By Rekha Basu
It’s stunning when it hits you: Mass murderers are almost always male.
It’s also a loaded topic, which explains why we almost never call attention to it. So when a female business-owner friend brought it up this week and suggested I write about it, at first I balked. How do you do that constructively without seeming to hold an entire gender responsible for the crimes committed by a few?
What made it particularly difficult was my friend’s insistence that biology — rather than culture — is to blame. Testosterone, she argued, makes men innately more violent. If we just blame DNA for men’s violence, I retorted, then we are submitting it can’t be overcome. But culture can be.
Whatever the reasons, the facts speak for themselves. It’s hard to find a female name among perpetrators on the Wall Street Journal’s list of the deadliest mass shootings in the world since 1966, or on the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence list of 431 U.S. shootings of three or more victims since 2005. Young men were responsible for the shootings in Columbine, Colo.; in Oak Creek, Wis.; in Aurora, Colo.; in Portland, Ore.; and now in Newtown, Conn.
To the extent that gender is addressed, it’s almost peripheral — in mentions of the difficulty getting mental health treatment for young men who commit violent crimes.
But there is a therapeutic perspective on male violence that could help point us toward preventive strategies. It is well articulated by Jennifer Lock Oman, a Des Moines therapist who acknowledges the roles of both biology and culture, but focuses on how males and females respond differently to emotional triggers.
She draws on the work of the late psychologist Silvan Tomkins and retired psychiatrist Donald Nathanson. Between them, they developed the idea that experiences prompt emotions that may trigger certain “scripts” in response. Shame is a primary emotion in men who feel powerless, says Lock Oman. According to Nathanson, shame typically brings one of four responses: withdrawal, avoidance, attacking one’s self or attacking others.
“We all do all of them,” says Lock Oman, “but we generally prefer one or two scripts. Those can fall along gender lines.” She suggests that for males, the common responses are avoidance and attacking others, while females withdraw and attack themselves.
Avoidance might be drinking excessively, abusing substances, or even buying fancy things to impress others. Attacking others can be gossip, bullying, road rage or murder. The ultimate attack on one’s self is suicide, but staying in an abusive relationship, cutting or starving are others.
These responses draw upon traits society assigns to the sexes. Anger, a secondary response to shame, is culturally acceptable for men but rarely for women, says Lock Oman, who teaches a graduate social-work course on emotions and the brain. “For men, anger is cool. It’s John Wayne,” she says. So if a man feels ashamed for being weak and vulnerable, “Why not go to anger?”
But there are names — and not very flattering ones — for women who show anger.
Physiology plays a role, Lock Oman says. “Testosterone does predispose, but that’s not the whole story.” Circumstances factor in. She calls this a difficult time for young men who are starting life on their own in an uncertain economy. Feeling powerless can translate into shame, and shame into anger.
So what can be done? She says the best approach is for parents to give their children a different script early on, by helping them express a range of emotions. Kids “haven’t learned the scripted responses yet. If you give people a language for their experiences, the whole system calms down.”
This is not just “touchy feely” nonsense, says Lock Oman, but is becoming hard science, challenging what has been the Western world’s prevailing approach to psychology, which focused on cognition to the exclusion of emotions.
This makes sense. It helps to explain what’s happening to young men when they explode into a murderous rampage, and how that script could be altered. It is one piece of the puzzle of dealing with the epidemic of violence in our midst — one worth exploring with loved ones, especially children.
Pick a night and make it a dinner-table conversation. Each one of us needs to start somewhere.
— Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register. Reach her at email@example.com