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Raising Boys to Love and Care, Not to Kill

Heart contracts; numbness and tears collide. Ten dead, 13 wounded; this time in Santa Fe. If we’re ever to end the bloodbaths, we have to put gender at the center of the national conversation about mass murders.

Here’s a news flash for the media: The location of the killings is only one way to describe the murders; highlighting the shooters’ gender is essential to gain insights to prevent tragedies. While not all mass murders occur at schools— think churches and movie theaters—virtually every murderer is male, usually white. We ignore that truth at our peril. Dimitrios Pagourtzis, 17, who opened fire at Santa Fe High School on Galveston County’s Gulf Coast, is no exception.

In Texas, memories are still fresh from November’s mass murder at a church in Sutherland Springs (27 dead, including the perpetrator). Santa Fe is reeling from the killings and woundings—real and psychic. Will the Texas Legislature or Congress do something now?

In the national conversation, why does the gender of the perpetrator rank a distant fourth behind gun access, mental health, and building security? Perplexing, since gender is central in another arena where men are perpetrating violence: sexual assault. Women in the #MeToo movement speaking out, being believed, and men suffering consequences have marked a powerful shift in our cultural narrative. So why are we reluctant to call a mass shooter a male mass shooter? If women were doing the killing, you can bet gender would lead every broadcast and news story.

In talking about men, phrases like “toxic masculinity” (or “healthy masculinity” for that matter) do men a disservice. They obscure deeper issues about manhood, especially the most important one: how we raise boys.

The majority of boys and men do not commit mass murder, do not enter public spaces brandishing automatic weapons, do not mow down pedestrians with cars careening down city sidewalks. The men who do are the hawks in the coal mine; we need to pay attention to the canaries who long to be hawks.

Any middle or high school student can identify the canaries—isolated, alienated, bullied boys with low self-esteem, products of a culture indifferent to boys’ social anxieties, disillusionment and loneliness. Addressing their struggles in middle or high school is late; we must begin following boys in preschool, learning from discerning early childhood educators and insightful psychotherapists how to mentor parents, coaches, faith leaders and youth groups.

In considering both mass shootings and #MeToo, we’re told men have been largely silent. That’s only partially true. How many readers are aware of the 4-decade-old antisexist men’s movement that has been challenging men’s violence against women (and other men), since the 1970s? How many know about the initiatives and organizations that have dotted the national landscape since then?

Decades ago, when Gloria Steinem famously said, “Women want a men’s movement. We are literally dying for it,” some men were listening. In the aftermath of a tragedy like Santa Fe, there is a treasure trove of resources addressing contemporary masculinity. Men are helping; men want to help. Demonizing all men is a losing proposition.

Of course, there is never any justification for the twisted belief that men are “entitled” to a girlfriend or to sex. Troubled, lonely males are made, not born. A culture that refuses to consider the health of our boy children, and fails to acknowledge the gender inequality girls and women have experienced for, well, forever, will continue to produce wounded men, a tiny number of whom will become violent. Without early counseling and support, though, many will turn to extremist misogynist groups online for validation.

Boys can grow to be beautiful men if society is willing to reevaluate how they are socialized. If Congress won’t fund the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to conduct a comprehensive public health study of male socialization, then every state legislature should take up the cause. To honor the memories of the murdered in Santa Fe and Parkland, Fla., and all those who came before, we have to act. Now.

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Rob Okun is a psychotherapist practicing in Amherst, Massachusetts and the editor of Voice Male, a national magazine chronicling the transformation of masculinity.

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