Welcome to a new Yahoo Lifestyle column, “The #MeToo Guide to Raising Boys,” which takes a look at where we’ve gone wrong — and how we can go right — while raising caring, respectful, self-assured boys today. Michael C. Reichert is a psychologist, executive director of the Center for the Study of Boys’ and Girls’ Lives, and author of the forthcoming The New Boyhood: The Power of Connections to Build Good Men.
On Valentine’s Day this year, two storms came.
The first arose in Parkland, Fla., where a young man, long troubled, carried his AR-15 to his former high school, pulled a fire alarm to optimize targeting and create havoc, and opened fire.
The second came shortly thereafter, on social media, when comedian, actor, father, and author Michael Ian Black, who lives in Newtown, Conn., not far from the Sandy Hook Elementary School, tweeted: “Deeper even than the gun problem is this: boys are broken.” By Friday morning, his comment was liked by 60,000, retweeted by 15,000, and greeted by harsh reactions from some male followers. (“Honestly,” noted one, “this all just sounds like the ravings of an emasculated fool desperate for women’s approval because his mother never gave him any.”)
Black was making the point that it’s almost always white males who commit mass shootings, and he was drawing attention to the prominent place of violence in men’s lives.
Deeper even than the gun problem is this: boys are broken.
— Michael Ian Black (@michaelianblack) February 15, 2018
Indeed, according to a report authored by Gary Barker for the global NGO, Promundo, 80 percent of the approximately 400,000 people murdered around the world each year are male — and so are 97 percent of their killers. Further, according to a Child Trends report, 86 percent of U.S. homicide victims ages 10 to 24 in 2014 were male. And in a tally of mass shootings from 1982 through 2017, a team from Mother Jones counted 88 — with all but three perpetrated by a male.
While public debates turn to gun laws and mental health services in a pained effort to make sense of the horror of a young man’s random killing of innocent people, the relationship between violence and male development — the notion that “boys are broken” — is likely to be overlooked. It always is. But it doesn’t mean it’s not the most obvious. (As goes a story famously told by writer David Foster Wallace: An older fish came upon two younger fish and asked, “How’s the water?” As the two fish swam on, one turned to the other and curiously asked, “What the hell is water?”)
Michael Kaufman, founder of the White Ribbon Campaign, a program to end men’s violence toward women, has described a “triad of male violence”: violence against women, violence against other men, and violence against themselves. These threads are woven into the fabric of male development from early on, naturalized by dubious “boys will be boys” claims of biological inheritance. Every male has intimate acquaintance with violence — whether from physical abuse in their homes, intimidation on their streets and athletic fields, bullying in the hallways of their schools, or more extreme forms of relational aggression and fighting — and lives with its constant threat. Boyhood immerses boys in violence.
It’s no wonder, then, that when Black draws attention to the masculine dimension of the Florida shooting, other men gaslight him.
Whether in homes, on streets, or in schools, violence was conceived as a public health epidemic by the American Psychological Association’s Commission on Violence and Youth in 1991. The report of the commission concluded that, while “staggering,” youth violence was “not a random, uncontrollable, or inevitable occurrence.” To this end, it is useful to think of violence prevention on primary, secondary, and tertiary levels. And gun-control laws and better mental health care certainly represent sensible components of a comprehensive prevention system.
But, as the commission found, preventing violence must begin early — well before a boy imagines getting his hands on an assault rifle and becoming a “professional school shooter.” In her Thursday op-ed in the New York Times, Erica Goode quoted forensic psychologist J. Reid Meloy, who analyzed school shootings and found that many shooters had consciously emulated the perpetrators of the Columbine, Colo., massacre of nearly 20 years ago. As Meloy explained, “From the perspective of the young male, being a school shooter is something that can be idealized, and … brings coolness … that otherwise does not exist in his life.”
What does normative masculine socialization, built into boyhood, have to do with preventing violence? Boys first learn to assert themselves with aggression and even violence to “ward off or eliminate the feeling of shame and humiliation,” in the view of psychiatrist James Gilligan, author of Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic. The problem is that from very early on boys contend with peer norms legitimizing meanness, putdowns, and domination. To survive, each boy learns to harden his heart, suppress natural feelings of empathy, and exhibit a public face meant to deter efforts to take advantage of any weakness. Violent men are not monsters, Gilligan argues, but become nearly unrecognizable as experiences of profound loss and violation degrade their humanity.
As a psychologist, I have worked with young males in the criminal justice system, in youth violence prevention programs, in schools both elite and impoverished, and in one-on-one clinical settings — young men who have been found guilty of terrible things, including violent crimes, as well as ones who have learned the antisocial skill of gaming whatever system they are in with remarkable dispassion. Sometimes, searching their faces is like looking into a yawning abyss: nothing there. How cold-hearted a man can become is stunning.
But my work has given me a larger sense of hope. Behind the bravado and dark identities some boys adopt always lies a human heart. The basic message of the APA Commission was encouraging: “There is overwhelming evidence that we can intervene effectively in the lives of young people to reduce or prevent their involvement in violence.”
While I don’t agree with the despairing lament of Michael Ian Black — that boys (or boyhood itself) are somehow broken beyond repair — I do appreciate his brave concern for boys. We males all remember life in the jungle of boyhood and, upon crossing over, welcoming the relative relief of manhood.
But this morning, as I spend time with my toddler grandson, I cannot help noticing the warmth in his countenance, how alive he is, and how much faith he has in the goodness of the world. From my many years of listening to boys of all kinds, I know that each was once just like this. A commitment to ending violence requires us to do a better job at protecting such openness.
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