Swimming with my family yesterday, we were shocked to learn that a man just down the beach had been attacked by a shark. The usual feelings of fear, shock, helplessness, and gratitude that it wasn’t us ensued. As this story mingled with the story of James Holmes in Colorado, it seemed easy enough to imagine that a shark attack and a mass shooting are similar events: tragedies floating through the summer air randomly attaching to certain bodies while swimming by others.
Of course shark attacks are not at all the same as mass killings. Mass killings are acts of madness that are cultural in nature, not blind animal instinct. More than 60 years ago, Ann Parsons, daughter of one of the mightiest of U.S. sociologists Talcott Parsons, wrote about schizophrenia as not just a set of behaviors, but a set of culturally and class and gender-specific behaviors. So society ladies on the Upper East Side who had schizophrenia experienced it quite differently than the working class Sicilian women whom Parsons studied.
It is too easy in this time of neuroscience and the human genome project to believe that madness is chemical or genetic or in some other way written into the body, but it is worth reconsidering what Parsons understood: When a person goes mad, they do so in culturally specific ways. And perhaps more importantly, when a society responds to madness it does so in equally culturally specific ways.
In the Holmes case, much has already been written about how it is men, and most often, privileged white men who go mad by shooting up innocent bystanders in public spaces, like movie theaters and universities. As Chauncey Devega wrote at Salon, there is something about white masculinity that produces these mass murderers in the same way there is something about religious extremism that produces suicide bombers. As Devega pointed out,
if James Holmes were black or brown this would be one more signal to the existence of a “pathological culture” among said group. If James Holmes were Muslim American the Colorado shooting would be a clear act of “terrorism,” and an example of the Islamic bogeyman next door who has occupied the dreams and nightmares of the “heartland” since September 11th.
In America, folks often ask, “what the hell is wrong with black people?” In the aftermath of the Colorado Movie Massacre, Columbine, and many other incidents, we need to ask, “what the hell is wrong with young white men?
What is wrong with white masculinity, of course, is the way in which it feels entitled. When white masculinity is mixed with serious mental illness, it feels entitled to take lives. But what is also wrong is that when young, mostly white men take lives, they do so in a culture that allows them to be heavily armed. And that obsession with the “right” to bear assault weapons is situated in the same white masculinity that motivates killers like James Holmes. In other words, the madness and the response to madness both are the result of our culture’s fetishization of white masculinity. The cowboy, Ronald Reagan with his white hat, George W. Bush on his ranch, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and, of course, Batman himself represent a sort of cultural madness that is far more dangerous than a handful of deranged young men. It is this cultural madness that responds with yet another debate about gun laws, gun laws that do not ever do anything because it is not just the Second Amendment at stake, but some notion of “real” masculinity that is both dangerous and assertive.
It is this culture that must be addressed first. Without talking about the dangers of fetishizing a heavily armed and dangerous manhood, we will never get gun control passed. And without passing gun control, we are never ever going to stop deranged young men from shooting up public spaces. It is a culture of madness that allows killer after killer to haunt our cultural waterways. They are not single events of bad luck, like shark attacks, but the obvious result of a world gone crazy.