Violence is a national scourge in America. This is the America we have wrought.
Mass shootings occur on a daily basis across this nation. So many of the residents of our city feel that violence permeates their community. Many of the young people I work with believe having young friends who have been killed by gunfire is a normal occurrence. And even those who have avoided the actual violence live in haunted skittish fear of the possibility of violence that pervades their communities. There are those who see this issue only through the lens of urban violence, one of only low income Black and brown communites. However, the majority of violence in America, and nearly all mass shootings, are committed by white men. The foundation of domination and celebrated nature of violence – the realites of acts committed and of myths aspired to – were created by white men.
And so, while violence crosses ethnic and racial lines and economic strata – it is an act almost exclusively perpetrated by men. America’s identity as a nation is interwoven with toxic masculinity – a conquering of land and of bodies, a history of dominance and misogyny, a continued celebration of guns and the power that comes with them. This ethos has bled into all communities that now call this nation home. It affects how boys develop and to what they aspire – it warps personal identity, confines and distorts how men see ourselves, our roles and responsibilities.
There has been much written about the need for gun control and for policy efforts to control violence in America. I have written such essays myself. There is no one single answer to this scourge: we must respond with education and legislation, gun control, a complete reimagining of the criminal justice system which constitutes a form of state violence itself, and yes, we must also recognize personal responsibility. We must not avoid the responsibility we have as citizens, as Americans, to raise boys to be healthy and strong men who do not see violence as their first form of communication when they are angry, wounded, or confused. For, tragically it almost always is boys who commit the violence.
We must confront this nation’s obsession with violence, the fact that all too often in America we believe that the answer to conflict is found in a gun. We have too often raised our boys into misguided men. Boys, lost and scared children inside, who present a false tough exterior, and in a tragic series of learned and deep seeded responses, they adhere to an honor code that is based on defending any perceived slight, any form of disrespect, with violence. But underneath, they have a profound need to be acknowledged, for their power to be recognized, for their voices to be heard.
America’s problem with violence, it’s pervasive obsession with physical power, it’s level of homicidal violence that is unequaled by any in the so called “developed” world, is one reflected in the fact that so many of our boys have never been taught alternative standards of manhood. They have adhered to a definition of manhood that so often leads to either to bravado laced violence against other men, or the physical abuse of women.
It is essential that we guide boys and young men to help them become men capable of better navigating destructive concepts of masculinity, to claim an identity that is embracing and reflective of their full selves – human beings capable of intimacy and vulnerability, as well as of autonomy and independence, caregivers as well as care receivers, fathers and sons, lovers, brothers and friends who express, offer and need love. It is the only form of manhood that is potentially radical and liberating.
We all, but especially men, must educate boys about an ideal of masculinity that allows them to be all of the diverse and full people they deserve to be. Masculinity is not an inherently negative concept or behavior – there are many wonderful qualities associated with masculinity, but the restrictive notion of masculinity too often celebrated is one that is profoundly problematic. It leads to war, violence of all kinds, distortions of all of our characters across gender identities. This is work we have done at The Brotherhood Sister Sol since 1995 – this kind of edcuating and guiding, a curriculum and youth development approach that is liberating, empowering and allows boys and young men to heal and be whole.
Frederick Douglass, a man who, many years before other leaders, saw the interconnected struggle for Black freedom and the women’s movement for empowement and equality, wrote: “It is easier to build strong children than repair broken men.” The work of building boys who reject a destructive predetermined idea of manhood, those who reject a definition of masculinity based on domination and violence, those who will chose paths other than guns and destruction, is profoundly moral and ethical and necessary work. It may be difficult, but the benefit to society, to families, and to our communities is immeasurable. We must build strong and loving boys.