Originally published in Spring 2007.
It’s happened again. Another male has shot up a campus, killing 32 people and himself. We are heartsick, angry, outraged—and strangely numb. Many of us are suffering from post-Columbinitis, a malaise that desensitizes people to violence. We distance ourselves from our feelings, passively consume television’s carefully packaged new infotainment program, “Tragedy at Virginia Tech.” Numbly, we watch the same footage, interviews with students, families and expert talking heads, or we tune out, overwhelmed by a culture that feeds on violence. All that temporarily awakens us from our torpor are touching photos and testimonials about the victims.
At the men’s center I direct, we’ve worked with males for 25 years, including abusive court-mandated men. Our work both supports men and challenges men’s violence. The horrifying tape Cho Seung-Hui sent to NBC revealed a gruesome level of life-crushing violence. While he was an extreme case, a severely disturbed man who slipped through the cracks of a social net riddled with holes, there are way too many other men walking around stuffing their anger, ready to explode.
Violence sells, renowned culture critic the late George Gerbner succinctly said. It’s an international commodity. Spoken language is almost irrelevant in the wake of so many brutal images, cascading from every nook and cranny of U.S. popular culture and hungrily rebroadcast worldwide. Not just Hollywood, the music biz, video games, and media spinmeisters, but briefing room culture at the White House, Defense and State departments. War sells, too. Just ask the profiteers at Blackwater and Halliburton. From the glitzy TV graphics broadcast when we first invaded Iraq, through the start of this fifth season of the reality series “War in the Middle East,” we keep refining our most profitable export: the culture of violence. Posturing tough guys—from the president on down—keep articulating the wanted dead-or-alive paradigm. It can no longer go unchallenged.
Among the host of emotional triggers that ignited Cho Seung-Hui’s killing spree, our contemporary U.S. culture provided plenty of matches. This dead man walking had opportunities daily to tune in to talk radio for a dose of vitriol to get the juices flowing. Just as we do. He had access to the latest shoot-’em-up-blow-’em-up playing at the local cineplex. Us, too. We are so saturated with the stench of violence, is it any wonder many have felt too full to come to the table for a 33-course killing fields feast?
By now, eight years after Columbine and eight months after the Amish murders, we know the profile: angry loners, alienated and insecure, diagnosed with mental illness. They think it’s manly to kill people, often women. How many more men like them across America must explode before we create programs that teach men that getting counseling makes you more, not less, of a man? That it is a sign of strength, not weakness, to ask for help? Mental health treatment for troubled men must rise to the top of our national agenda if we’re to have any hope of preventing another Virginia Tech. A concurrent campaign to teach our children that strong men are nonviolent needs to be launched in concert with a national effort to change men’s attitudes about guns, one on a scale that changed our national attitude about smoking.
Some claim that media violence is the cause of real-world violence. Gerbner, who was a leading researcher on the social effects of television, encouraged citizens to consider the issue more broadly. He urged critical thinking “about the psychological, political, social and developmental impacts of growing up and living within a cultural environment of pervasive, ritualized violent images.” That is our current predicament and may explain why so many of us are numbed by this latest horrific rampage rather than stirred to action. But it is not too late.
Our children, especially the younger ones who must, at all costs, be shielded from the details of what happened in Virginia, need us to get this right and get it right now. In my work helping men to overcome the damaging effects of tough-talking, conventional masculinity, I know that abusive and violent men can change if they want to. I’ve seen them do it, even in the face of a society that keeps dishing out super-sized portions of violent pop culture. Still, I wonder if we have the collective will to walk away from the table where such poison continues to be served. Are we ready for a new dinner menu, replacing the burnt offerings of violence with fruit from the tree of peace?