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Not All Outrages Are Created Equal

Christmas is over. For the families of 20 slain children in Connecticut, it’s been the first without their late loved ones, with the grief all too real and far too near.

It’s been just more than ten days since Adam Lanza burst into the Sandy Hook elementary school and shot at everything that moved. Along with the 20 murdered children – innocent souls snatched from this life with startling and harrowing viciousness – Lanza claimed seven adult victims. He also killed himself. At times like this it seems that sanity will never return, and never so much as in the days immediately following the outrage.

But eventually sanity must return. And as we now look back we must not only examine the madness of the original shooting, but also attempt to reconcile the emotion-drenched madness of the reactions to it.

There’s a lot to reconcile. For now, I’m going to limit myself to just two examples.

On December 19, National Review Online published a retrospective featuring observations by a number of individuals. Among them was The Human Christ author Charlotte Allen, who wrote the following:

“There was not a single adult male on the school premises when the shooting occurred. In this school of 450 students, a sizeable number of whom were undoubtedly 11- and 12-year-old boys (it was a K–6 school), all the personnel — the teachers, the principal, the assistant principal, the school psychologist, the “reading specialist” — were female. There didn’t even seem to be a male janitor to heave his bucket at Adam Lanza’s knees. Women and small children are sitting ducks for mass-murderers. The principal, Dawn Hochsprung, seemed to have performed bravely. According to reports, she activated the school’s public-address system and also lunged at Lanza, before he shot her to death. Some of the teachers managed to save all or some of their charges by rushing them into closets or bathrooms. But in general, a feminized setting is a setting in which helpless passivity is the norm. Male aggression can be a good thing, as in protecting the weak — but it has been forced out of the culture of elementary schools and the education schools that train their personnel. Think of what Sandy Hook might have been like if a couple of male teachers who had played high-school football, or even some of the huskier 12-year-old boys, had converged on Lanza. “

The response to these musings was both immediate and scathing. It was declared to be offensive; blaming women for the tragedy. Even amidst the bombast of the denunciations, there’s no question that Allen fell far short of the mark (so to speak) in a number of respects.

For one thing, the suggestion that protecting themselves or others is an example of “male aggression” seems a little bizarre. In every single respect, Lanza was the aggressor. Also, suggesting that 12-year-old children would or should rush at a gunman with an XM-15 assault rifle seems to be, frankly, insane. That's really the only word that comes to mind.

Even that being the case, the manic reaction to Allen’s spiel seems to indicate that some of her critics went out of their way to find things that they could decry. One author – fortunately for them their name escapes me – even went so far as to treat Allen’s suggestion (if it really warrants the use of that word) that a male janitor could have stopped the shooting by flinging his bucket at Lanza’s knees as if it were meant literally. A rational reader quickly recognizes otherwise.

The suggestion that Allen is blaming women for the tragedy is equally absurd. It’s simply a slander invented out of whole cloth. But it does give some indication of the motivation behind much of the bombast: simply put, Allen asked a question that is forbidden.

That question: how was there not a single male employee at the Sandy Hook Elementary school? In the days following a Presidential election in which employment equity was such a contentious issue – although Mitt Romney’s commitment to employment equity was bizarrely transformed into an inane attack on him -- one would think it unthinkable that any institution the size of the Sandy Hook Elementary School would have not one single male staff member. No white males, no minority males.

With 575 students, there were 38 teachers. All of them women.

Now, would a man have fared any better in attempting to halt Adam Lanza’s horrific assault on the school? Not likely. So I’ll dispose of this portion of Allen’s screed in its entirety, and instead focus on the question of staffing.

Specific information on the hiring policies used by the school are hard to come by. However, a perusal of the school’s website reveals that the Sandy Hook Elementary school practiced a teaching method known as the “responsive classroom approach.” The responsive classroom approach favours sensitivity and curiosity – traits commonly stereotypically associated with women. So responsive classrooms tend to be staffed by warm and caring (female stereotype) teachers, as opposed to stern and demanding (male stereotype) teachers.

Personally, I reject these stereotypes. Some of the warmest ad most caring teachers I ever had were men. Some of the sternest and most demanding teachers I ever had were women. Also, vice versa.

But as it’s pertained to gender roles, commentary in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre hasn’t actually advanced far beyond stereotypes. If you haven’t realized this by now, that’s what I’ll predominantly be concerning myself with here. So let’s talk about these stereotypes.

So it was deemed unfair to blame women for the massacre, even when they weren’t being blamed. But was it deemed unfair to blame men for the massacre? Judging from an article that appeared in Ms Magazine two days earlier, apparently not.

Soraya Chemaly wrote:

“As I listened along with the rest of the world to the unfolding horror of what transpired at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I was struck by the persistent lack of commentary and analysis discussing the fact that mass shooters are almost all angry, male and white. What will it take for us to have widespread, open, public dialogue about gender and violence in this country? About masculinity and identity? These are among the ‘hard questions’ we’re inclined to ignore. Instead, as I listened to the radio and watched the TV, I heard media commentators repeatedly explain how rare this scenario is. How this community didn’t have a ‘crime problem.’ About the psychological make-up of mass shooters. Law enforcement officers are looking for a motive. And people are asking, again, ‘Why did this happen?’
This is the wrong question. Mass murderers are an extreme symptom of a common, everyday problem. Yes, the risk of being terrorized by a lone, mass murderer is slim. But everyday people live with fear and terror in their homes. There is, sadly, nothing unique about men with guns in this country killing people every day. In the case of mass murders, the extreme symptom of this disaster, the question is, ‘Why did another angry, young, white man act this way and kill these people?’”

Let’s review one more time: blaming women, even when not actually blaming women: wrong. Blaming men: a-OK. That’s the conclusion I personally draw, as I don’t recall seeing any substantive criticism of Chemaly’s epic of gender-based grievance-mongering. Which is unfortunate, because Chemaly’s screed is in desperate need of some criticism.

This isn’t to say that Chemaly is entirely beyond reason. Mental illness has been widely recognized as a key factor in the Sandy Hook massacre, and it’s worth remembering that male behaviour amidst specific mental illnesses often tend toward “edginess” and violence. Almost as if to make this point, most male suicides are violent in nature, just as Lanza’s was. Add Lanza’s Asperger’s syndrome – a form of autism – and the eventuality of a violent outburst seems all the more likely.

But let’s bring up another violent incident... that of Jennifer San Marco. In 2006, she entered a mail processing plant in California – driving closely behind another vehicle in order to evade security – and killed six people with a nine millimetre Smith and Wesson handgun. She then took her own life. She was 44 years old.

Mass shootings by women do seem rare compared to mass shootings. But they’re certainly not unheard of. So with this being the case, to supplant the question of ‘why did another person go haywire with a gun?’ with a question specifically pertaining to young white men seems to present a risk of missing the forest for the trees.

Fortunately, that isn’t the predominant question in relation to the Sandy Hook Massacre.

Chemaly continues in much the same vein:

“This tragedy happened and will continue to happen because too many guns are readily available in a culture that is optimized for their tragic use, most often by unstable boys brought up to define themselves as men through violence, and taught from birth to expect control. Men with cultural entitlements to and expectations of power and privilege. Expectations, when not met and combined with illness, loss, depression and more, explode into uncounted tragedies every day. De-stigmatizing mental illness and regulating guns will of course help, but will be insufficient without inclusion of this dimension of the problem. In the case of Adam Lanza, yes, he had a mental health issue and had access to guns. But, unlike others with illness and access, he experienced the culture in a way that shifted his propensity into violent actuality.”

Here Chemaly becomes victim to a common sociological pitfall. Essentially, she argues that violence in role-modeling encourages males to be violent. One act of violence is taken to be the same as any other, but it ignores the specific contextual nature of role-modelling.

Certainly there is some violence inherent to male role-modelling. There's no use disputing something as true as this. But Chemaly manages a half-truth at best: unless a particular child has been raised in a particularly dysfunctional home, male role-modelling imparts certain meanings and expectations regarding violence. Simply put: exceedingly few parents teach their children to become mass murderers. The actions of Lanza were that of perhaps the ultimate coward – even armed with a high-powered automatic rifle, the most “courageous” thing he could think to do was murder defenseless children.

Of any of the conventional presentations of violence – be it through direct role-modelling, or in the media – nowhere is it taught that this is acceptable. Even in very unconventional places – such as the Newgrounds website, which is as unconventional as they come – violent video games like “Kindergarten Killer,” fallaciously fingered by the NRA as potentially to blame for the Newtown tragedy, resulted in demands that the game be removed from the website. These demands were quickly and mercifully satisfied.

It proves half of a theory I have about violent video games, which I promise to share with you at greater length some other time. Probably soon. But the proven portion of the theory is essentially thus: that gamers will rebel against a violent video game that goes too far beyond the pale. Males, allegedly socialized to be inherently violent, seem to have their limits too.

But you already knew this. If you’re a man reading this you know that your father never taught you that it was OK to vent a little anger by murdering children, and you'd never teach your child otherwise. If you’re a woman reading this, you’d absolutely never stand for your child or children being taught such things. You’ve probably taught your children that there’s a special place in hell for people like Adam Lanza. You know this. We all know this.

Unless, of course, you’ve buried your head in some kind of third-wave feminist ideology that insists – blithely insists – that outbursts like the Sandy Hook Massacre are always about gender. Then you might make the mistake of insisting that mass violence is about men and only about men, facts be damned, and writhe with befuddled anger at anyone who so much as dares ask the far more intuitive -- and appropriate -- question.

In this sense, not all outrage is created equal. It seems that some outrages – like the one allegedly perpetrated by Charlotte Allen – are created “more equal” than others.

Patrick Ross is a Contributing Writer for The Propagandist


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