In February it was a mass shooting at another university by a “gentle, warm, sensitive” young man whom acquaintances described as a student who didn’t fit the profile of a killer. Yet, he was a male in American culture, and therefore the likely gender for workplace, school, and university mass shooters. Males commit 90% of all violence.
Twenty-seven year-old Steven Kazmierczak, who grew up in middle-class middle-America, had been an honored sociology graduate student at Northern Illinois University. After his classroom attack killing five and wounding sixteen, he completed the attack as these men often do – kill themselves or see to it that they are killed.
The mainstream media searched for numerous acceptable explanations and settled on the fact that he had stopped taking his medication with the expectation that he had just broken up with a girlfriend. Both explanations won’t threaten our underlying culture by calling for changes in what we and our institutions value.
Our culture finds actual relief in these answers. The standard responses then enforce the need for more consumption and profits – more medication, more security equipment, more prisons, and more armament purchases – without examining root causes in the system itself.
Oh, don’t forget, there usually follow proposals for stricter punishment of someone or everyone. Punishments, after all, enforce our sense that the current way of seeing things has overwhelming power behind it.
We don’t know what personal circumstances, ranging from his family upbringing to his experiences growing up male in a masculine beat-or-be-beaten culture, brought him to the conclusion that this would settle something in his life. But we can make sure that we don’t under-emphasize the part that American masculine conditioning plays in such large, and numberless smaller, tragedies.
It turns little boys into depressed, seething young men who are supposed to idolize and embody warrior-type responses. Then it turns their depression into outward attacks on others, and, at times, gun-wielding massacres.
There’s anger and rage beneath all depression, therapists tell us. But different sets of conditioning turn that inward in most women so that they beat themselves up, and outward toward others in men.
The training to be a man and to keep quiet only enforces the seething emotions. And talking about it to other men to learn that the feelings are common, is forbidden. It’s put down as girly or gay.
So never, ever, show vulnerability, insecurity, and weakness to another man or he’ll put you down. Better keep quiet or join those who put down women and vulnerable men.
But admit that you need help, admit you need medication, and you’ve failed again by the man-code. You couldn’t hack it. You couldn’t handle it yourself.
Medications are being touted as the cause. But are they in effect the result of being a gentle soul who kept trying to follow the path he was taught was the one of real men — of someone who enlisted in the army in September 2001 but was discharged for an unspecified reason the following February, who worked for less than a month as a full-time correctional officer at an adult medium-security prison in Indiana before “he just didn’t show up one day,” who, of all subjects, chose to make himself an authority on prison systems.
So, was the action of giving up his medications about two weeks before, a way to assert his manly independence, as it is for many men who aren’t supposed to “need,” much less ask for, any help? “Buck up,” the man-code says. “Pull yourself up.” “Get yourself together.” “Stop whining.” “Be a man!”
And then he turned to that ultimate proof of manhood: the gun. As the underlying manhood mythology goes, a big enough gun or large enough collection of them will not only protect a man from those other men who will threaten his space, but it will show to them all that he is truly man enough to hold, caress, and fire one.
It will make up for any fear that other men are stronger, bigger, and threatening. Even when he emerged at the front of that class wearing black and a ski mask, one student described him as some “skinny white guy.”
How much did he feel that his stature was dwarfed when compared to the ever-increasing size of the icons of manhood he was expected to worship? Whereas in the 1950s the average GI Joe doll had biceps that would be 11 inches around if he were human, today they are the equivalent of 26 inches. (To be real, baseball superstar Mark McGuire’s biceps measure only 20 inches.)
Even those guns that symbolize the manly power of our icons are getting bigger. Just think of the increasing size and number of this obvious symbol of a man’s virility over other men over the last 50 years – from Humphrey Bogart and Sean Connery, to Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Now one gun won’t do for a real man, even if he can only fire one at a time. His arsenal had become a Remington pump-action shotgun, a Glock 9mm handgun, a Hi-Point .380, and a SIG Sauer, all four of which he carried to the scene.
We can’t know with certainty what was going on in the mind of this young man. The majority, thankfully, don’t act out their problems with being a man this way. Sullenness and anger are more common.
But beneath it all we can detect something persistent about how we raise boys in our culture to turn them into the warriors we’ve convinced ourselves we need to man our military, our industries, and our government.
Our boys learn that they can’t win without another man losing, that there are no win-win situations when it comes to being a man, that truly masculine teamwork means a group of men bonding together to beat, defeat, or kill another group of men.
And they’ve learned that if they start feeling their failure at this man-code, they’d better come out fighting – or shooting.
Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas where he taught for 33 years and was department chair for six years, Robert N. Minor (he/him), M.A., Ph.D is the author of 8 books as well as numerous articles and contributions to edited volumes. He is an historian of religion with specialties in Biblical studies, Asian religions, religion and gender and religion and sexuality. His writing has been published in Whosoever since 2005 and he continues to speak and lead workshops around the country. In 1999 GLAAD awarded him its Leadership Award for Education, in 2012 the University of Kansas named him one of the University’s Men of Merit, in 2015 the American Men’s Studies Association gave him the Lifetime Membership Award, and in 2018 Missouri Jobs with Justice presented him with the Worker’s Rights Board Leadership Award. He resides in Kansas City, Missouri and is founder of The Fairness Project.