Pathologize or Look in the Mirror?

I knew this day would come. It was just a matter of time before there was another school shooting perpetrated by a White guy.

These incidents leave us heartbroken, scared and looking for someone to blame. The media serves us up easy targets for our outrage: the individual perpetrator, NRA, parents, school security, mental health diagnoses, and more. But the roots of the problem are much deeper. We’ll do just about anything to avoid these deeper issues. Looking deeper is scary because we know it could end with us realizing that we shouldn’t be pointing the finger but instead looking in the mirror.

When we are frightened, we have a deep need to pathologize the individual so that we can avoid our individual and collective responsibility. We want to find out what is wrong with him so that we can be reassured that this could not happen where we live. In other cases, such as Penn State, we vilify not just the perpetrator  (Jerry Sandusky) but also the gatekeepers (Joe Paterno) so that we can be reassured that this wouldn’t happen at our daycare. If we can blame these evil or incompetent individuals, then we can believe that this would never happen again, or at least not to us.

The real problem is both sociological and psychological. It is about individual perpetrators and our collective responsibility. It is about individual pathology and our collective failure to provide mental health assistance to those in need. It is about an individual act of violence and our collective responsibility for making weapons that can lethally kill in mass quantities an immediate option in an individual’s most desperate moment. It is about individual pain, hurt, and vengeance and our collective socialization of men – White men in particular. It is about individual bullying and our collective complicity when we dismiss it with, “boys will be boys.”

Of the last 62 mass shootings, 61 were perpetrated by men, almost all of them by White men.  Why is it that we will ignore these obvious patterns, yet go into contortions to find anything these tragedies have in common. What about the obvious question: What is it about White men?

Our society holds up unrealistic expectations of how men should be strong, in control, invincible, and powerful. When we as individual men do not live up to these impossible expectations we feel emasculated. When we feel emasculated (hurt, isolated, alone, unheard, out of control, broken, and shamed) we are taught that the cheapest ways to get our manhood back according to society’s expectations is misogyny, homophobia, and the ultimate power and control – violence.  Michael Kaufman explains that the paradox of masculinity is that although we know objectively that men as a group are in power, most individual men don’t feel powerful at all. Now add to that the complexities of White cultural socialization, privilege, and paradoxical feelings of power. Rachel Kalish and Michael Kimmel have called this “aggrieved entitlement.” When you are taught you are supposed to have so much power but then feel so powerless, we can seek all kinds of ways to feel powerful – to feel manly. The question is not how are these perpetrators so abnormal, but how is it that we socialize them as White men that make this so common?

These individuals are all responsible for their actions. However, as tempting as it is to vilify and pathologize the individual, the reality is that there is little we can do to address the individual problem. However, if we can bring ourselves to acknowledge the sociological causes that we all are complicit with then we gain some agency to make some meaningful change to prevent the next incident. Are we ready to stop pointing fingers and start looking in the mirror?

It’s not like this hasn’t been said before. Here is Jackson Katz from 2007  looking back and prophetically showing us the tragic future.

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