Many Dimensions to Our Culture of Violence

Many words, lately, on violence, guns, and women. It would take me all day to find all the links for you, so you can trust me on it. Aurora, Newton, Steubenville, this lovely meditation on the “slow violence” culture impels women to do unto their bodies daily.

This blog is forcing me to wrestle with the fact that what we can accept as obvious in academic humanities circles—that we live in a rape culture, for example, in which violence against women is the unquestioned norm pervading most of our daily life–actually takes a really long time to explain to people new to the concept. But sometimes examples of it can help.

I don’t intend to add to the litany about guns, violence, and gender. But it was all on my mind as I read this riveting NYT Magazine piece about a remarkable family who sought to use newfangled, hippy-dippy “restorative justice” to forgive the boy who killed their daughter and to give him a life-giving, rather than life-destroying, sentence.

Conor McBride

The kid, Conor, was having a multiday fight with his girlfriend Ann. In a daze of anger and desperation, he grabbed his dad’s shotgun to scare her into giving up on the fight. Or something? How could he possibly articulate his motives?

Since the reporter was focusing on Ann’s family’s use of restorative justice—a judicial process used for property disputes and other matters far more petty than murder—he did not give more than a few sentences hinting at explanations for the crime.

Good thing Thinker for Hire’s mad between-the-line-reading skills are at work to find you two key triggers for Conor’s act.

One, that violence against women is part of Conor’s family (and our) culture. That Conor and Ann’s school and doctors and parents failed to educate these kids on relationship techniques. On how not to hit your girlfriend. On how to deal with it when your boyfriend hits you.

Conor was prone to bursts of irrational rage. Ann never told her parents that he had struck her several times. [Conor’s father] now feels, with searing regret, that he presented a bad example of bad-tempered behavior. “Conor learned how to be angry” is how he put it to me.

“We never talked about it, you know?” Conor told me. “We never tried to be like, ‘Why do you do this and why do you do that?’ Or, ‘This is how I’m really feeling.’ That kind of communication just wasn’t there.”

He never learned how to be angry at people he loves without hurting them.

Two, of course, get that flippin gun out of reach of teens with anger problems and poor impulse control. I mean, seriously? You can keep your gun if you want but lock it up. I mean.

When it was Michael McBride’s turn to speak, sorrow overtook him and he told the group that if he had ever thought his shotgun would have harmed another person, he never would have kept it. Kate Grosmaire didn’t bring it up at the conference, but she says she has thought a lot about that gun. “If that gun had not been in the house, our daughter would be alive,” she told me.

Conor is struggling desperately to forgive himself for killing Ann. Ann’s parents have forgiven him, making his journey paradoxically harder. And, judging by his quotation above, about how his family failed to inculcate non-violent ways to deal with anger, he may be coming to understand some of the psychological complexities influencing his actions.

But say Conor and Ann’s school had amazing behavioral health programs, training them in how to recognize and prevent relationship violence. Say their parents were in touch with them, good at communicating about difficult things, and aware of their history with relationship violence. Say Conor’s parents did not have a shotgun on an open shelf. Would Conor still have shot and killed Ann?

Who knows.

But violence against women is part of our culture. Violence is part of how we understand masculinity. Physical and sexual vulnerability is part of how we understand femininity.

Everywhere we look, women’s bodies are objects: objects of sexual fantasy, symbols of ideas, decorations of a story about men, tokens proving this or that about men, pawns in various political fights. For that matter, children function in many of the same ways. Most marginalized people do. In culture.

So why wouldn’t someone conditioned to believe masculinity = violence go ahead and be violent to a woman, child, disabled person, trans or queer person, roomful of children, when he is angry? Why not throw a punch, or pick up a gun to show that he has might and superiority? If it’s around.

And then we get news like this, that because of guns, car accidents, and drug overdoses, the US has the lowest under-50 life expectancy of 17 comparable countries. It’s not just Conor. It’s not just James Holmes. We are killing ourselves.

Conor will take responsibility for his actions. But so should all of us.

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2 thoughts on “Many Dimensions to Our Culture of Violence

  1. […] I know. Hard to believe. I’m so hilarious. […]

  2. […] would hinder real learning. Better to invest in assessing and treating mental illness, training in domestic violence prevention, and the […]

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