What’s the Matter with Men?
December 17, 2011
I hadn’t planned on weighing in on the Newtown school shootings; in fact, I had plans specifically not to discuss it—but not because I don’t care. Like anyone, I’m deeply moved and saddened by it, and I also have opinions about the other social topics this tragedy has introduced into our national conversation, like gun control and mental health services. But as to the event itself I didn’t have much to say, except that it is just the goddamned worst most unbearable thing, and everyone has already said that so I didn’t think there was anything for me to add.
But another theme started to emerge, slowly, reluctantly, from the mass of words we’ve all generated since Friday’s shooting; see here and here. I noticed it because it’s a theme that I think about often and discuss here a lot: male violence. Then this morning on Salon, I read not one but two pieces clearly pointing out that mass shootings like the one in Connecticut are pretty much a 99.9% male-perpetrated crime, and if the group responsible were anyone BUT men—women, Latinos, Blacks, Muslims—you can bet your blinkered, patriarchally conditioned asses that we would be hearing about it non-stop. But because it’s men, and predominantly white men at that, it doesn’t register. In his Salon article, Paul Campos borrows the concept of “marked” and “unmarked” categories from sociology to explain this phenomenon, and it brought to mind ideas I touched on in earlier posts, about the very obvious but somehow unseen suffering of batterers. What I called our “blind spot” about abusers could also be understood as the problem of the unmarked category, which Campos says causes us to overlook pathological male violence, like mass murder, precisely because it is male and therefore “unmarked” by society.
Basically, a marked category is anything we’ve defined as a non-normative trait, like being Muslim, or being female. What’s interesting to me, though, is what is left unmarked—being male, being White, being Christian, being straight—and what that means for those who aren’t deemed worthy of any special categorization. One the one hand, the whole unmarked thing seems like a pretty sweet deal: you can act out all you want, as a group, and nobody will notice that it’s you doing it, because your white dude camouflage causes you to fade into the normalized background. So while it’s true that men became the ultimate unmarked category by dint of their social dominance, it’s also starting to seem like there is a psychological price that’s paid for being the normative standard against which the rest of us weirdos are judged. By making themselves invisible in these big discussions about social problems, the dominant group is also preventing themselves from being helped by any solutions we propose. By “disappearing” as a category, men may have placed themselves beyond our censure, but they’ve also placed themselves beyond our understanding and our aid.
Obviously, this needs to be addressed, because it’s terrible for everyone. But it’s also very hard to talk about in any kind of rational, fact-based way, because the minute you try, men, many of whom would happily explain to me why having ovaries makes me unfit to vote, start shouting about stereotyping and scapegoating. Fine, males, have it your way. You don’t want other people talking about your problems, so you tell us: what’s the matter? What are you so angry about? Why do you keep killing people? And is there anything anyone can do to help?
Do you think society should try to help men as a group with their violence problem? Do you even think they have one? Tell me in the comments