In light of recent events, specifically the murderous rampage of a young male college-student from Southern California who explained his attack as the fruit of being rejected sexually and hating American women (for wounding his self-esteem by rejecting him “unfairly” for other men who struck him as inferior), I offer the following thoughts.  I refer to this particular individual as R in my comments.  

Personally, I feel that there is a profound benefit to be had from breaking the illusion that my importance somehow trumps yours, that my integrity (or esteem or in a word, life) matters more than yours. How do we break that illusion? How do we provide space for young fools like R to realize the limits of their importance or worth without destroying themselves or others? I don’t think there is any way to build a society utterly proof against accidents (that will on occasion give us criminals like R who must be put down), but I do believe there are things we can do to mitigate these accidents.

I have heard some folks say that boys are socialized to be violent, and that this is responsible for the creation of monsters like R. I disagree with this idea, though I might agree with some of the practical approaches to dealing with violence that come along with it.  (It is not always clear to me how we are supposed to stop “socializing boys to be violent.” With therapy? Religion? I am uncomfortable with these options, for reasons which appear in articles like this one).

Why do I disagree? My disagreement comes from a lifetime (more than 20 years now: I am getting old) spent around boys–my peers growing up, and now my two sons, who are 4 and 6 years old. As a kid, I was drawn to martial arts. This is not unusual in itself, but other things about my life were undoubtedly strange. Unlike many kids, I grew up without access to much TV or movies. My parents put an end to our TV-watching when I was about 7 or 8 years old; the last shows I watched “live” as a kid were Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street. Once a week, on Fridays, our family would gather around the VCR (remember those?) and watch one or two movies from my parents’ collection. The Internet did not exist as a public utility until I was a teenager. What does this mean? Well, I was drawn to martial arts without knowing who Bruce Lee was (in the ’80s), what boxing was, what video games were (we didn’t have any), what violent movies looked like (my parents were not into that), etc. I just wanted to move, and to fight. There was no “because”–no social pressure from my folks, no social pressure from my friends, no cogent aspiration on my part to be tough or manly or whatever.  Later on I discovered words and rituals aiming to express the values I already felt as a 9- and 10-year-old kid: martial values, fighting values, values built around violence. The point is that I was not a blank slate upon which society wrote violence. As a little kid, I already contained something people call violence, something my martial arts’ instructors recognized and taught me to control with respect. For that I am still grateful to them.

Fast forward to the present. My wife and I have two kids, boys whom we aspire to raise right. I suppose you might say that with my background in martial arts (which I still practice), I accidentally provide some kind of subliminal message to them that violence is golden, that they must fight one another. But my wife certainly doesn’t convey that message, and I spend more time breaking fights up than starting them. My observation of their experience (as good little kids, who are learning to be responsible and respectful: I hope they don’t grow up to be like R) is that it mirrors my own. They fight naturally with each other or with me (not with strangers, and they are learning not to fight with kids at school, not even their friends). I did not teach this, any more than I taught my dog to bark and bite my heels when we bought him as a tiny puppy. The violence is already there in animal nature, masculine nature especially (perhaps). The question is what to do with it.

I think it is very dangerous to let people spend their lives unchallenged, to accumulate experience winning that does not involve loss. My martial arts background was very useful to me in that it taught me to respect not just myself but also my opponent, who might not look like much but could now and again whip my ass (in ways that I would have to respect: getting caught with a stiff kick to the liver teaches you not to gloat too much when you are the kicker). The values my martial arts instructors had were explicitly geared toward minimizing physical damage: you don’t want everyone leaving the art prematurely aged and broken, even if you are a selfish bastard as my teachers weren’t.  As a result, I came away from my years of training physically developed (enhanced rather than broken) and mentally balanced.  I was not going to go out and hurt other people because “Life is unfair!” I knew in my gut, from years’ experience, that you don’t complain to the ref when the other guy takes you down and wins the match. You smile, shake his hand, and give your best effort the next time. Defeat is simply the other side of victory, a price that we must pay to win responsibly. The contest need not be fair–your opponent is different from you, with physical attributes that you don’t have, and vice versa–and the best way of handling that asymmetry is with respect and deference (particularly when you win: you must show the loser that you respect his effort, that you are not the kind of asshole that R would call “alpha male”). 

For those who wisely require more than just my personal observations and experience to back these ideas up, I offer this National Geographic article on elephantsConsider these two paragraphs in particular:

Bradshaw speculates that this early trauma [seeing older elephants killed or carried off by poachers], combined with the breakdown in social structure [no older elephants left to guide the tribe in the bush], may account for some instances of aberrant elephant behavior that have been reported by field biologists. Between 1992 and 1997, for example, young male elephants in Pilanesberg Game Reserve in South Africa killed more than 40 rhinoceroses—an unusual level of aggression—and in some cases had attempted to mount them. The young elephants were adolescent males that had witnessed their families being shot in cullings at Kruger National Park—sanctioned killings to keep elephant populations under control. At that time it was common practice for such orphaned elephant babies to be tethered to the bodies of their dead relatives until they could be rounded up for translocation to new territories. Once moved to Pilanesberg, the orphans matured without the support of any adult males. “Young males often follow older, sexually active males around,” says Joyce Poole, “appearing to study what they do. These youngsters had no such role models.”

One effort to repair the torn fabric of an elephant group lends further support to the idea that early trauma and a lack of role models can lead to aggression: After Joyce Poole suggested that park rangers in South Africa introduce six older bull elephants into Pilanesberg’s population of about 85 elephants, the aberrant behavior of the marauding adolescent males—and their premature hormonal changes—abruptly stopped.

My observation of R and his kind tells me not that we socialize violence too much, but the opposite: we socialize it too little. Too few violent kids like R grow up without the kind of socialization into violence that I experienced (with peers and older men, mostly, who served me as role models for respectful, socially constructive ways to channel violence). Instead of watching older men court older women respectfully, R was watching college freshmen. Instead of watching older men fight in the arena, R was watching reality TV (or some other garbage remote from real life, until he mistook himself for the hero in an action film and charged out to die stupidly). I am profoundly grateful that I do not live R’s life, that when I graduated with a BA as a virgin (no sex for me until I married at age 26), I was not homicidal. I knew that “real men” (the men I grew up with) don’t kill women who don’t want to go out with them. I knew that “real men” don’t jump from “Life is unfair!” to “Kill everyone!” These are really valuable lessons, lessons that I hope to pass on to my sons as they grow up and come to terms with the violence they embody.

This post originally appeared on my personal blog.  –JGM