The Culture of Violence: an American Love Affair

May 30, 2022

Photo by NEOSiAM 2021 on

“Hell is empty

And all the devils are here.”

– Ariel, The Tempest, William Shakespeare

Let’s talk about our love of violence, America.

A decade after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, where a 20 year old man who had just murdered his mother then killed twenty children and six women, another elementary school shooting took the lives of children and women again. This time, an 18 year old man shot his grandmother in the face and then killed nineteen children and two women at the Robb Elementary School in Texas.

This incident makes for 212 mass shootings so far this year and 27 school shootings. And while we’re all circling the wagon of firearm discourse once again, I’d like to bring the discussion back to the crux of the problem and how we won’t ever solve the issue of gun violence until we actually face and deal with our Violence Problem.

Guns are a problem insofar as they are a very effective tool for killing people, including mass murder. Guns make killing easy, distant, indifferent, and accessible. AR-15s, the poster child for firearm animosity, work so well at mass shootings because it’s a light and versatile semi-automatic rifle that is easy to handle, comes with a 30 round magazine, and is honestly the best choice for a zombie apocalypse because rather than relying on marksmanship, the gun is made for a maximum kill rate with rapid-fire, high-velocity rounds. They’re also relatively inexpensive and Americans own more than 15 million of them. It is the most popular rifle: 1 out of every 5 (new) firearms purchased in this country is an AR-15.

Every time there’s a mass shooting, there is a spike in gun sales. Whenever there is a whisper of banning semi-automatic rifles, there is a spike in gun sales. The firearms industry loves your fear and loathing because they profit quite readily from it; the NRA loves it as well because it means the firearms industry will continue giving them tens of millions of dollars every year to lobby politicians and continue their 2nd Amendment gaslighting that riles up a small minority of folks who believe that someone is actually coming for their rights and their guns. Despite the fear-mongering and disinformation by the NRA lobby, responsible gun laws meant to keep guns out of the hands of people who have shown themselves to be violent are supported by the vast majority of Americans. Who doesn’t want to keep violent offenders or demonstrably hateful individuals filled with rage from walking into Cabela’s and purchasing a tool for killing others with ease?

In case you didn’t know: they’re not coming for your rights or your guns. Unless you have a uterus, are a person of color who would like to easily access voting, or if you identify as a person who rejects traditional hetero-normative identities and the reductive binary of cis-gender roles, you can be sure that all of your rights of Freedom and Liberty are safe.

Guns are actually a bigger problem for self-harm than they are for killing others: most gun deaths in America are suicides.

Which brings us to the discussion of mental health: Violence in America (including mass gun violence, since that’s what makes the headlines) is often blamed on mental illness. Gun violence is not primarily a mental health issue: it’s an angry, entitled to use violence against others issue. While we do not provide adequate mental and behavioral healthcare in America, people suffering from mental health concerns do not commit violent crimes at a higher rate than anyone else.  Let me say it again: people with mental health issues do not commit crimes at a higher rate than anyone else does. Less than 5% of violent acts can be attributed to people living with severe mental illness.

Most people with mental illness are not violent. And given the highest rate of gun deaths in America are suicides, mental health concerns around guns is an issue of self-harm, which once again speaks to the efficacy of firearms in causing death, but is not the reason why we are normatively using and experiencing violence. When it comes to suicide, it is a mental health issue; but when it comes to murdering others, it is not a mental health issue: it is an issue of our sanctioned love of violence.

Bringing up mental health issues every time there is a national tragedy of mass murder is a deflection: a red herring, a straw man argument that makes it easier to ignore how unmitigated violence is our problem, and violence is what we must address if we’re ever going to stop it from happening again.

We have to start by being honest about the fact that while the tools of violence don’t inherently create the violence, people did actually create those tools for the purpose of enabling violence. Then we need to ask who is primarily enacting violence, whether they are utilizing those tools or not, and the answer is overwhelmingly men: 80% of violent crimes are committed by men; 98% of mass murders are committed by men. On a global scale, men are the primary perpetrators and actors in war, genocide, ethnic and religious cleansing, violence in policing, and militarization of society.

The tragedy of mass violence involving firearms, which accounts for a small percentage of overall violent deaths but typically captures headlines, are violent acts primarily enacted by men. The FBI defines a mass murder as killing four or more people in one incident. When you research information on incidence of mass murder and shootings, you’ll often arrive at different numbers for each year depending on whether or not the total for mass killings include those that occur during the commission of another crime (as opposed to mass murder being the whole point of the exercise in and of itself).

What does this mean about violence then? Well, we could write a book on it; academics and scholars from the various sciences have already written many of those books. One thing we can discern is that men are the ones who are predominantly being violent and we need to ask ourselves why.

Some people don’t like that truth. They get their panties in a bunch because they believe that this statistical fact reflects poorly on them as a man rather than representing a gendered cultural truth. They cry about how men are always blamed for everything. So instead of doing something to help address the problems of toxic and permissive masculinity, they get pissed off that we dare talk about it instead. Those people can fuck off. There is nothing about men that makes them inherently and inescapably violent, so when we discuss the gendered nature of violence, it doesn’t mean we are saying that YOU, a man, are necessarily going to be violent, nor are we criticizing you personally for others’ violence simply because you are a man. We are saying that we need to look at precisely WHY men are responsible for most acts of violence, particularly if we want to actually do something about it.

Sociologists will tell you that gender socialization teaches boys and men what their roles are in society based on cultural constructions of masculinity. They learn what it means to be essentially male by exposure to representations of masculine identities and behaviors in social institutions (such as the Family, Religion, Education, the Military, the Workplace, and Government), as well as the modeling of masculine behaviors to which they are exposed informally (such as creative and imaginative representations of masculinity), which not only teaches boys and men what and who they are supposed to be, but also what and who they are not supposed to be. Some of the aspects, identities, and behaviors of traditional contemporary masculinity that we teach boys and men are considered toxic, which may lead to socially maladaptive behaviors such as violence. A sociological explanation views an activity such as violence within a larger context of normative cultural acceptance and promotion that effectively teaches boys and men how and when they are privileged to use violence in expressions of masculinity, including how they do in fact have that privilege to use violence.

Psychologists will tell you that violence is a result of individual pathologies, caused by either individual or familial behavioral dysfunction, and thereby attribute violence to the character of an individual either from psychobiological tendencies or the consequence of a damaged psyche. Examining the pathologies of individuals en masse may be helpful in establishing larger patters of human psychological variables that indicate shared cultural reasoning for using violence. While psychologists may be able to explain the why of an individual’s expression of aggression and violence, a psychological perspective does not explain the widespread use and acceptance of violence or the social processes necessary to maintain a normative culture of violence in society: how it is not a single aberrant act of a random individual but rather something that happens over and over again with striking regularity across an entire society so as to be common, prevalent, and normal.

Evolutionary biologists will tell you that men are genetically predisposed to be aggressive, that biology is the answer. That view doesn’t hold up to broad application or close inspection (here’s your chance to say it: Not All Men), ignores how human cognition plays an enormous role in understanding and thereby mediating reactive biological tendencies (perhaps explaining why the link between testosterone and aggression in other animals is not replicated in humans), and ignores how human beings have complex social relationships and learned behaviors that cannot be excluded or divorced from human evolution. The tendency to biologically essentialize human behavior to explain its normalcy is reductionist, making it as objectively problematic as it is subjectively naïve.

Essentialism creates epistemological issues for me, so I have a tendency to dismiss it out of hand, particularly when presented as hegemonic Truth.

Rather than blame individual psychology or biology for violence, even when reckoning with how violence (especially severe violence) is predominantly perpetrated by men, we must consider how the common occurrence and normative use of violence is indicative of society’s values: despite lip service to the contrary, we love violence, we glamorize it, we repeatedly utilize it as a legitimate response for dealing with conflict, and we are socialized to inherently approve of its use.

Well, not everyone has the same approval to legitimately use violence. While everyone is socialized into the normalcy of its use, some are more entitled to its use than others.

When we discuss sources of violence, where perpetrators learn how to utilize and engage in violent behaviors, we often have a narrow focus: their environment, the people to whom they were exposed as children, the violent perpetrators in their lives from whence they model behaviors, the interpersonal and community sources of violence that influence and encourage the learning of these behaviors as normal and useful in their own lives.

Instead of looking at the micro-level actions that impact individual experiences and flavors of violence, I suggest we start at the top and work our way down so that we examine the sociological processes that occur and how the institutions that structure and govern our social roles effectively teach, demonstrate, and approve of violence: we must look at how violence is normalized and authorized from places of power that work to control the narrative that not only permits but encourages violence as appropriate, reasonable, and legitimate.

These are the same institutions of power that will also punish you for using the tools and behaviors they have taught you are in some manner legitimate. The Death Penalty is a prime example of this hypocrisy and abuse of power. Despite your personal feelings about Capital Punishment, it has been shown repeatedly to be significantly more costly than lifelong imprisonment and has revealed by application that it does not actually deter crime. Yet by using the Death Penalty, the State is engaged in sanctioned premeditated murder, thereby teaching you that there are, in fact, exceptions to the rule that intentional killing is wrong.

So in order to actually reduce and eliminate the variables that influence violence and harm in society, we would have to start by dismantling systems of Power and Oppression that normatively enable, teach, and utilize various forms of violence. We would need to replace that abusive and toxic dysfunction with systems that enable healthy social behaviors of caring and benevolent tools for managing conflict, systems that genuinely value people instead of placing them in violent opposition to one another, and systems that engender acceptance and amiable attitudes of community rather than those of hate, domination, and the subjugation and rejection of Others.

It’s a tall order to change the world. One of the things we’d certainly have to dismantle would be hierarchies of power and control, and in particular the Patriarchy; it is a system that readily and willingly uses violence to maintain its ascendancy and power, where domination and control is built into its existence by definition and design. We must find a way to abandon the harmful and subjugating structuring of our societies that not only enable violence as the norm but rely on its power to persist.

I find that there are two primary problems interfering with a process of abandoning normative, harmful social behaviors: the first is how those who benefit from harmful privileges are not apt to simply give them up because the behavior is useful and rewarding to them. The second is that social and cultural change of harmful hegemonic privilege is a lot of goddamn work and typically takes a long time to accomplish, which requires accountability, endurance, responsibility, and resilience. The difficulties in wrenching privilege from the hands hegemonic systems of oppression combined with the tiresome and often dangerous work of creating social change often leads us to intervention rather than resolution and formative, enduring change.

When we attempt to mitigate violence in society by focusing on the variables that exacerbate or aggravate its incidence, we are ignoring the real problem. Restricting access to firearms and alcohol or requiring treatment programs for substance abuse and dependency as well as other antisocial comorbidities such as recidivist violence, have been shown to reduce the incidence of harm. But these intervention efforts simply attempt to disrupt problematic behaviors that are linked to violence, which is putting a band-aid on an exposed injury after it has inevitably occurred while creating superficial barriers meant to ease the incidence of perpetrating harmful acts. The behaviors, beliefs, and sense of normative privilege to use violence are rooted deep in our history and our cultural consciousness, and therefore need to be confronted and eradicated: what makes for socially permissible violent behaviors from the top down must be acknowledged, challenged, and then rejected in their entirety.

In his radical view on power, social and political theorist Steven Lukes explains how people will adapt to whatever social systems they are required to inhabit, which means they will create (along with their oppressors) the ideologies, beliefs, experiences, and codified behaviors necessary for them to accept their place in that world. It also means that we can create any social system that we actually want to inhabit should we be so inclined to do the work needed to get there. The use of violence has been a harmful and destructive cultural tool used to enforce compliance. We must stop complying and insist the lived reality of normative violence be forsaken if we actually desire its end.

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