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Masculinity and the Culture of Violence

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**Heads up: this article contains discussion of domestic violence and violence against trans people.**


Anymore, it seems to be a weekly occurrence that someone has been killed in an act of violence. Shootings– in schools, workplaces, or places of leisure– have become a part of daily life. And while each instance of these acts of violence is awful, the sad reality we live in is that they no longer evoke shock in many of us. So many Americans are numb to these occurrences. They play out before us on the news, and all we can do is shake our heads and mutter that another one has occurred.

And while there are certainly exceptions to the rule, there’s a general trend in regards to the perpetrators of this kind of violence: men (most often white) with a disregard for the well-being of others. These criminals have gotten enough attention, and I do not want to add to any of their sense of fame. As such, their names and the specifics of their crimes will be omitted out of consideration to the friends and families of their victims.

There are many narratives that come out about these perpetrators. As quickly as news about a shooting breaks, another story about how the shooter was “misunderstood” or “rejected by his peers” gets published. Family members may claim that the shooter was a good kid who just made a mistake or who couldn’t handle the stress that he was facing in his social life.

And here’s the thing: in some ways, these family members are right.

I’m not saying that these acts of violence are in any way justified. I could not condemn them more strongly. Instead, what I mean is that often young men often feel like they aren’t able to handle rejection or emotional turmoil because we have a culture that tells men that violence is an acceptable response to pain.

When it comes to acts of violence, we cannot– and should not– place the blame on the victims. The narrative that if one’s peers has only been nicer, the event wouldn’t have happened is not only rubbish, but it perpetuates ideas that put people in danger. For example, if someone is in a violent relationship, being nice to their abuser is not going to prevent the violence. In the same way, niceness alone will not stop someone who is highly violent from being violent.

Instead, we must recognize the individual’s responsibility in the violence they commit, and we should also be critical of the culture of toxic masculinity that presents these acts of violence as a valid outlet.

How the Idea of “Real Men” Perpetuates Violence

Control and power. Throughout both pop culture and social interactions, men are consistently associated with power and control. They’re portrayed as possessing an innate dominance, and the men who express their dominance– winning over reluctant women, displaying superior physical strength compared to other men, or having the buying power that exceeds those around him– are celebrated.

Conversely, men who allow other men or women to take an authoritative role over them are perceived as weak or invalid. Returning anger with sympathy or seeking to create empathetic connections with one’s peers is expected of women, but seen as a weakness among men. And when dominance in some capacity is the end goal for so many men, weakness is seldom tolerated.

As men, we are consistently taught to hunger for control, and we do so in a way that only feeds back into the idea that control and masculinity go hand-in-hand. That’s why submissive men are often described as being like a eunuch; in their interactions, they’re viewed as socially castrated (i.e. “grow a pair,” “got him by the balls,” etc).

While I don’t believe there is anything inherently wrong with confidence and controlled assertiveness– in women, men, and non-binary folks– in general, the issue is that this drive toward dominance goes beyond healthy levels. Men are taught to seek out a form of dominance no matter what. Regardless of what strengths someone else may have, men tend to compare themselves in a way that seeks out areas in which they exceed their counterpart.

I can’t count how many times I’ve observed men interacting and subtly trying to display their dominance over each other. One might cross his arms across his chest while talking so that his pecs and biceps are flexed. The other might stand straighter to prove that he’s taller. The first casually brings up his job as a way of alluding to the amount of money he makes. The other suddenly integrates SAT words into his vocabulary to prove how intelligent he is. The first buys a round of shots and brags about how many he has already had… and the process goes on and on and on.arm-wrestling-bar-bet-4417-min

This sort of competition among men may only evoke an eyeroll, but consider its implications in the way that it shades mens interactions with women and non-binary people.

Women are seen as a conquest– something that can be conquered and which can bring a man respect among his peers (which, by the way, in the back and forth described above, after the alcohol, one of the next steps is comparing sexual escapades). As a result, many men are straight up creepy in the way they interact with women in social settings.

Trans people– especially trans women of color– are perceived as threats to many men’s ideas of masculinity once they’re outed, and in an effort to reassert their dominance, many men become violent, which is rates of violence against trans people is unfortunately so high.

Dominance is such a central idea about American masculinity that it becomes a top priority, and it’s something that many guys are willing to become violent for the sake of preserving or proving.

Shooters are no exception; in their desire to assert their dominance, they’re willing to commit acts of violence to prove themselves.

How “the Bro Code” Enables Violence

From Billy Bush sitting silently as Donald Trump bragged about assaulting women to the prevalence of sayings like “bros before hoes,” men have constructed a series of unspoken rules about how men are supposed to interact and support each other.

If you’re brave, someone has also written a list of rules for the bro code… 184 of them, in fact. While the person who created the list linked above took the time to write out nearly two hundred, they could be consolidated into a handful of “rules”:

  1. Men avoid actions that are traditionally feminine.
  2. Men don’t express affection or emotion toward other men.
  3. Men must accept any challenge to prove their masculinity.
  4. Men should have sex, and mustn’t prevent another man from having sex unless you have already “laid claim” to the woman another man is trying to have sex with.

While most guys will dismiss the bro code as a facetious or comedic construct, they also react strongly to instances in which it gets broken.

In my own experiences, I’ve been called a “cock-blocking faggot” for stepping between a female friend and a guy at a club (a gay bar, ironically) who was touching her without her consent and making her uncomfortable. Doing so has gotten me elbowed and shoved on more than one occasion, as well. These guys hadn’t previously interacted with me, but by preventing them from groping or making objectifying comments to my friends, I was breaking the bro code; I became one of those “challenges” that these guys felt like they needed to express their dominance over. At the same time, they also respected my “no” more than the multiple “no’s” that my friends had already directed at them.

In more casual settings, when guys speak to each other in a way that repeatedly dismisses women as “hoes” and as objects to be consumed, they get a sense of support from their peers– they believe that their conquest and search for dominance is not only acceptable, but a necessary part of determining their social status.

Perhaps the only thing more warping than being a part of a community of men that perpetuates unhealthy ideas about masculinity is to be part of an online community of men that perpetuates unhealthy ideas about masculinity. While the distinction between the two may not sound significant, consider the way people behave online. Via social media and forums, hiding behind the anonymity of a keyboard, people are more prone to feeling like they can get away with saying and doing anything. That’s why white supremacists and other hate groups (as well as flat-earthers, but that’s another article for another day) have flocked to the corners of the internet, sharing bile amongst each other that they pass off as information and the facts of life. Sadly, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that multiple mass shooters within the last few years have been part of such online radical groups. The bro code they buy into not only perpetuates harmful ideas about masculinity, but often wildly dangerous claims about what is considered right and wrong.

The Time to Redefine Masculinity is Now

American masculinity’s tendency toward violence was one of the primary reasons I wanted to start Self-Himprovement. As an undergrad, I got connected with the White Ribbon project, which seeks to engage with men about men’s roles in ending and preventing domestic violence. One of the core lessons that I learned from working alongside the White Ribbon project is that men need to rethink the ways they speak to and interact with other men, and to be critical of their own ideas that can perpetuate violence.

So, that’s what Self-Himprovement seeks to do. I often refer to this website as a community rather than a blog because that’s what I want it to be– a community of men that can support each other in pursuing healthier ideas of masculinity.

I fully concede that Self-Himprovement isn’t going to be able to completely rewrite masculinity. But, if we can at least provoke the thoughts of a few readers, and get even a handful of men to reflect upon how their perceptions of masculinity can harm others, I’ll consider it a victory.


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