Masculinity Psychosis: Weapons of Mass Social Destruction


Masculinity Psychosis: Weapons of Mass Social Destruction

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Americans have been left flummoxed by the rash of shootings, murders, bombings, and violence that seems to erupt randomly with seemingly no pattern or explanation. I want to propose some thoughts on the issue of violence and masculinity. So roll with me for a minute as I try to explain the common thread that connects suburban mass shootings/bombings (mostly committed by white men) and urban homicides (mostly committed by black men) in America.

We all know that these killings take place at the hands of males and there is a reason for this. American masculinity is similar to masculinity that is found around the world, where manhood is defined as being able to be a protector, provider, and a breadwinner. To be a man who is unemployed or without a legal means of earning income often induces what I call masculinity psychosis. Masculinity psychosis takes place when "a man" views himself as unable to fulfill the traditional role of being "a man.”

In the eyes of American society, he becomes a "nobody" and essentially views his life as over. He falls into a state of depression and becomes increasingly disaffected. He begins to view his unemployment or lack of path forward as the fault of society or as though someone wronged him. Adam Lanza didn't see a path forward for himself and felt the children at Sandy Hook Elementary did him wrong. Christopher Donner was fired by the Los Angeles Police Department and felt they did him wrong. James Holmes failed his doctoral comprehensive exams and didn't see a path forward—he felt the university did him wrong. In the April 28th edition of the New York Times, the story (“A Battered Dream, Then a Violent Path”) describes how the Boston bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev saw his boxing dream take a hit and his path to American citizenship stymied. Holmes felt American society had done him wrong. It's also no coincidence that three out of the four either had formal or informal military/gun training (Lanza, Donnor, Tsarnaev).

In disinvested urban communities around the country, young black men are shooting predominantly other young black men at alarming rates. The rhyme and reason are largely the same. Without viable employment and a legal means of making a living, many young black men become soldiers in gang or drug organizations. In a situation and space where disaffection and disdain for the police run rampant (“F**k the police!”), it's a rat race for turf, corners, and blocks. Add in the mix the overwhelming urge to "be somebody" and you have the perfect formula for murders that take place by the singles, doubles, or triples. These murders are not enough to really catch the nation's attention like the mass shootings/bombings, but nevertheless, the behavior is rooted in a similar masculinity psychosis.

Masculinity psychosis can take place anywhere, but where America differs from the rest of the world is the volatile mix of striking income/wealth inequality, the ready availability of guns, hyper-individualism, and the glorification of violence since its inception. Income/wealth inequality exacerbates the perceptions of being “a nobody” in society when everywhere the disaffected turns, somebody is "ballin’ out of control" and somebody else has the bling. Hyper-individualism means that there is no real connection to a larger community, not even really to one's family. It's all about "me, myself, and I." No sense of service or connectedness to community. And finally, America has glorified violence since killing millions of indigenous people and enslaving millions of others. Life is cheap and the proliferation of mass consumerism and crass materialism means that many men define their self-worth by their net worth. Literally, many men subscribe to the thinking that "cash rules everything around me."

With that volatile and toxic brew stirring in the American social stew, a disaffected and "disrespected" man becomes an instrument for disaster. Masculinity psychosis is certainly expressed by individual men, but the conditions that breed masculinity psychosis are deeply rooted in the American psyche. The aforementioned mix of conditions embedded in our socialization of boys and erected in the ideation of the masculine superhero. Our popular myths about masculinity convey the notion that men are "stronger" than women and that women are more "emotional." But masculinity psychosis reveals that men are tremendously fragile and sensitive creatures. Maybe women are really the "strong" ones...or maybe we need a new definition of what “strong” should mean for a healthy sense of masculinity or, more broadly, personhood.

None of this is to say that mental health or gun control legislation isn’t a part of the issue. I believe that both are quite pivotal. But, women have mental health issues and access to guns just like men do, but women aren’t committing these sorts of crimes at the rate that men are. This means that there is something about being a man, or rather, something about masculinity that is central to the sort of violence that we are witnessing in American society.

I should also add that this analysis is not simply a critique of the ongoing American job crisis or the capitalist economic arrangement, although those critiques are implicit. Rather, this analysis begs the question of what happens when men view themselves as having no worth when their dreams are dashed and their expectations are not matched by reality. Instead of accepting reality, some men may create an alternative reality where they become the “superhero” in their own minds.

This analysis could be extended to retired NFL football players or military soldiers who return from war overseas, but the point is simply this: America's vocation crisis is increasingly a crisis of manhood for millions of American men. I use the word "vocation" because it implies having a place in society. Once men become unemployed and believe they lack a path forward, some are likely to feel disaffected and disrespected—and at risk for falling to masculinity psychosis, thereby turning themselves into weapons of mass social destruction.

Lawrence Brown

Lawrence Brown is a political activist, public health consultant, and history aficionado. He has partnered with community groups in East Baltimore to devise strategies to assist residents who were displaced from their community by EBDI and Johns Hopkins University. Lawrence has collaborated with the labor advocacy group Community Churches United and testified at Baltimore council hearings regarding displacement, development, and local hiring practices. He is also an assistant professor of public health at Morgan State University.