Did Violent, Sexist Society Contribute to Mass Shooting in Colorado?

By Lisa Bennett, NOW Communications Director

Many people are thinking, talking and writing about the horrendous shooting in Aurora, Colo. The two most prominent issues that come up after a mass shooting like this are gun control and mental health care. Both of these factors are extremely important and must be addressed if we ever hope to prevent such tragedies. In fact, the idea that conversations about these topics should wait until an undetermined period after the deadly event is preposterous. The best way to honor the victims is to strategize immediately — with all our cards on the table — about how to save future lives before the carnage begins.

The scope of discussion after a mass killing often includes reference to our violent popular culture — violence on television and the internet, in movies, music, sports and video games. We also talk, though to a lesser degree, about militarism, the death penalty and our society’s reliance on brute force to solve its problems. Some of us even attempt to start a dialogue about the history of domination in the human race — the practice of one group of people violently exploiting and/or eliminating another group of people, based on sex, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, ability or some other convenient excuse for why the oppressed group’s humanity is beneath consideration. Lately we like to talk about bullying, but we typically avoid its far larger and more organized manifestations and the origins they might all share.

How do we change such an old and pervasive tendency? Is it possible to hack away at the branches of violence when the roots are so strong? Is our complicity at various levels holding us back from doing more?

This leads me to a confession of sorts: My stepson plays “first-person shooter” video games — a lot. He even watches videos of other people playing these games on YouTube (yes, that’s a thing now). Many kids play these games. Some parents do manage to keep their children away from violent games — it’s not impossible, after all — but I can’t count myself among them. My husband and I could say NO to violent video games in the house, but we don’t. It seems like such a futile effort, to be honest.

I’m not of the mind that someone plays a violent video game or watches a shoot ’em up movie and says — hey, that looks cool, I think I’ll go try that out! The more important impact, I think, is over the long term. Living in and interacting with a culture permeated by violence eats away at us a little every day, making violence seem less horrific, more ordinary.

Combine all of the above with our society’s addiction to rigid gender roles, and you get a truly toxic mix. It’s no surprise that men are the perpetrators behind these mass shootings. Men and boys are supposed to be tough. When someone infringes on a man’s territory or disrespects him, he’s supposed to show them who’s boss. If he can’t beat someone up with his own two hands, he can always grab a gun and some ammo — make sure they know he won’t be pushed around anymore. And women, don’t challenge or upstage your man — he needs to feel in control and on top.

There’s a reason our male and female egos can be so fragile. They’re based on a set of socially constructed characteristics and behaviors that are hard to live up to. For some, these gender roles are completely elusive, and the reality of that can be soul crushing and deadly in various ways. LGBT bashing, domestic violence, serial and mass murders — behind many of these crimes we often find men who feel isolated, different or otherwise insecure, who lash out in gender-prescribed ways to prove they’re not a wimp, a failure, a nobody. We can try to prevent these big tragedies, and the million smaller cuts we inflict on each other every day, by telling our children that being themselves, letting others be themselves and rejecting sexist stereotypes, is not only acceptable but liberating. And, as a bonus, it will make the world a healthier, safer place for us all.

Read more in The Aurora Tragedy: Moving Beyond Fear to Action

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