gun violence

The Devil Goes to Charleston

Nine lives were ended too soon in Charleston last night. They were taken by hatred, by the barrel of a gun, in a house of worship, on a night dedicated to better understanding the intersection of faith and those now stolen lives. In their wake is a torrent of sorrow and white hot rage, a kaleidoscope of confused emotion that will probably never get properly sorted out. How does anyone make sense of the senseless?

I could write (again) about gun control and the fact that firepower allowed this young man to kill more people more quickly than he might have been able to otherwise, about how whether he got the gun legally or not doesn’t change the fact that the current gun regulation regime makes these tools of destruction too accessible to too many. But I’m really tired of writing the same thing over and over. I know you’re tired of reading it.

I could write (again) about the inherent danger of inhabiting a black body in this country, where — by police violence or structural violence or the violent inclinations of a man with vitriol in his heart — your life is at risk based on a genetic composition of melanin with ties to a history of endangerment. But others will give voice to this fear that is not mine, that I cannot ever fully comprehend, with far greater eloquence than myself. I’ll leave those words to them.

I could write (again) about the disparity in the way this story is already being told, the framing taking place by reporters and pundits and politicians to cast these acts as deranged instead of arranged because this man’s melanin composition is fair and his dress is straight out of White suburbia, about the fact that he will not be called a thug and only a select few will call what he did an act of terrorism, though inspiring terror was his intent. But I literally just wrote that last week. Last. Week.

The fact of the matter is that the crime that took place last night exists at a juncture where entitlement and weapons and race and a culture of violence intermingle like matches being shaken about in a powder keg. We’re playing with an element whose boiling point is unknown, but we have to know by now that the pending explosion could level entire cities. We must know that.

But whether you’re looking at Ferguson, Cleveland, or McKinney; Chicago, New York, or LA; Aurora, Newtown, Dallas, or Charleston, there is one factor that rears its ugly head more times than we’re comfortable counting: toxic white masculinity.

Toxic or hegemonic masculinity is a gendered perspective that positions men as dominant actors over subordinate women, and glorifies that power as something that must be protected at all costs from anything that could potentially undermine its hold. That means rejecting or attacking anything perceived as feminine, and behaving in an aggressive, sometimes violent, manner to reassert dominance. Feminine need not be female, of course. It is anything that could be perceived as open, vulnerable, or weak in the eyes of the actor.

When race gets added to the mix (and make no mistake — it’s been a constant ingredient for centuries now), toxic masculinity doesn’t just reject the feminine anymore; it rejects difference in any form. Any deviation from the norm — a norm that has placed white males in a position of historic privilege — is a threat that must be taken down. Toxic white masculinity would have you believe that women are trying to steal your manhood, that minorities are taking over the country, that Sharia Law is a heartbeat away. It would have you believe a war is raging. Maybe it is… but it is white males who have claimed the role of aggressor. The rest of us are just trying to survive.

It’s easy to point out the obvious examples of toxic white masculinity, of course. It’s Elliot Rodger raging over his inability to relate to women’s inability to see his worth. It’s Eric Casebolt kneeling on the spine of a barely clothed Black child, self-righteous adrenaline pumping through his veins. It’s Darren Wilson seeing Black and thinking Devil and doing the work of a God none of us recognize. It’s James Boulware wreaking havoc because the system momentarily labeled his criminal behavior appropriately. It’s Adam Lanza, Wade Michael Page, Jared Loughner, Charles Carl Roberts, Jeffrey Weise, Mark Orrin Barton, Dylan Klebold and so many more who felt the need to prove something in one way or another and did so through fire.

Those are the easy ones. Not every example of toxic white masculinity is a mass murder. You’ll find it in the politicians who are anti-choice and believe single mothers should be shamed, because any manifestation of female sexuality outside of their approved constructs threatens their sense of authority. You’ll find it in the pundits insisting that the galling racial disparity in the criminal justice system is a function of flaws in the cultures of People of Color instead of flaws in the system built by the privileged. You’ll find it in the homophobic slurs that litter locker rooms, more putrid than the stench of the discarded uniforms strewn about the floor. You’ll find it in the dad bod enthusiasts who hold up Maxim as the standard by which the female form should be judged. You’ll find it in jokes told by bros young and old about welfare queens and drag queens and everyone in between who is not them, followed by angry missives about the PC police when someone dares to call them out on it.

The cherry on top of this mountain of suffering is that the same toxic white masculinity that causes so much damage to others hurts the group that practices it, as well. It’s just hard to feel any sympathy for them when you know the pain they cause everyone else. Especially today. Especially after last night.

Toxic white masculinity was in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church last night. A boy believing himself to be a man proved the inverse as he attempted to project his power with gunpowder and lead, and nine people paid the ultimate price for his performance. It was nine lives too many past the already nauseating body count. How many more have to die before we stop talking about lone wolves and start talking about a systemic problem?

There will be those reading this who balk at the idea of saying there’s any problem with white men in this country. I can hear the counterarguments roiling in their minds, desperate to defend the norms that give them a privilege they don’t have the language to identify. Before it starts to seep from your mouths, would-be debaters, let’s talk about this.

If you’re sitting there thinking that women or People of Color or other minorities participate in the same kinds of behaviors, you’re partially right and partially unaware of the significance of cultural context when evaluating communication. But for the part where you are correct, it’s important to note that toxic white masculinity, while primarily something observed in white males, is not reserved for them. Women can be misogynists; some gay men can be the worst offenders. Black people can promote respectability politics. And because masculinity is not static or tied to sex, the aggressive behavior associated with toxic white masculinity can manifest anywhere. Like the disease it is, it branches beyond the usual suspects and infects other parts of our world.

If you’re sitting there thinking, “Not me!”… you’re probably wrong. But on the off chance you’re not, you really shouldn’t expect praise. So you’re a decent human being? Congratulations, I guess?

I will concede that not all white men partake in toxic white masculinity. I shouldn’t have to say that, but knowing how conversations like these go, I will. The important takeaway from that fact is that toxic white masculinity is not an incurable scourge. It can be dismantled, and that starts with us admitting there’s a problem in the first place. And I mean all of us.

Because complacency here is like not taking your full regimen of antibiotics; that infection is gonna pop back up if you’re not vigilant. When we chant All Lives Matter over the voices of color begging us to stop killing them; when we nod along while politicians insist all Mexican immigrants are drug dealers and rapists; when we keep laughing at the same tired jokes that trade on the suffering of others; when we recognize the problem and see it in action and do and say nothing because we don’t want to rock the boat — we let that infection live on. And the body count climbs.

So say it with me: ENOUGH. Enough lives lost and shattered in the name of a mindset that props up systems which fail us at best and kill us at worst. Toxic white masculinity can no longer be tolerated. Burn it to the ground.

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This Performance About Mass Violence and White Male Privilege Will Take Your Breath Away

When it comes to complex social justice issues, it can be difficult to make people care enough. Sometimes, data points and bar charts fall short of encapsulating the significance of a problem – particularly when those problems require uncomfortable revelations if they’re ever to be addressed. Sometimes, singular narratives aren’t even enough to break through the cultural defenses we’ve put up as a society. Sometimes, it takes the power of creative performance to cut through the conditioning that’s preventing us from honestly engaging on an important subject.

That’s what this is. The video below is a POI peformance from Western Kentucky University alum Sarah Brazier. For those unfamiliar with the world of competitive collegiate speech and debate (aka forensics), POI, or programmed oral interpretation, is one of the many events available. To compete, students will collect materials from a wide variety of media on a specific subject. This might include plays, short stories, novels, poetry, movies, commercials, news articles, YouTube videos… use your imagination here. The goal is to to craft a performance that will explore an idea or illustrate an argument. The student will splice the material together into a ten minute program that is performed with the use of a small black book at tournaments across the country. They are judged on their program composition, creative presentation, and technical performance during competitions throughout the year, ultimately duking it out for national titles each Spring.

While trophies are nice, I’ve never met a POI competitor who valued the accolades over their argument. For many, the forum became a means of raising awareness and advancing crucial social discourse. Such was the case for Ms. Brazier during the 2012-2013 season. In the wake of the Aurora shooting, she and her coaches began researching and designing a program that would examine the connection between white male privilege and mass violence. (Too) soon after that, the Sandy Hook shooting gave the program’s message even greater relevance.

Today? Well, I’d say it’s time to turn up the volume. Sarah’s performance hits you directly in the gut. Part of that stems from the fact that she is a magnificently talented performer. But part of it comes from the fact that she paints, in vivid detail, a picture we have been so reluctant to see: one where the ideals we glorify for straight white men contribute to a culture that tolerates and advances toxic ideologies – a culture that leaves us vulnerable to senseless tragedy again and again and again.

Sharing a video of her performance on Facebook this afternoon, Ms. Brazier stated:

When Ganer Newman came to me back in the fall of 2012 after James Holmes walked into a movie theater and killed 12 people, I knew this topic was important… but I didn’t realize how important. Then, in December 2012 Adam Lanza shot 20 school children, six teachers, and his own mother. My POI became so much more than a speech round. Now, after the atrocity Elliot Rodgers committed, I think it’s incredibly important we talk about the intersection between white male privilege and mass violence. Read one article about Elliot Rodgers, and you cannot deny that there is more at play here than mental illness. Our society is sick. There is something inherently wrong with us, when, as the Onion satirically reflects in its latest headline, there is “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” Atrocities like these need to be prevented. Ganer recorded this performance in the spring of 2013. Please watch, please listen, and please talk about this. This must be talked about, and not just in the speech community. #AdvocacyMatters

She more than has a point here, folks. Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped the chorus of people unwilling to critically examine the cultural crisis in front of us from dismissing the conversation. Because I am completely uninterested in a world where that conversation doesn’t get its due, here’s what I’m asking you to do:

  1. Watch the video below. The performance style might be unfamiliar to you at first, but keep watching, and keep an open mind (& heart). You’ll get used to the stylistics quickly and be glad you watched the whole thing when it’s done. Here’s hoping that a different presentation of these ideas galvanizes more of those who know and wakes up more of those who don’t.
  2. Share share share. You can help engage a wider group in the conversation. You don’t want to field the prickly questions that come with the share? That’s ok – send them here.
  3. Start reflecting. Start asking questions. Start talking. The only way we start addressing this problem is if we’re willing to come to the table and do something about it. So much of the requisite changes have to take place on a personal level, which makes these personal interactions key.

You ready? Grab some tissues.

ADDITIONAL READING:

 

 

35 Things About Elliot Rodger

elliot

  1. Elliot Rodger killed six and injured thirteen in a Santa Barbara mass shooting before killing himself on Friday, May 23rd, 2014.
  2. Elliot Rodger was a straight 22 year old male from an affluent family who was described as white, but is of Malaysian Chinese descent on his mother’s side. [edited]
  3. Elliot Rodger was may or may not have been diagnosed with Asperger’s disorder; reports vary.
  4. Elliot Rodger was also mentally ill, and in treatment with multiple doctors.
  5. Elliot Rodger was a raging misogynist who believed that there was “no creature so evil or depraved as the human female.”
  6. Elliot Rodger espoused these misogynist ideals due to what he viewed as sexual rejection by women to whom he believed he was entitled.
  7. Elliot Rodger was a massive racist – idolizing white, blonde women, and enraged by white women dating men of other races.
  8. Elliot Rodger was a classist who associated wealth with personal value, assuming he could buy affection.
  9. Elliot Rodger didn’t get this way on his own.
  10. Elliot Rodger didn’t get this way for one reason alone.
  11. Elliot Rodger was incredibly privileged.
  12. Elliot Rodger did not become a killer because he was privileged.
  13. Elliot Rodger became frightening when his privilege morphed into entitlement due to toxic ideologies.
  14. Elliot Rodger became dangerous when his entitlement collided with mental illness.
  15. Elliot Rodger became lethal when he was able to arm himself.
  16. Elliot Rodger was able to arm himself because he was never involuntarily committed, despite being reported to authorities as a possible danger to himself and others.
  17. Elliot Rodger was never involuntarily committed because he was viewed as harmless by the interviewing officers, despite his extensive footprint of hate on the web.
  18. Elliot Rodger was likely viewed as harmless by the interviewing officers because feelings of entitlement and expression of animosity towards women and minorities are not perceived to be real threats.
  19. Elliot Rodger is terrifying to women because the only thing separating him and the other millions of men expressing the same kinds of ideas online and in real life is that Elliot used a gun.
  20. Elliot Rodger is terrifying to women because he is the classmate we never even realized was attempting to ask us out.
  21. Elliot Rodger is terrifying to women because he is the coworker we tried to let down gently.
  22. Elliot Rodger is terrifying to women because he is the man buying shots at the bar we turned down because it was girl’s night out.
  23. Elliot Rodger is terrifying to women because he is that first date we bailed out of because we didn’t feel comfortable or safe.
  24. Elliot Rodger is terrifying to women because he is anyone we never knew we wronged. #YesAllWomen
  25. Elliot Rodger was looking to terrorize a group of people in order to advance social ideals, but despite that being the definition of terrorism, is not considered a terrorist.
  26. Elliot Rodger would probably be labeled a terrorist if his social ideals were associated with a religion not called Christianity.
  27. Elliot Rodger would probably be labeled a terrorist if he’d used a bomb instead of a gun.
  28. Elliot Rodger would probably be labeled a terrorist if his skin wasn’t white.
  29. Elliot Rodger might have been labeled a thug, though, if he was black.
  30. Elliot Rodger targeted white people, which might be why he’s received more attention than any of the shooters in the 117 gun deaths and 666 gun injuries in Chicago year to date.
  31. Elliot Rodger makes us more comfortable if he’s just mentally ill because it makes the problem individual, excusing our culpability in building, accepting and advancing the culture that created him.
  32. Elliot Rodger makes us more comfortable if he’s just mentally ill because it means we don’t have to do anything about it personally.
  33. Elliot Rodger existed because we didn’t take it personally.
  34. Elliot Rodger will happen again if we don’t take it personally now, because cultural shifts start with personal decisions.
  35. If you’re not taking it personally, you’re part of the problem.