On April 20, 1999, high school seniors Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked into the cafeteria and library at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, and opened fire, killing 12 of their classmates and a teacher, and wounding dozens of others, before taking their own lives.
The rampage shocked the nation and sparked a fierce national debate about gun control laws, youth violence, bullying, school security, and violent video games.
But 15 years and scores of mass killings later, the national conversation about rampage killings seems to be stuck at an impasse -- fixated almost exclusively on the issues of guns and mental illness. The result has been virtually no sustained analysis of the most glaring variable of all: the stunning fact that the overwhelming majority of rampage killings -- including 99% of school shootings and 67 of the last 68 mass shootings overall -- have been committed by men and boys.
To mark the anniversary of the Columbine tragedy, Media Education Foundation (MEF) production director Jeremy Earp interviewed cultural theorist and anti-violence educator Jackson Katz about the acceleration of mass killings by men and boys over the past decade.
Katz, whose work has focused explicitly on the relationship between violence and cultural ideas about manhood, is a national leader in the bystander-focused violence prevention movement, and worked with the Columbine school system with his colleagues in the wake of the shooting. He is also the creator of MEF's critically acclaimed new documentary Tough Guise 2: Violence, Manhood & American Culture. Tough Guise 2
examines the epidemic of male violence in America -- from school shootings to bullying to sexual assault -- against the backdrop of a culture that has normalized, and glamorized, violent masculinity.
JEREMY EARP: In your violence prevention work you've argued that we need to stop glossing over the fact that men and boys commit the overwhelming majority of rampage killings. Can you say more about that?
JACKSON KATZ: The media-driven conversation about the causes of school shootings and mass shootings tends to focus on two main issues: gun availability and mental illness. What this leaves out, of course, is the single most important factor: the gender of the perpetrators. It's as if no one wants to talk about the 800-pound gorilla in the room -- the stunning fact that 99% of school shootings, and at least 67 of the last 68 mass shootings overall, have been committed by men and boys. Instead there's this endlessly de-gendered talk about psychopaths, shooters, killers, suspects, youths, perpetrators, and troubled teens. As a result, we never ask tough, basic questions about why it is that men and boys are far and away the most common perpetrators of this kind of violence.
JE: Whether it's Columbine, the Boston Marathon bombing, or, more recently, the mass shooting at Fort Hood and the mass stabbing in Pennsylvania, why do you think mainstream reporters and analysts seem to be so allergic to looking at the gender of the perpetrators?
JK: In part, I think it says a lot about the invisibility of privilege and how that plays out linguistically. Since men are the dominant gender, their dominance is often hidden behind universals: it's all about disturbed or angry "people" committing unspeakable acts of violence. A useful way to see how this works is to imagine what would happen if girls or women committed 99% of these shootings. If that were the case, does anyone seriously think we'd be talking about guns and mental illness as the first line of explanation? Does anyone seriously believe we'd still be talking about "people" going on shooting sprees? I don't think so.
It's obvious there would be a lot of talk about what's going on with girls, as girls. But when it's boys, the gender piece stays hidden and we talk about all of these other important -- but in my view secondary -- factors. And the result is that we don't examine the role cultural ideas and narratives about manhood play in rampage killings and other manifestations of violence.
JE: What would an analysis of mass shootings that emphasized gender, and especially dominant cultural ideas about masculinity, reveal to us?
JK: Well, for one thing, we'd pay more attention to how school shootings are almost always revenge killings carried out by boys who have been bullied, socially ostracized, or marginalized. We know from the journals of Klebold and Harris that this was the case with Columbine, that they saw mass murder as a way to win back respect and project strength in a peer culture that saw them as weak. Violence was a way to reclaim their manhood. They say this explicitly. And we need to try to think about what this means given that a powerful and pervasive theme in our culture, and other cultures as well, is that violence is not only a legitimate means -- but a glamorized means -- of proving or reclaiming manhood and masculinity. We need to look at how that shapes behavior in the real world.
Think about it. If you're a man and you use violence to respond to a situation, you might not solve the problem, but no one will think you're less of a man for acting violently -- even if you use demonstrably disproportionate force. But if someone threatens you and you respond by withdrawing and refusing to use violence, you risk being shamed and "unmanned." You risk being diminished as a man in the eyes of your peers, and perhaps in the eyes of women around you as well, because everyone's bought into this same invented discourse about what a real man is, what toughness is, etc. We don't have anything like these same kind of deep-seated cultural narratives and mythologies about femininity. And that's one of the reasons so few girls who are bullied resort to violence. Female victims tend to internalize the abuse and turn inward, hurting themselves further, putting themselves into situations of greater vulnerability. Boys tend to externalize, to take it out on others. Unless you want to maintain that this process is hard-wired or genetically linked to biological sex, it's clear that gender norms are implicated -- and that means this stuff can be un-learned.
JE: What about the argument that men and boys are hardwired or at least have a greater biological propensity for violence?
JK: It's true that the capacity for violence is hardwired into our species. In that sense, it's biological. But guess what? The capacity for non-violence is also hardwired into our species. The question isn't whether biology plays a role. The question is how we organize our societies and the gender norms that shape behavior in such a way as to deemphasize and discourage violence rather than glamorize and encourage it. It's also important to remember that while of course boys and men share the same DNA and hardwiring, a relatively small percentage of boys and men commit acts of violence. If biology were destiny, wouldn't more men be violent?
JE: Where does mental illness fit in here?
JK: Whether mass shooters suffer from personality disorders, or mental illness, this can hardly be said to trump gender. To see why not, just ask a basic question: If mental illness is the reason for most school shootings, why aren't 50% of them done by girls and young women? Don't girls and women suffer from mental illness in roughly similar proportions to boys? If so, why are 99% of these shootings done by boys? The fact is that even boys with personality disorders and mental illness are products of powerful gender norms and cultural narratives that affect everybody. It's always amazing to me when people say, "Oh, he's mentally ill," as if no further explanation about why he went on a shooting rampage is necessary. One of the most insidious things this does is it suggests that mentally ill people are violent, when the vast majority of mentally ill people aren't violent at all.
JE: You're talking about how cultural norms of manhood have the capacity to shape violent behavior. How is that different from saying that the culture -- whether it's violent movies or violent video games -- cause violence?
JK: The mainstream debate about media effects and the relationship between media and violence is embarrassingly superficial and simplistic. It's not about whether "kids" know the difference between fantasy and reality, or whether they're somehow so impressionable that they'll just go out and imitate the violence they're exposed to in movies or song lyrics or first-person shooter video games. What I argue in my writing and films is that since gender -- and therefore our ideas about masculinity and what it means to be a man -- are socially constructed and learned, and since media reinforces these ideas and norms more powerfully than any other cultural force, it's imperative to look at how cultural norms about manhood are constructed in media culture. Boys and men don't directly imitate media scripts so much as they absorb lessons about what men are supposed to do and how they're supposed to respond to various situations. So in the work my colleagues and I do, we focus on trying to get people -- boys and men especially -- to think critically about these dominant cultural scripts, and to try to change them.
JE: What kinds of specific questions do you think we should be asking about these cultural scripts?
JK: For one thing, I'd like to see people talking about what it means for men to be strong, beyond the obvious and crude definitions of strength that are equated with physical strength and the willingness to inflict violent damage. I'd like to see discussions about the need to increase men's emotional literacy, because so many men who experience feelings of sadness, doubt, insecurity, grief, and loss often mistakenly identify those feelings as anger, and then respond to that anger by taking it out on others. I'd like to see more open discussion about the fear of violence that's a major part of so many boys' and men's psyches -- especially about how this fear triggers feelings of vulnerability, which in turn produces a desperate need to defend oneself against this vulnerability given we live in a culture that equates male vulnerability with weakness. It's pretty clear that fear, in all of its dimensions, is one of the key factors at work in the American gun culture -- especially men's fear of other men, and their fear of their own vulnerability. This fear sometimes has a racial subtext, as we've seen in the law-and-order movements that arose in the 1960s (in part out of white fears of Black crime), and we see it today with so-called Stand Your Ground laws.
JE: On the subject of guns, what do you make of the way debates about guns, and gun control, have played out in mainstream media and politics in the wake of high-profile mass shootings?
JK: For me, the ongoing debate about guns in this society is really a proxy debate for what's going on with changing ideas about American masculinity. Guns are instruments of violence that can be used either to defend oneself or to impose one's will -- and this makes them tools for the enactment of certain kinds of manhood. Now I fully understand, and relate to, the desire to protect oneself and one's family in a dangerous world. But where I part company with a lot of pro-gun advocates is that I don't allow fear to dictate my actions or undermine my ability to think rationally about risk.
Legendary media researcher George Gerbner's concept of "the mean world syndrome" is very useful here. What Gerbner's research found is that in a media culture filled with violence -- perpetrated overwhelmingly by violent men -- many men feel an inflated and unrealistic sense of threat which they feel the need to arm themselves against. Of course, this is the same logic that drove the nuclear arms race during the Cold War, and drives militaristic ideologies to this day. And the problem is when the very thing designed to protect us ends up being the greatest source of danger -- all because we've caved to fear and looked to hollow myths of toughness to alleviate this fear.
JE: Earlier this month, just a week after yet another deadly mass shooting at the Fort Hood military base in Texas, there was a mass stabbing at a Pennsylvania school that triggered a whole new round of media coverage of rampage killings and assaults. During the coverage, there were a lot of pro-gun advocates asking why gun control advocates weren't clamoring to outlaw knives. To them, this case validated their longstanding claim that rampages aren't about guns at all. What's your response to that?
JK: When I heard about this mass stabbing, my first response, after horror, was thank God this kid didn't have a gun. The carnage would have been orders of magnitude worse. The idea that people who advocate sane gun policy were somehow proven wrong because violent "individuals" will find other ways to commit violence is delusional. Of course guns -- and especially semi-automatic weapons -- are a crucial part of the equation when we're talking about scores of people being killed and wounded within a matter of seconds in a lot of these cases. But what I'm arguing is that the way we talk about guns needs to account for how gun culture is wrapped up with a lot of guys' identities as men. It's not just about the weapon, it's about how the weapon becomes an integral part of how men and boys try to establish and prove they're real men, especially when they're scared and their manhood is under attack.
JE: Does the logic you're describing here hold for the epidemic of everyday violence that barely even registers in the news?
JK: Mass killings get the most attention and have specific characteristics that are worth exploring. But routine murders, assaults, and rapes come out of the same social and ideological system. Whether it's a 14-year-old African-American boy killing an innocent bystander on a bus in the midst of what might have been a charged encounter with gang rivals, or a retired white male police officer in a movie theater shooting a man he was arguing with after the victim threw popcorn at him, cultural ideas about manhood play a major role in countless murders and other violent incidents in this society. Again and again, the baseline theme is men and boys lashing out when they feel they've been disrespected as men. This kind of violence cuts across race and class the same way higher profile mass shootings do, with the one constant being that violent crime is disproportionately committed by men. And yet the media conversation about everyday violence is just as de-gendered -- and therefore just as superficial -- as the conversations we keep having about mass shootings.
JE: Let's bring this back to Columbine. As you know, the anniversary of Columbine is also the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing. And that's not coincidental: we know that the Columbine shooters deliberately planned the attack to occur on the anniversary of Oklahoma City. What links, if any, do you see between these two seemingly very different cases of mass murder?
JK: Whether the grievances are personal, as in Columbine, or political, as in the Oklahoma City bombing, the pattern holds: men and young men carrying out acts of mass killing to make some kind of statement and impose their will on the world. One thing Harris and Klebold had in common with Timothy McVeigh was that they took matters into their own hands and sought to rectify grievances with violence. This is an old story, and it's a highly gendered story. Whether it's about settling personal scores against others in a school culture you experienced as oppressive and bullying, or resisting a government you identified as oppressive, the idea is that violence is the way to set things right and perform a kind of redemptive, heroic masculinity in the process. Harris and Klebold and McVeigh were well aware of the script they were writing for themselves, a script that placed them at center stage in a manly act of will and determination. What we need to remember, of course, is that there's nothing at all natural or inevitable about this script. It's been normalized, yes, but there's no necessary connection between being a man and using violence.
JE: Meanwhile, the anniversary of Columbine is followed just a day later by the Boston Marathon, and memories of another brutal mass murder. Here, again, with the Boston Marathon bombing, we had a mass killing perpetrated by troubled young men with a grievance -- and yet the issues you're talking about seem to have gone more or less completely unexamined in the public discussion about this case.
JK: The more I've learned about this case, the clearer it's become that gender was absolutely crucial to what motivated the Tsarnaev brothers. When you read about Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older brother who masterminded the bombing, you start to realize that religious ideology wasn't the only, or even the main, thing that drove him to commit this disgusting attack. It now seems much more likely that he found in jihadist teaching a rationale for reclaiming his manhood and rationalizing his feelings of failure and marginalization. In that sense, the marathon bombing had a lot in common with school shootings and other acts of mass killing by young men who deliberately set out on a twisted mission to redeem their masculinity and win respect by instilling fear in others.
I should add that, as a Boston native, I was very proud, and moved, by the response to this brutal act of bullying mass murder -- not only the response of men and women in law enforcement who caught the perpetrators, but also the ordinary men and women who responded with acts of caring and compassion and love. "Boston Strong" doesn't just refer to physical strength; it also points to the emotional resilience and moral courage that so many people displayed in the aftermath of the bombing. And I think that's really important because we live in a culture that tends to equate strength -- especially masculine strength -- with violence.
JE: Finally, what does it tell you that 15 years after Columbine the phenomenon of men and boys committing mass shootings has not only continued, but also seems to have accelerated despite all of the endless expert punditry and analysis over the years in the wake of Newtown and other shootings? And how can the kind of cultural analysis you're offering here be fashioned into practical prevention strategies in the real world that can actually make a difference?
JK: I appreciate that Columbine led to increased awareness of school safety issues, and I also think it's really important that there has been more thoughtful discussion about bullying and the stresses many people experience in our high-pressure society. But the problem is that there's been little, if any, sustained discussion about how the stories we tell ourselves as a culture about manhood factor into rampage killings and other forms of violence. That needs to change. I'm not so optimistic, or naïve, as to believe that an honest dialogue about manhood will solve this problem. But I am convinced that at a minimum it will give people a language to understand what's going on in these cases at a deeper, more meaningful level.
The bottom line is you can't deal with a problem until you name it. And unless and until we start focusing explicitly on how our ideas about manhood are implicated in men's violence, we're just going to keep lurching from one tragedy to the next, with little understanding of what's really happening or how we can break this destructive pattern.
To learn more about Jackson Katz's larger analysis of masculinity and violence in MEF's new film Tough Guise 2, go to ToughGuise2.org.