Truth be told, I’ve been avoiding writing about the tragedy in Pittsburgh. I didn’t want to read any of the numerous articles that were shared, I didn’t want to engage with the flood of posts on social media, and I didn’t want to talk. Except it’s more than not wanting to do any of those things; I felt that I couldn’t. I couldn’t acknowledge what had happened because I was scared I would fall apart. I couldn’t read my friends’ posts because every time I saw them, I was hit with a pang of fear for their safety and for my own. I couldn’t afford to make this tragedy real, because doing so meant grappling with the hard questions.
What do we do now?
Why does this keep happening?
How do we stop it from happening again and again and again?
In the back of my mind, I knew that I would eventually have to face these fears and questions. I chose the Women’s Center blog as the forum to struggle with them because I recognized the capacity of the people around me to support me as I do so. That said, I don’t intend for this to merely be a personal reflection. There are larger societal factors which continue to influence the culture of violence in this country, and those need to be addressed.
First things first, let’s look at the numbers. There is no specified definition of the term “mass shooting” nor is there a government agency that keeps track of them. This makes data collection difficult, so many activists have had to rely on media outlets or nonprofits that have taken on the task. As a result, it is easier to identify trends. Here is a really useful video explaining several of them.
Despite this gap in the data, we do know that America has more guns than any other developed country–even when adjusted for population size–and, consequently, more gun deaths. It is important to note that a very small proportion of gun deaths occur from mass shootings, even though they happen so frequently. This is because the leading cause of gun deaths is suicide, followed by homicide (which is defined separately from mass shooting). The specifics are even harder to pin down when it comes to the shooter’s identity, but there are two key trends: the first is that a majority of the shooters are white, and the second is that all but three of these shooters in the last few decades have been men.
Masculinity and Violence
It’s no coincidence that nearly every mass shooter has been a man; it’s a symptom of how society teaches gender. From an early age, we’re taught that men are supposed to be strong, physically aggressive, and that roughhousing is just what boys do. For example, if a boy chases a girl around the playground and pulls her hair, we say that he likes her. This dismissal of boy’s actions teaches them that violence is natural and an acceptable outlet for negative emotions. Think about the playground scenario from a different perspective: what I see is not a little boy expressing positive feelings about a girl, but rather him acting on the negative feeling of frustration that he can’t have her. We don’t just teach boys violence; we teach them a desire to control everything except their emotions.
When we get older, and these actions become more serious (such as sexual violence), we as a society still focus on women as victims. We do not, however, focus on men as perpetrators of this violence. As one of my friends put it, “we teach women not to get raped instead of teaching boys not to rape.” At the Women’s Center, we recognize that sexual violence affects a multitude of people, and that there is no one way a survivor should look; however, this is still a heavily gendered issue, and much of that has to do with patriarchy. With this in mind, we need to consider how we as a society teach and reinforce masculinity. Arguments like “men can’t help themselves” and “boys will be boys” are endemic of both toxic masculinity and rape culture–which often reinforce one another.
Within this context, let’s return to the issue of mass violence. A key piece of the conversation that often gets left out in the media is the history of the perpetrator. For white shooters in particular, people are quick to search their past for mental illness or redeeming qualities, but they often gloss over a common thread, which is a history of commiting domestic violence, interpersonal violence (IPV), and/or sexual violence. For example, it came out that the man who killed over 50 people at a Las Vegas country music concert in October 2017 had abused his ex-girlfriend when they were together. Closer to home, the boy who shot and killed a classmate at Great Mills High School in St. Mary’s County had expressed anger that she had rejected his unwanted advances
Conceptually, this link makes sense. Much of these acts come not from a place of desire, but a place of needing to have power. We teach men that to be masculine means having control and authority over others, so many men view these violent acts as a means of maintaining control over their partners. It’s horrible, but when we don’t teach men a socially acceptable way of expressing negative emotions (and tell them that to be emasculated is to lose status in society) they often turn to violence. Furthermore, if a man views his partner as an object to be controlled, it’s unsurprising that he could view groups of people he’s prejudiced against or feels have wronged him the same way.
Moreover, we continue to normalize and stoke this misogynistic anger in online communities and forums where many men who feel entitled to have a sexual partner, and cheated that they do not, blame women for their problems and often celebrate men who hurt women. In fact, several of these men have used guns against women they do not know, and explicitly stated this misogynistic reasoning. It’s important to be mindful of the way we interpret the numbers here. Because mass shootings make up such a small portion of the gun violence in America, there are very few abusers that actually go on to commit those atrocities. On the flip side, many mass shooters have a history of violence, and it is necessary to understand that correlation. Their possession of assault weapons only makes their acts of violence all the more deadly.
Anti-Semitism and Hate Crimes
Hate crimes have been on the rise over the last few years, across lots of different marginalized groups. An FBI report indicates that overall hate crimes have increased by 17% and that anti-Semitic hate crimes have increased by 37%. Based on data collected by the FBI and the Southern Poverty Law Center, anti-Semitic hate crimes comprise about 11% of hate crimes overall, and 58% of hate crimes against religious groups. For comparison, Jewish people make up about 2% of the United States population, and 0.2% of the world’s population. So why are we so targeted?
It would take an entirely separate post to delineate the long history of violence and persecution against the Jewish people, but it is practically as old as the religion itself. Even in modern history, there are countless examples of anti-Semitic violence, many of which have been forgotten (this article lists just a few over the last hundred years). Many people who commit these acts are fueled by hateful rhetoric they see online.
Most of this anti-Semitic rhetoric stems from ancient stereotypes that still persist today. From Shakespearean villains to old movies to today’s political campaigns, anti-Semitic tropes have a long and ugly history. Samantha Bee did an amazing job of explaining that history and how it’s connected to today’s politics in a segment on her show. Essentially, the use of dog-whistle politics is not explicitly anti-Semitic, but its implications and allusions to deep-rooted stereotypes are like a language that sends a clear signal to those who already speak it.
Where do we go from here?
I really wish that I could conclude this piece on a positive note. I wish I could point to some positive trends that indicate understanding and acceptance are on the rise, while fear and violence are fading away. I wish I could, but I have nothing to point to. Instead, as I finish writing this blog, I get an email notification from the UMBC Police Department alerting the community of yet another display of anti-Semitism on this campus.
I’m tired of this. I’m tired of anti-Semitism being dismissed in progressive movements that advocate for diversity and acceptance. I’m tired of Nazis being referred to as “very fine people” and of free speech being used to defend them. I’m tired of centrists trying to hear “both sides of the story,” as though hate should be treated as a valid political ideology. I’m tired of social media executives bending over backwards to promote community guidelines, but doing nothing about literal neo-Nazis using their platforms. I’m tired and I’m angry. I’ve heard too many Holocaust jokes, had too many stereotypes hurled in my face, and seen too many concerns about anti-Semitism get brushed aside.
I don’t want to see any more swastikas drawn on bathroom walls. I don’t want to be scared for my safety when I go to see one of my favorite shows, and I don’t want to see people–especially people on this campus–use anti-Semitism as the punchline of a joke. Jewish people cannot and should not be the only ones fighting this bigotry. We need people who aren’t Jewish to step up and show some support. Find organizations that combat anti-Semitism, educate yourself on Jewish history and culture, and confront this hatred when you see it. You don’t have to be the loudest voice in the room, but we can’t take any more of your silence.