"What we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise."
Campus shootings and other extreme examples of violent behavior like those at the University of Alabama in Huntsville and Virginia Tech raise a wide array of important and often emotional issues. How safe are college campuses? Can professional pressures (like those produced by the tenure process) drive people to violence? What makes people commit these heinous acts of violence?
In the aftermath of the Alabama shooting, the public seemed particularly shocked that the alleged assailant was a woman. The added surprise reserved for violence committed by women points us to a question that is all too often ignored: Why are virtually all of these terrible tragedies, and the more common and intimate acts of violence on campuses hidden from media glare, committed by males?
I can understand why some of my fellow males reading this might be made uncomfortable by this question. After all, raising it could feel like an accusation, or perpetuate a stereotype to the effect that men are bad people. This is not my intention. There is an important distinction between talking about men’s gendered experiences and talking about the behavior or character of individual men.
I think we can achieve a lot if we have this conversation. Let’s start by coming to terms with the reality that these terrible stories consistently reveal themes of young men described as angry, hostile, abused, alienated, and/or mentally ill. Nowhere in this discussion should we justify or condone such acts of violence. Anyone who commits them, or threatens to commit them, should be held responsible and, if an illness is implicated, expected to get treatment.
But neither can we defend overlooking a key variable hiding in plain sight, which could illuminate ways to reduce this violence, and to improve people’s lives in other ways, simply because talking about it may be politically sensitive.
So, we need to talk about the socialization of boys and men, and what we collectively believe it takes to be a man in our society. To be sure, there has been hopeful progress over the last several decades to challenge the stereotypical expectations of stoicism or hostility. Yet, even a cursory look at news broadcasts, or most situation comedies on television for that matter, would illustrate the persistent paradoxes in men’s ideas about gender.
Humans are social creatures. We are instinctively curious about, and desire authentic connections with, other humans. Sometimes we feel lost or scared, and we need help. Sometimes we feel sad, anxious or ashamed, and we need encouragement or support. Sometimes we feel joyous and excited, and want to celebrate together. Yet the implicit and explicit rules of manhood continue to play havoc with these innate needs. There’s no doubt that changes in social conventions over the past few decades have allowed -- even encouraged -- men to have more emotional depth and breadth.
Yet, even a cursory review of popular media such as commercials, situation comedies, movies or music show, at best, an ambivalence about these changes. The expectation to suppress or be ashamed of vulnerability is very much alive. Pointing this out can subject one to mocking, and examples tend to be dismissed as overblown or silly.
Nonetheless, the subtle and overt messages about how to prove our masculinity -- and the need and expectation to do so -- are dangerous to ourselves, to other men, to women and children, and to the overall quality of our health and society. The constant and exhausting need to prove something, combined with the shame of being overwhelmed, lonely or scared, makes it unsurprising (but not acceptable) to me that so many of us hurt ourselves or others.
This is not an assertion that men are downtrodden. I will not argue (nor agree with those who do) that men are inherently disadvantaged or oppressed. Nor am I interested in overlooking men’s responsibilities, or the ways in which they might benefit from the current arrangement. These may also be important parts of the conversation -- some might argue fundamental ones.
My aim is to start by examining why more men do not find it manly to talk about our gender, and how this might be liberating to men and women alike; and point to ways to reduce men’s violence against each other and against women. It may also give voice to the majority of men (in my opinion) who oppose such violence. I believe there is common ground somewhere in the political spectrum. I believe most people, regardless of gender, can identify with the shame and pain associated with trying to achieve an ideal that is impossible, and harmful. I also believe some of the other intractable divisions between us could be improved by having this conversation.
In my view, there are some ways we can make progress on this set of issues, and they are not particularly complicated. My experience has been that there are actually a lot of people on campuses willing and interested to talk about, and work on, the way masculinities are constructed. My use of the plural here is intended to frame an inclusive and diverse range of possibilities. Readers who agree need to muster the courage and resolve to say so more often, and publicly.
I hesitate to use the following example for fear of distraction, but I am struck by the recent introduction of the public tagline “If you see something, say something.” Obviously that is intended to encourage people’s help in preventing terroristic violence (which is also primarily committed by some males). After all, there are strong social conventions around individualism, and about whether it is “our place” to talk to or about people regarding their words or behaviors. But, if we wait to speak until only the most extreme words or behaviors are observed, we will be implicated in reinforcing the norms which have eventually produced them.
We need to be willing to give men respectful feedback about how their words or actions may be harmful to themselves or others, and to do so with a spirit of genuine care. This can be awkward or intimidating, especially at first. For instance, when I meet with male students who got into trouble for hitting someone or breaking something, I often spend time getting to know them before discussing the incident.
I am usually struck by the discrepancy between the report and the thoughtful person sitting before me, and so I begin by saying that to him in a caring and non-judgmental way. These conversations have been some of the most meaningful and productive I’ve had, and they include discussion about the connection between the acts in question and the expectations of manhood. Men tend to “get it,” and to appreciate the rare invitation to connect around the subject. I would encourage readers to give that a try.
I need to say here that I believe my fellow men and I should do more of the heavy lifting in this area. We need to take more responsibility for this mentoring work, not because women aren’t good at it, but because they have been made to do more than their share of it. And by all means, let’s practice by recognizing the good that men do with genuine compliments, and offering compassionate assistance to men who are struggling.
This leads me to another area where work is needed. It’s touchy, so bear with me. Put frankly, I have gotten the sense from a lot of my colleagues over the years, regardless of gender, that they don’t particularly like male students. Perhaps they are exasperated by some of the behaviors they have had to deal with. Certainly, in my own work, I have on occasion been subjected to profanity-laced verbal abuse by intoxicated male students (and sober ones).
In my teaching, I have had guys who sit in the back of the room with backwards ball caps, laughing together over side conversations. I have witnessed or responded to anger and violence. I have worked with female students who were struggling to extract themselves from abusive boyfriends or a stalking male peer.
These are very, very unpleasant, and sometimes dangerous, situations, and I take them very seriously. I could easily see how anyone who has had to deal with such circumstances would become weary or fed up.
But, as faculty and staff, we have a professional obligation to take that up with our support network rather than projecting that onto our other male students. I often grapple with how to expect this of my female staff or colleagues. This is because I do not know what it is like to need a plan to get to my car after dark, or how to use my keys to defend myself. I have fewer stories of being physically intimidated by male students in my office than do my female colleagues. I have not had sexist, denigrating words written on my teaching evaluations as they have been on those of some of the women faculty in my departments.
So, I recognize that I also have to think about gender issues from the faculty and staff perspective as well as from those of my students. This is all the more reason to get this all out into the open, so we can do something about it. I have found these conversations difficult sometimes, but almost always worth it.
I believe the awkwardness men feel sometimes, whether in giving compliments to other men, asking for help, or talking about their gendered lives, are byproducts of the constraining scripts I have been discussing.
I like to point this out to men, gently, in a down-to-earth tone, and I have found that this can be very effective in generating the type of conversation I am proposing in this article. There are so many benefits to this, not only in reducing violence and aggression on campus by illuminating and nurturing alternatives, but even creating a more generally welcoming campus climate for everyone.
My experience has been that keeping a living conversation with men about gender (because people are constantly joining and leaving the campus) facilitates their positive engagement and persistence, in campus life and academic work. It also reduces the stigma and unfamiliarity of men talking about their gender, as well as the asking for and acceptance of help when needed.
I often describe college campuses as our last, best hope for teaching about and inculcating a sense of community. So I am hopeful that faculty, staff, and students alike will take full advantage of our setting, by definition an educational environment, to have the conversations I am proposing within and outside the classroom.
It couldn’t hurt.
Jason Laker is associate vice president and dean of student affairs at Queen’s University, in Kingston, Ontario, where he also teaches in the department of gender studies and serves as a fellow with the Centre for the Study of Democracy in the School of Policy Studies.
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