Of school shootings, misogyny and the dream of gender equality

The lovely Commencement at my institution this weekend was shadowed, for me at least, by the latest school shooting—the psychotic Californian kid who blew away six other kids in a highly premeditated murderous vendetta against young women who, he claimed, refused to cooperate with his sexual fantasies.

The shootings have prompted millions of social media postings and propelled the issue of misogyny on to the front page of The New York Times and many other staid bastions of male-dominated media, which only pay attention to the most sensationalized of crimes against women.

The latest high-profile cases of campus sexual assault have provoked outrage from women and the men who respect them. Young women are refusing to be muzzled by their colleges, filing lawsuits recently bolstered by the Federal government, which has ordered colleges and universities to get their act together and stop the sexual harassment and assault of women by men—or face Federal Title IX lawsuits.

Yes, imagine that—singling out women for assault on a college campus is actually a Federal crime. That this should come as a surprise is a measure of how very normalized the sexual targeting and bullying of women has become.

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Lately I have been thinking a lot about how much one’s physical body matters. In an ideal world, it should not matter what kind of genitalia or hormonal make-up you’re born with. Men and women may be differently abled, but we are certainly equal in our potential for positive contributions to our society and planet.

However, we do not live in an ideal world. We live in a highly cultured world where, unfortunately, the dominant messages young people receive about what it means to be masculine and feminine are highly differentiated.

We all know the stereotypes. Manly men are strong, dominant, powerful—leaders, speakers, do-ers in the public sphere of business, government, finance, medicine, media. Womanly men are compliant, nurturing, sweet—homemakers, caregivers, do-ers in the private realm of the home and family.

Kids absorb these messages like sponges, often uncritically, especially when these are the norms they see around them in the real-life environments of their families and schools.

To live the stereotype of the manly man, a man has to distinguish himself from being a “sissy,” “pussy,” or “girl” by putting females in their place. Woman are there to serve, whether it’s mom getting dinner and doing the laundry, or a hook-up partner giving a blow job. Women wear those skimpy clothes because they “want some,” and they like men who are aggressive in “getting some.” They like the attention of catcalls and fondles. After all, the girlie-men are nerds and they never get the pretty girls.

UnknownWelcome to the imaginal landscape of the stereotypical teenage boy, reinforced by thousands of video game sessions played, movies and TV episodes watched, comedy routines and talk radio listened to.  Even in the cartoon world of super-heroes, female heroes have to wear swimsuits and show a lot of skin.

Girls inhabit a parallel universe for the most part, a soft, rosy pink-imbued landscape where romance still takes the form of a gentle, courtly but powerful knight on a white charger who will make everything all right.

Is it any wonder that when these two universes collide on college campuses, mighty rumbles and explosions result?

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So to those delightful, earnest young men who keep telling me that gender is just a social construction, that discrimination against women is historical, in the past, and that today women don’t need any special attention or bolstering—I have to shake my head sadly and say simply, “I wish that were the case.”

The casual disrespect of and disregard for women runs deep and wide in our culture. For young women, it often wears the venomous face of sexual assault. For women of child-bearing age, it’s about being culturally encouraged to stay home with the kids in a career environment that is entirely un-family-friendly, resulting in effective career sabotage of women on a society-wide scale. For older women it’s about ageism in a youth-obsessed society, where it’s assumed that if you haven’t “made it” by the time you’re 40, it’s because you’re mediocre and don’t have what it takes.

Women of all ages suffer from the arrogance of the male-dominated cultural oligarchy (otherwise known by that loaded term, “the patriarchy”) that assumes that women are under-represented in Western intellectual history because they never did anything important enough (and weren’t intelligent enough to do anything important enough) to merit representation.

We got a recent example of this unthinking cultural misogyny in the two most recent New York Times columns by David Brooks, entitled “Great Books I & II,” where in all of written history the only female author who made it on to his great books list was the one who forced herself to write under a male pseudonym in order to be taken seriously: George Eliot.

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There has never yet been a mass shooting by a woman. Women are far more likely to be self-destructive, turning the razors against their own arms and legs, or starving themselves as anorexics. It’s the boys who turn their rage outward, bringing down innocent people before they turn the gun to their own disturbed heads.

The truth is that both boys and girls in our culture need a lot more support than most of them get. We need to start combating the ugliness of gender stereotyping early, long before the girls start trying to conform to unrealistic body image expectations, and boys start thinking of purchasing the all-too-easy-to-obtain shotguns and pistols.

Because we live in a patriarchy, girls and women still do need extra support and encouragement to raise their voices against discrimination and cultural sabotage, to insist on equal treatment and respect in every social sphere.

We are an imitative species—we learn by observation. Every adult should be conscious of the need to set a good example for the young people in our lives, and that includes the adults—mostly men at the moment—who control that incredibly powerful educational system, the media.

Boys and girls need to see men and women relating to each other in responsible, respectful ways, in the media and in the flesh. If we could accomplish this, then maybe we could cry victory and declare unnecessary the need for Title IX and affirmative action protection of women, as well as the kinds of work I do in support of women and girls through my teaching, writing and activism.

I hope that day does come soon…it’s clearly not here yet.

American Mothers Must Unite Against the Culture of Violence

A couple of weeks ago, when I heard that my 14-year-old son and his friend had been playing with the other boy’s air-soft pistols by shooting each other at close range, I saw red.

“But it just stings like a bee-sting, Mom,” my son protested.  “It just leaves a welt.  Why are you getting so upset?”

At the time, I wasn’t sure why I was getting so upset—after all, these were only toy guns.

My answer to my son was that a “bullet” could ricochet and end up hitting him in the eye, which is true and a rational explanation for why I flatly forbid him to engage in that kind of behavior any more with those guns.

“Target practice only!” I insisted. But of course, what he and his friends do when I’m not around is impossible to predict or monitor.

Nancy Lanza

Nancy Lanza

Now, after the Newtown massacre, I am thinking more deeply about the issue of guns, violence and kids.  I’m also thinking more about Nancy Lanza, the gunman’s mother, who he savagely shot in the face, leaving her dead in her pajamas in bed while he went out on his mission of mass murder.

I’m far from the only one who is asking what Nancy Lanza could have been thinking to make her home into an arsenal, complete with assault weapons and major ammunition, especially with a son living there who she knew to have social adjustment problems.

I hear that the good people of Newtown are shunning Nancy in death, focusing on the “26 victims” of Adam Lanza and refusing to light a candle in her memory.

This seems like a classic case of blaming the victim, and yet of course Nancy does bear responsibility for the horrific massacre of the 26 innocent victims.

If she hadn’t armed her son, he could not have carried out this crime.

So this begs the question of our responsibility as parents, especially, in this context, as parents to sons.

I have two sons, and like Nancy I am divorced, with my sons’ father very distant from their day-to-day lives.

It is my responsibility to raise them to be kind, good-hearted men, who use their warrior strength to protect and strengthen their communities, not to destroy.

But what a battle it is to keep the tremendously destructive tsunami of media and cultural violence at bay in our home!

I don’t have TV in my house, and my kids don’t own a Wii or Playstation.  But we do have computers, tablets and smartphones; we watch Netflix and go to the movies and have friends who are more casually accepting of (toy) guns than I am.

Unknown-1I have tried to hold the line on violent video games that the boys may have access to through the computer, and for the most part I think I’ve been successful.  Even if they may sneak a violent game or two when I’m not around, at least they don’t play these games obsessively, with impunity, the way most teenage boys do in America.

We’ve talked at length about my objections to media violence, and I know they understand, even if they occasionally express the wish that they could just join the crowd and go on a good virtual shooting rampage like all the other boys they know.

I’ve gotten into arguments with my older son, age 20, and some of my college students, who insist that there is no way they’d ever do in real life what they have so much fun doing in video games.

I hope they’re right.

But I want to know why, as Americans, we tolerate and indeed seem to relish representations of violence, while at the same time we’re so fearful of actual violence that some of us are stockpiling weapons in our homes to prepare ourselves for the worst.

In the old days—not that long ago, in the scale of human history—a whole town used to turn out for a festive viewing of a hanging.

Today in places where conservative Islam reigns, women are stoned to death in public spectacles of participatory violence.

But how different is that, really, from the great American past-time of engaging in virtual violence of the most vicious sort?

America is the most violent, militarized society on Earth and Americans are the greatest exporters of violence, both physical and virtual, to the rest of the world.

Most perpetrators of violence—again, both real and virtual—are men.  Men are the greatest victims of violence too, though women and children bear a disproportionate share, given that they are far less likely to be pulling the triggers.

We need to start looking much harder at the way our culture encourages violence by selling us the story that real men enjoy violence and can handle it with insouciance.

I don’t want my teenage son shooting an airsoft gun at his friend, and I don’t want him going on virtual “special ops” missions armed with a Bushmaster assault rifle.

I wish his father were on hand to back me up in this, and I think my situation as a mother trying to keep violence out of my home is probably far more common than we realize as a nation.

We know that half of marriages end in divorce, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that of the remaining married couples, half include men who enjoy guns, violent video games and violent movies, and teach their sons to do the same.

So that leaves a lot of us women either on our own trying to fight the prevailing winds of culture and raise peace-loving men, or tolerating or going along with the culture of violence within our most intimate relationships and the private sphere of our homes.

Yes, some women may themselves be violent.  We still don’t know why Nancy Lanza felt the need to arm herself with such terribly potent weapons.

But the fact remains that of the steadily mounting toll of mass shootings in this country, not one has been committed by a woman.

Women are way more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators, and even as perpetrators they are generally acting in self-defense.

American women, I call on you to look deeply at this issue, and find the strength to stand up collectively against the violence.

Mothers, we need to support each other on this!

Just as the Mothers Against Drunk Driving took a stand and changed the pattern of teenagers driving drunk and killing themselves and others year after year, by forcing legislators, schools, merchants and other parents to take collective responsibility for raising responsible kids, we need to start a new movement against the culture of violence in our country, both virtual and physical.

Then perhaps we could say that the 27 victims of Adam Lanza did not die in vain.

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Living with fear

In the wake of the Newtown tragedy, I have been doing some thinking about fear.

I am no stranger to anxiety.  When I was a kid, between the ages of about 8 and 12, I suffered terrible anxiety attacks whenever I had to be separated from my mother.  I worried something would happen to her, and although I had a loving father, brother and extended family, I felt like I would be totally unable to cope with losing her.

When she would go out for the evening, I would get a full-blown anxiety attack, complete with hyperventilation, nausea and panic.  It wouldn’t subside until she was back home safe, and it was not rational—there was nothing she or anyone else could say to calm me down.  I just had to live through it, over and over, until finally, as I moved into puberty, the fear dissipated and went away.

Sometimes I have wondered whether this was related to a past-life experience.  Did I lose my mother in a previous life?  Was I left alone and unprotected?

Is it possible, as Linda Hogan and others have suggested, that we can be haunted by ancestral legacies of violence?

Both of my sons also suffered from irrational fear during their childhoods.

My older son went through a period of terrible night terrors, where he would sleep-walk under the influence of gut-wrenching anxiety and sobbing fear, not calming down until we managed, with great difficulty, to wake him up from whatever nightmare was possessing him.

He would not remember the episode in the morning, and would be sheepish when we’d tell him what had happened; in his waking life, he was calm and unencumbered by fear.  He hasn’t had one of these night terror attacks for about five years now.

My younger son developed a stutter and a nervous twitch in his early childhood, and would cry and talk about being almost paralyzed with what he called “worry.”  No amount of rational talking-through made any difference; he could not explain what he was afraid of, he was just deeply, inchoately fearful.

Mt. Greylock, MA; summer 2012

Mt. Greylock, MA; summer 2012

One day, when he was about five, I decided to take him on a long hike up a tall mountain, and we picked up small rocks along the way.  When we got to the top, I told him we were going to throw his worries over the edge of the mountain cliff, and they would be gone and leave him alone.  A smile lit up his face, and he began chucking the rocks off the cliff with intensity.  That day he was happy, and slowly, over the next couple of years, his unexplained anxiety did lift.

What’s perplexing to me about this “family anxiety” is that none of it has any basis in actual trauma.

Each of us did experience a minor trigger, it’s true.

I was separated from my mother when I was seven, for about two weeks, after a car accident landed her in the hospital; but then she came home and was fine.

My older son attributes his night terrors to an incident where he accidentally locked his younger brother, an infant, in the car on a very hot day, and the police had to come and break into the car to get the baby out.  But we were all fine, and of course we absolved the older child of any blame, it was just an innocent mistake.

My younger son developed asthma after an incident of severe pneumonia at seven months, and he was always afraid of the hospital, with the dark x-ray room, the menacing machines, and the possibility of separation from his parents.

But these are such minor precipitating incidents, compared to, say, the shock of bearing witness to a massacre, or living through a rape or domestic violence.

I can’t claim to have any inside knowledge of the kind of traumatic stress that survivors of serious violence must deal with, but having been taken for a ride by severe, irrational anxiety, I can sympathize deeply.

The truth is that all of us, in today’s hyper-linked media age, are living with the scars of bearing repeated witness to violence.

One of our greatest strengths as human beings is our imagination.  Put our active imaginations together with our empathy, and it should be no surprise to find that so many of us are feeling in our own bodies the fear and anxiety that are properly part of others’ experience, not our own.

How many murders and massacres, real and fictional, have we witnessed through the news and entertainment media?  How many times have we watched homes being bombed, people being shot, crazy predators on the loose?

The presence of 300 million guns in civilian hands in the U.S. does not make me feel safe.  It makes me feel afraid—and this time, the fear is rational.

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Standing strong against the Furies

AUDIO OF THIS PIECE READ BY JBH ON WAMC-NORTHEAST PUBLIC RADIO, DECEMBER 21, 2012

Just as people in places like the Maldives, Bangladesh and Japan shook their heads at the cluelessness of Americans who suddenly woke up to climate change when Sandy came to town, people living in hot spots of violence around the world now have every right to be shaking their heads at the collective American refusal to see and understand how, in the wake of the Newtown massacre, we are the cause of our own misery.

t1larg.pakistandronerally.giThe U.S. is the largest arms manufacturer and exporter in the world.  We have by far the largest military.  We are also by far the most heavily armed civilian population in the world, with some 300 million guns circulating among our population of about 300 million people.  Americans, we need to acknowledge that collectively, as a nation, we have been responsible for hundreds, and probably thousands of deaths of children worldwide through the weapons we sell abroad.

There is not a conflict in the world today that has not been fueled by American weaponry.

It is hypocritical to weep crocodile tears for the slaughter of innocent children in a kindergarten in Connecticut but to callously ignore the slaughter of innocent children by American drone fire in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan.

We need to start connecting the dots and realizing that the violence we mete out to the world will come back to haunt us a thousand-fold.

I’m not just talking about gun violence or missiles. I’m talking about the violence of inhuman labor practices and poverty, leading to rage that is sometimes turned inward, as in the spikes of farmer suicides due to heavy-handed Monsanto tactics in places like India and Asia, and sometimes outward, as in the terrorist strikes against targets inside the U.S. (9/11, anyone) or at our representatives abroad (did someone say Benghazi?).

I’m talking about the violence Western-style “development” has wreaked on the natural world, which is now boomeranging back to slam us against the wall of a destabilized climate.

Orangutan with a tranquilizer dart in his side; will be relocated away from palm oil plantation site

Orangutan with a tranquilizer dart in his side; will be relocated away from palm oil plantation site

If you create lethal weapons and spread them widely among the populace, you should not be surprised when they discharge and kill people.

If you overheat the climate and bulldoze all the trees, you should not be surprised at the deadly droughts, wildfires, storms and temperature swings that result.

Back in the 19th century, Charles Darwin taught us to understand that competition is good, that the strongest and fittest will survive, and that if the weak perish it’s all for the best.  It was a perfect rationale for the capitalist/imperialist narrative of the past 500 years, domination as evolution, at gunpoint and bulldozer blade.

Would Darwin look out at today’s dangerous world and proclaim serenely that the coming population drop of humans, due to violence of our own making, is simply part of the grand scheme of Evolution?

If the answer is “yes,” does this mean we should just sit back and watch it all unfold with detachment?

I don’t think so.  I believe it’s the great task of our generation to meet the violence of our time with unwavering, clear-eyed resistance.

To a large extent, the damage has already been done.  The guns are circulating out there in the world; the nuclear power plants are whirring; the oil and gas rigs are pumping; the myriad plants and creatures with whom we grew up in our era on the planet are disappearing.

Pandora’s box is wide open, and the Furies have been released in the world.

We may not be able to get them back, but we can continue to insist that they do not represent us.  We can continue to stand as beacons to another mode of living, based not on competition and aggressiveness, but on collaboration and respect.

As we move into the darkest week of the year, let us not give up hope that as the planet swings back towards the Sun on December 22, we can collectively climb up out of the abyss of violence and pain and unite around the finest human values of life, peace and love, for our fellow human beings, and for the planet as a whole.

Time to end the slaughter of innocents!

Newtown School children right after shooting.  Photo by Shannon Hicks, The Newtown Bee

Newtown School children right after shooting. Photo by Shannon Hicks, The Newtown Bee

And so, once again, we all play the role of passive, horrified bystanders as yet another mass murder erupts into the news headlines.

Last week it was three dead in a shooting in a crowded mall, with police saying it was remarkably fortunate that “only” two were shot before the gunman took his own life.

This time it’s 20 Connecticut elementary school children gunned down in their classrooms, along with seven adults.  Again, the shooter himself is dead, so it will be hard to ever know for sure what in the world led him to commit such a wanton act of violence.

And let’s not forget about last summer’s shooting in a crowded cinema in Aurora, Colorado.  The violence just goes on and on, and no one seems to have the will to put a stop to it.

What would it take?

It would take politicians with the gumption to stand up to the gun lobby and bring the “right to bear arms” code up to 21st century standards.

Back in 1776, citizens were encouraged to bear arms in territorial wars against the French, British and the Native tribes.   That’s the context in which the Second Amendment should be read.

Today there is no reason why anyone who is not a soldier or a law enforcement officer should be bearing the kinds of handguns used by today’s school shooter.

Hunters can keep their shotguns, provided they receive adequate training in how to use them, and maybe some small, simple handguns could be allowed for personal defense, although those tend too often to backfire—just last week two small boys, ages 7 and 11, were taken into custody for threatening a woman with a cocked, loaded gun that they must have taken from their father’s desk drawer.

AP A OH USA 501 Guns

But the semi-automatic assault weapons like the one used by the cinema shooter, or the high-powered pistols used by today’s school shooter should not be casually floating around in civil society.

It is just too easy for a kid undergoing a psychotic break, as today’s 20-year-old shooter must have been—to grab these weapons and go crazy with them, slaughtering innocent people.

It is also too easy to imagine what could happen in situations of shortages and crises brought on by climate-change-induced storms, if men with guns are calling the shots in neighborhoods and villages cut off from law enforcement.

Unknown-1We’ve seen it happen in places in Africa and the Middle East, when the toxic mix of desperate civilians and power-hungry men with guns erupts on to the streets.  Does anyone really think we’d be immune to these kinds of scenarios here?

It’s past time for peace-loving Americans to stand up to the NRA and insist that the long-awaited gun control laws be enacted.

How many more children have to die unnecessarily before we stop being silent witnesses and start taking action?

Time to show some backbone on gun control!

Another summer, another mass shooting of innocent civilians.

Another round of media feeding frenzy on the tragedy, another collective outpouring of sympathy and outrage from the public, another set of poses and postures from politicians for and against increased regulation of weapons in this country.

It’s gotten to be so predictable, it’s hard to get that engaged, although of course one has to pause and reflect on the horror of being mowed down in one’s seat in a suburban movie theater.

The truth is, it’s amazing that this sort of thing doesn’t happen more often in America.

After all, we are the largest gun manufacturer in the world.  We’re also the largest producer of violent entertainment in the world, from BATMAN to video games to pornography.

Barring countries actively engaged in civil war—Syria, anyone?  Israel/Palestine? Congo?—we sport the most heavily armed civilian population in the world.

As the pundits have been saying repeatedly all day, states like Colorado have no regulation at all over who can buy assault weapons.  Any Joe can walk in to a gunshop and walk out with an AK-47, no questions asked.

With policies like that, is it any wonder lethal weapons end up in the hands of loonies and psychopaths?

Everyone knows what needs to be done: we need to make it much harder to obtain weapons, especially assault weapons.

After all, we don’t let kids get into cars and drive them without training and licensing, because we know cars can be easily turned into lethal weapons.

But actual guns, whose sole purpose is killing, we sell over the counter without screening or comment.

Back in the 1980s, it took a coalition of furious mothers to start the movement that eventually led to much stricter punishments for driving drunk, as well as greatly improved education for teens on the dangers of drunk driving.

Remember MADD, Mothers Against Drunk Driving?

Candy Lightner, founder of MADD

Those grieving mothers had lost their children to our nation’s lax drunk driving enforcement, coupled with a permissive, boys-will-be-boys culture, and they weren’t going to take their personal tragedies lying down.

Neither should we.

I want to see rallies in every state capital, demanding gun control legislation effective immediately!

I want to see Gabrielle Giffords at the head of a march on Washington, insisting that our nation’s leaders do more than put the flags at half-mast and shed some crocodile tears over the loss of innocent lives today.

Gabrielle Giffords

 

Gabrielle Giffords after being shot in the head

I want our society to show some backbone!

Not just on this issue, but on all the difficult issues that face us nationally and internationally today.

Enough sitting back and waiting for the next tragedy to strike.  Time to put down the remote, get off the couch, and get down to the business of making ourselves a better world.

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