he takes her life as the ultimate act of entitlement and control.

By calling mass shootings a “mental health” issue, we are ignoring the fact that our patriarchal culture is still actively teaching men that they are entitled to get what they want from women, that they are owed sex or a girlfriend, and that dominance in this area is an important part of their worth as men. (Otherwise it wouldn’t be such a slam to their ego when they didn’t get it.)

In other cases, like the shooting in El Paso last week which has been praised by White Nationalists, the motivation is blatantly anti-immigrant, so the sense of entitlement is there in that the shooter seemed to feel brown people were coming and “invading” a space that was rightfully his as a white man: the entire US.

While not all shooters are white, calling this mental illness also ignores the fact that we live in a culture built on the supremacy of whiteness, built on the fact that white people came and took the land from brown people without a second thought, because they assumed their “god-given” white superiority gave them the right to do so, and that a lot of Trumpian anti-immigrant rhetoric (think: “send her back”) continues to be based on the idea that white people are entitled to this country, while other people are not.

Calling it mental illness ignores the fact that despite a certain veneer of political equality, we white people have never really gotten past the feeling that our way is the right way, and that we are entitled to social dominance.

Focusing the conversation around mass shootings on racism and sexism is really about focusing on how our culture teaches men, especially white men, that their worth and value comes from their supremacy and superiority, and that due to their status they are entitled to control, dominate, and get what they want.

Toxic masculinity, as taught by black male anti-patriarchy activist Richie “Reseda” Edmond-Vargas in the documentary The Feminist On Cell Block Y (which I highly recommend watching btw), is defined by the fact that men are taught three things are important:

  1. Athletic performance (which is really about violence and physical dominance, since a male ballet dancer certainly doesn’t get the same credibility as a football player)

  2. Objectifying women (aka proving their sexual dominance and how “not gay” they are)

  3. Making money (displaying financial dominance and/or being a “provider”)

This is the culture facing men today, and it’s exacerbated by what white men are taught about being more intelligent and deserving of success than black and brown men.

To pretend this conditioning has nothing to do with mass shootings is a mistake.

Not to mention the way white people are inclined to make excuses and attribute violent white male behavior to things outside of themselves (video games, trauma, mental illness) while they tend to see violent men of color as having a more inherently or innately violent nature.

When’s the last time you heard about a black-on-black shooting in Chicago and said “that poor man must have been mentally ill, I wish he’d gotten mental health intervention sooner”?

As Robin DiAngelo says in her book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For People To Talk About Racism (which I cannot recommend enough to white people who want to talk to other white people about racism):

The criminal behavior of white juveniles is often seen as the result of external factors— the youth comes from a single parent home, is having a hard time right now, just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, or was bullied at school. Attributing the cause of the action to external factors lessens the person’s responsibility, and classifies the person as a victim him or herself. But black and Latinx youth are not afforded the same compassion. When black and Latinx youth go before a judge, the cause of the crime is more often attributed to something internal to the person—the youth is naturally more prone to crime, is more animalistic, and has less capacity for remorse. Similarly, a 2016 study found that half of a sample of medical students and residents believe that blacks feel less pain. Whites continually receive the benefit of the doubt not granted to people of color.

Calling the mass killing of immigrants “mental illness” allows us to sweep racism under the rug and keep our own hands clean. He wasn’t like me, or like other white people/men. He was sick.

But what I’ve come to understand is that he can be both. We are all complicit in a culture that keeps creating these sick men, even if we would personally never murder anyone.

Imagine if a boy learns (consciously or subconsciously) that he is better than everyone, and that everyone on earth was here to serve and cater to him… and then everyone around him wanted autonomy and equality.

Imagine if he learns that his worth comes from his ability to dominate and control both his own emotions and the people around him, and that if he fails at either, he’s weak– and that being weak makes him feminine; despisable; worthless.

Imagine if he learned that when someone disrespects him, he has to respond with violence in order to keep his “man card.”

Imagine if he learned that women and people of color are only worthy of respect (or existence) if they fulfill specific roles he thinks they should fill, and he never learned to tolerate or express his own feelings.

Imagine if, after all this conditioning, the boy feels isolated, disconnected, disrespected; small, weak, sad, and worthless. What do they do?

What they do is, of course, the most immediate and pressing problem: they easily access weapons capable of killing 31 people in 30 seconds. (Hence why the conversation about making access to such weapons is extremely important.)

How they felt/thought in that moment is of course twisted and sick, and mental health is an important topic. But being brought up with the above beliefs about worthiness, whiteness, women, masculinity, power, and the natural pecking order is part of what made them sick.

Believing that he deserves to be at the top of the food chain, that his worth is based on how well he can prove his dominance, that people owe him what he wants and if they don’t give it to him he has the right to kill them, these beliefs are underneath it all. Lacking the skills to emotionally regulate, communicate in a healthy way, tolerate ego-bruising without violence, and connect meaningfully with other people, these issues are all exacerbated by (if not created entirely) patriarchy and white supremacy.

Racism and sexism are under the whole thing: patriarchy and white supremacy are foundational to this conversation.

So I suggest we bench the mental health argument for now and look deeper.

<3 Jessi

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