Kimberly B. George

What does a feminist theorist think and feel when she wakes up to news of a mass murder?

Well, for this one, she thinks about her work—that everyday her work is about this grief. It is a grief that is particularly, tragically accented today, but it is still grief that is altogether familiar to the work of being a feminist theorist. I don’t say this to take away anything from the tragedy or particularity of what happened last night [July 20, 2012] in the movie theatre. I say that to explain that I see that tragedy not as an “isolated event” committed by a “deranged mind,” as the radio show I was listening to kept saying again and again. I see the tragedy as embedded in a larger culture of violence.

US culture is violent (I speak here of a certain hegemonic culture; there are many cultures, of course, in the US). “We” (the hegemonic “we”) accept violence. Sometimes “we” promote violence. Many white folks in particular are terrified to name the violence in our country’s founding (genocide and slavery). And perhaps most often, “we” are indifferent to the kinds of violence happening around us all the time.

And so when we see a sociopath commit mass murder, we want so badly to believe that the meaning of that act can only be about a deranged person’s troubled psyche. But, the reality—from a feminist theoretical angle—is that culture produces individual psyches. Despite the radio announcer trying to assure me that last night’s violence is an “isolated event,” I know that nothing is isolated. Everything is interconnected.

Everyday, as a feminist theorist, I study profound levels of violence: women killed by partners; gay teens who kill themselves in the midst of a homophobic world that won’t accept them; young men of color killed by police; a “war on terror” that has killed hundreds of thousands of people in a militant response to 3000 US citizens killed on 9/11. There’s violence in our consumerism, too—our oil for one, or the ways in which the parts of this MacBook pro on which I type fuel wars in the Congo. There is violence toward the earth and our fellow human beings in much of our economic system. I live amidst and prop up a world of violence.

So, what does narrating this grand scale of violence have to do with grieving a horrific and specific mass murder in a movie theatre?

Well, for one, we desperately need, as part of our cultural lament, to see the ways in which we (I am again using the hegemonic “we”) collectively dissociate profound levels of violence and trauma that are ever in our midst. In as much as we want a lone sociopath just to be an anomaly, we won’t understand the real spiritual healing we actually need to heal a violent world.

And for two, we need to start to see how the specifics and correlations within systems of violence point us to key underlying factors. So, for instance, there is one key and specific correlation amidst these mass murders, which we overlook at our own peril and must start naming: most mass murders are committed by men. To name this reality is not the same thing as saying that men are somehow naturally violent. I don’t believe at all that men are naturally violent. Rather, I believe we have created a cultural context in which aggressive, violent masculinities are part of how we construct our gender system and part of how we construct our nation-state.

(For more on this idea of violent masculinities, I suggest this post by Jackson Katz and Sut Jhally that analyzes the shooting at Columbine in that framework. Or this article by Rachel Kalish and Michael Kimmel.)

And of course, men who commit violence don’t all commit violence for the same reason, either. Just as feminist theory acknowledges the different positionalities of female-identified persons, so too we must acknowledge the diverse subject positions of male-identified persons. Class, race, sexuality, and historical traumas matter when we talk about the sweeping category of “men.” Some men commit violence because they are entitled; others because they are simply trying to survive.

That said, despite a diversity of masculinities that must be seen and named and explored, there remains an alpha-male, violent and hegemonic masculinity which we have culturally constructed that underlies many constructions of masculinity. I would put George Bush and Dick Cheney in this camp—two men who carried out enormous levels of violence. I would put Andrew Jackson in that camp. I would put many of today’s perpetrators of domestic violence in this camp. I would put most men who commit mass murder in this camp. What I am saying is that at the end of the day, there are deep connections between: how this country wages war, how this country allows men of color to be killed by the police (or killed by the George Zimmermans of the world), how this country allows 1200 women a year to be killed by their male partners, and the tragedy that happened last night in a movie theatre.

We must—when we see another male-identified person commit mass murder—explore the correlations between constructions of masculinity and violence. And we must realize that no event is isolated, that all our violence is interconnected, and that new spiritual and intellectual and emotional awakenings are desperately needed for our collective healing.

I hope you have sensed a key tension in this post—that I as a white woman am naming my own participation in violence, as I type from the keys of this MacBook, as I drive my car, as I use land stolen centuries ago—AND I am questioning a gender system that produces violent masculinities. Thus, I am not saying that as a woman-identified person I am exempt from perpetuating violence, nor that male-identied persons are more “naturally” violent (that point begs repeating).

What I am simply saying is two things:

All our violence is interconnected, not isolated.

We need to investigate why male-identified persons are committing mass murders. This violence is rooted in a gender system (among other systems), and we need to interrogate that. We need to face and grieve that reality.

Kimberly B. George is an innovator of online feminist theory classes. She’s also a writer, and a soon-to-be postgraduate associate in Gender Equality at Yale University.

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