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Some of the most interesting and salient analysis that has emerged since the tragic school shooting in Parkland, Florida, has been concerning the challenges of masculinity in America. Commentary has rightly pointed out that the vast majority of perpetrators of mass violence in America have been male, and that there are strains within masculine culture that are a large part of the problem that needs to be solved. Commentary has called for much greater conversation regarding gender roles, and greater gender fluidity to create a masculinity not tied to violence. However, such commentary, I believe, is incomplete for the following two reasons: 1) It does not understand how culturally contingent is its own analysis, and that gender fluidity and emotional introspection will not have appeal in working class America; and 2) There is a non-violent model of masculinity deeply embedded in American tradition—the homesteader—that can have appeal, and needs to be rejuvenated.
In a very well written and insightful piece, America's Gun Violence Problem is a Symptom of Toxic Masculinity in Them.us, Bryan Epps relates that from 1982-2017, 3 mass shooters have been women, and 93 have been men. The latest shooting incident in Parkland, Florida by Nikolas Cruz appears to continue this disturbing trend. Epps calls for us to address and change the enculturation of violence as endemic to maleness, which he sees as a manifestation of white hetero-patriarchy. Again, as Epps relates, Cruz’s fascination with guns, torturing animals, and apparent racist tendencies all seem to support Epps’ point. And Epps touchingly shares personal anecdote of his experiential introduction to such masculinized violence, as he was taunted and threatened as a black boy in youth by violent white boys. Such formative experiences are, indeed, a powerful aspect of masculine enculturation.
Comedian Michael Ian Black has been a strong voice recently in the call to re-examine masculinity. In an article in The Huffington Post called How Gun Violence and Toxic Masculinity Are Linked, in 8 Tweets, Alanna Vagianos describes 8 tweets made by Black in which he ties the Parkland shooting to the ideas that “boys are broken” in America. Vagianos relates language from one Black tweet: “The last 50 years redefined womanhood: women were taught they can be anything. No commensurate movement for men who are still generally locked into the same rigid, outdated model of masculinity and it’s killing us.”
Black further expounds upon his tweet commentary in an opinion piece in the New York times, The Boys Are Not All Right. Black describes the current confusion felt by boys growing into men, as they are not given space to voice and explore their frustrations, and they feel shamed if they do not acquiesce in supposed masculine values of sexual conquest, power, and acquisition. Black feels such gendered roles are outdated, but that there are not possibilities for masculine discussion of more liberated roles.
Too many boys are trapped in the same suffocating, outdated model of masculinity, where manhood is measured in strength, where there is no way to be vulnerable without being emasculated, where manliness is about having power over others. They are trapped, and they don’t even have the language to talk about how they feel about being trapped, because the language that exists to discuss the full range of human emotion is still viewed as sensitive and feminine.
I believe the analysis of both Epps and Black is brave, relevant, and insightful. I am also fully convinced that a crisis of masculinity is deeply connected not only to mass shootings in American, but also to our crisis of leadership in politics and other arenas. And I further agree that masculine norms are entirely too attached to sexual conquest, domination and violence. However, I do not believe that the violent, repressed, conquering male is the only model for masculinity in American tradition. Moreover, in some senses, the perspective of Epps and Black, though important, are not able to permeate through wide swaths of masculine—especially working class—culture.
Black discusses the feminist push since the sexual revolution to re-examine femininity and calls for a similar fluidity in masculine roles. This is, in many ways, a metro-sexual perspective. I am using this term as in its full nomenclature—metropolitan sexual—a heterosexual maleness in metropolitan (urban, suburban, exurban) areas among, primarily the college educated middle and upper-middles classes, where, increasingly among younger generations, dating roles, fashion, and dialects are less rigid among man/woman, gay/straight. And Epps represents an important voice from the LGBT community critiquing the traditional association of violence with hetero-male norms. And this voice is accepted with much greater comfort among the metropolitan sexual community than in many working class communities throughout America. Please do not misunderstand me, I am fully aware that there are gay folk everywhere, in every community—my current point is simply about the comfort level of different roles in different communities.
I grew up in a mid-American rural working class culture, before moving to the coast to be fortunate enough to have the opportunity for many years of education at elite institutions. Since completing my education, I have worked with many poor and working class boys and men in urban areas through educational efforts, and in the rural community in which I grew up, as a Pastor. As important as are the thoughts of Epps and Black, I am firmly convinced that the models and voices they represent will not have wide appeal in working class and poor communities, and they do not have to have appeal to return to a non-violent masculinity.
The unintended consequences of the sexual revolution are actually having the opposite effect on working class (as well as poor, and non-metro middle class) maleness than those agreeing with Black and Epps would hope. The sexual revolution not only has enabled more fluid gender and sexual roles, but it has predictably enabled the other side of liberty—the triumph of completely self-referential masculinity, in which sexuality is divorced from responsibility, and no longer embedded within commitment to the community. Thus, men have become free to live entirely for their short-term impulse, as sexuality has become a personal, not a communal, responsibility.
In short, boys are no longer raised to think of themselves as primarily responsible to family, religious institution and community. They are raised for personal short-term gratification and, when they are not gratified, they are either self-destructive as with drugs and alcohol, or destructive towards others. Thus, we learn that Nikolas Cruz’s shooting spree had some connection to an unrequited romantic/sexual attachment.
Indeed, there is one strain of American masculinity, that I call the “gun-slinger,” that runs throughout American tradition. This model can be symbolized by the gold-crazed cowboy of the 19th century leaving family behind in the East to go West to claim fortune, and predictably becoming enmeshed in gun battle, prostitution and drinking. The sexual revolution has increasingly left this gun-slinger model of masculinity—based upon sexual conquest, substance abuse, violence, and lack of responsibility—to be the primary American male model among the working classes, at least for those born after the sexual revolution. One of the most troubling below-the-radar trends is that the vast majority of children among the working classes of all races are now born to a mother that has never been married. As the Institute for Family Studies points out, this is an issue of class, not race. The same trend does not hold for the upper middle class.
In my twenty years of working with working class white, Latino and black boys and men, there has been one constant among those either prone to violence, or who actual commit violent acts—none of them have had a consistent father in their lives. This includes a young man I worked with last year in a New Jersey city, who shot and killed a family member of other young men I was working with. Boys are growing up only seeing the irresponsible self-referential gunslinger model, and thus they know only to act according to their self-referential impulse. These are boys raised on video games and ubiquitous pornography (see Ross Douthat’s important article Let's Ban Porn), who have no sense that there is a community to which they are responsible that is more important than their gratification.
A cultural stream that I have found fascinating in the past few years is that the skinny jean phenomenon was also entirely class, and not racially based. I saw myriad of black, Latino, Asian, and white boys/young men wearing skinny jeans. However, this metro-sexual phenomenon neither caught on in the rural countryside where I was working, or in the deepest “hood” among “the homies” with whom I worked. Baggy jeans and boots remained the standard in both communities (although no sagging for sure in the country). The metro-sexual model has no appeal in communities that still believe there is a definite and defined heterosexual maleness.
But there is another great American model of masculinity—“the homesteader.” Not all 19th century males left their families behind. Many stayed with their families, or took their families with them. Many built churches, worked, hunted, prayed, and helped out any neighbor in need. You can still see the homesteader male among some men, of all races, born before the sexual revolution. They are married, care for children and grand children, volunteer in the community, and, many, regularly attend religious services. But such men are increasingly rare among males under 50.
The roots of the homesteader model are explicitly Christian. Whereas the characteristics of the gunslinger are explicitly based upon anger, stubbornness, gratification, domination and violence, the virtues of the homesteader are based upon gentleness, love, patience, forbearance, and support of the wider community. Gentleness is explicitly used to describe proper Christian behavior more than 20 times in the New Testament, including Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount Teaching, “blessed are the meek”, which can more accurately be translated as blessed are the gentle. And Biblical Christian male leadership explicitly requires gentleness as a predominant virtue (1 Timothy 3:3).
Now unfortunately, many Christians currently support leadership in our nation that is completely antithetical to this Biblical Christian model, which is part of the challenge of our current convoluted mess. But this non-violent male model remains as part of our American context, and many men still embody its aesthetic. But for the homesteader, gentleness is authentically strong, unlike the brutish and braggartly masculinity which is really just thinly masked insecurity. But the homesteader is all out male, clearly defined, and is not fluid in gender roles. The homesteader is not prone to expressing feelings, or doing introspection. The homesteader is practical, concrete, and simple in the best possible way. The homesteader works hard, prays, serves his community, doesn’t boast, is always there for those in need and, very often, owns guns.
And thus any true rebuilding of masculinity throughout America will have to involve religious institutions, community groups, the eschewing of technology, and mentoring of gentle responsible men for younger men. I say this fully with many homesteader heroes firmly in mind, but especially with thoughts of Harold (I have changed his name for this essay). Harold worked hard. Harold didn’t say much, but what he did say was always kind. Harold loved to hunt and was in church every Sunday (except when he was hunting). When he wasn’t working, he was volunteering in the community, or helping out somebody in need in the community. Harold was a veteran of the United States Navy. When my interracial family first began work in Harold’s white working class community, Harold made everyone in my family feel completely welcomed—not by mentioning race or talking about Martin Luther King—but simply by being indiscriminately kind in the way homesteaders are. Harold died way too young from a sudden accident. Harold is no longer here on earth, but, of this I am sure—when we return to raising more Harolds, we will drastically reduce the gun violence in our country.