Monday morning is here, dawn has broken over the home of the brave and the land of the free. As those first shafts of sunlight creep westerly across the nation they illuminate, one after another, the flags that have risen to half-mast on this, another day of national mourning. The refrain is all too familiar to us now as we come to grips with the body count from the latest mass shooting. On this particular day after we confront the results of back to back slaughters that left over thirty people dead in the space of just over twelve hours this weekend.
As familiar as the carnage has become so too has been the familiarity of the rhetoric that follows the bloodshed. Politicians, pundits, and citizenry quickly fall into their ideological camps and point their collective fingers in a dizzying array of directions. This is not to discount every point of view but rather it is acknowledging the lack of genuine discussions and concern from many. Solutions are looked for, proposed, demanded, or ignored depending on the political leanings of those articulating the problem.
What is obvious by now no matter the denials from some quarters is the reality that this country is in the midst of a domestic terrorist problem. Radicalized white men have taken upon themselves to express their vision of manhood through violence and destruction. They see the world through a lens colored by hate, bigotry, and misogyny and have been convinced that they are some sort of ordained agent of change.
This particular social dynamic has been labelled as “toxic masculinity” by many and has become both an analytical tool and a catch phrase to describe the brutality and cruelty that has become so prominent in recent years. The deindustrialized United States of the 21st century has spawned a generation of men facing harsh economic realities of a consumer society, a world vastly different from the one in which they grew up in. For communities of color the lack of economic opportunity has been a way of life but for white America there has always been the promise of an “American dream” which is now out of reach for a growing segment of young white men. This inability to prosper strikes directly at their masculine self-conception and contributes to this implied toxicity.
None of this excuses the violence and hate but we would be remiss to not honestly examine and attempt to understand the forces at play here. There are those that refuse to even breach such subjects, proclaiming that what we call toxic masculinity is “the reason your ancestors weren’t eaten by wolves.” Any critic of this hyper machismo is seen by some as an attack on men in general and an attempt to weaken the gender by the forces of feminism. The make America great again mentality would hearken back to the mid-20th century example of the male ideal John Wayne whose character in the film She Wore a Yellow Ribbon says, “Never apologize and never explain–it’s a sign of weakness.” This then is the paradigm we seek to understand, what maketh a man? What is the parameters of the masculine ideal and how does the perception of that ideal relate to the barbarity on display in the mass shootings that continue to plague this country.
Beyond the economic realities of the 21st century there are also the new frontiers of media and culture that are defining this age. Masculinity must be elucidated in a world of increasingly less human interaction where the borders between fantasy and reality are becoming blurred and undefined. Those that seek to blame the rise in mass shooting on violent video games are simply looking for a convenient scapegoat and lack any statistical proof when we compare America to other nations who consume the same media and do not produce the same dire side effects. What is of real concern is not the violence of the games per se but rather that men are consumed by the games themselves and spend an inordinate amount of time “living” within them. Online communities can foster this escapism going beyond simple entertainment and enabling the avoidance of true maturity. Groups such as incel, self-described “involuntary celibates” turn their social awkwardness into a movement that avoids responsibility and growth in favor of victimization. This movement and others have been a part of the cruel dynamic that has fueled the continued carnage.
So today we have an image of manliness that is inextricably linked to violence. Open carry laws give us the pleasure of going to our local Walmart with our neighbor who feels the need to shop for groceries with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder. Ironically the statistics tells us that the number one danger he faces is not a robber but rather another white guy with an automatic rifle slung across his shoulder. Any attempt to identify or deal with these skewed male ideals is seen as attacks on American virility and a weakening of masculine resolve. So we hear ad nauseam that the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun; the only way to prevent violence is with more violence.
There is another path, there are better examples of masculinity than John Wayne who was neither a cowboy nor a soldier but somehow became a cultural icon by pretending to be both. It is possible to be virile, manly, and strong without becoming aggressive, abusive, and insensitive. The theatrics of sports such as MMA have overshadowed the Martial Arts at their foundations. The arts, not so much the sports, produce individuals that can break bricks with their bare fist but simultaneously hold themselves to creeds that promote courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control and an indomitable spirit. An example of this version of masculinity can be found in the life and writings of the Karate Master Gichin Funakoshi.Born sickly and premature in late nineteenth century Okinawa he was raised by grandparents who made sure he was schooled in classical Chinese literature and introduced to the practice of Karate-Do which at the time was taught in secret because of the prohibition by the occupying Japanese authority.
An overview of his life; Martial Arts master, father of modern Karate (bringing it from Okinawa to mainland Japan in the early 20th century), founder of Shotokan Karate (one of the four major schools), grandfather of Taekwondo (two of its founders were Funakoshi’s students), and author of some of the arts foundational textbooks. From such a resume we would imagine a fierce fighter with an intimidating persona in the mold of Steven Segal or Jason Statham. The real person we find in the pages of his autobiography (Karate-Do My Way of Life) is quite the opposite.
Funakoshi recounts a story of being accosted by a young would be robber while in his later years. Doing his best to defuse the situation proved to be unsuccessful when the culprit swung his umbrella at his head. Funakoshi, at eighty years of age, ducked under the swing and grabbed the assailant’s testicles and held him till a patrolman came along minutes later. He includes the story not as a boast but rather as a disappointment over which he expresses shame because he was not able to resolve the situation without offensive action.
These were not just the sentiments of an elder teacher, and earlier account in the narrative describing Funakoshi as a young Karate novice in the company of several other students who are confronted by a gang who seemed intent on confrontation. A fight is avoided because of the guidance of their Sensei who defuses the situation and prevents his student from depending on simple violence even though they were more than capable of defeating the more numerous opponents. Here too Funakoshi expresses regret, thankful that his Sensei had prevented them from using their martial skills on “untrained men.”
Among the many teachings and precepts left by Gichin Funakoshi are that there is no first strike in Karate, we should void self-conceit and dogmatism, and that Karate should be an aide to justice. These and other teachings are the foundational truths that mark the martial artist and indeed the man himself. This is the counter narrative to the ideal of aggression and violence being hallmarks of masculinity. Funakoshi was as, or more, capable of inflicting harm than most but found balance in his compassion and humility.
The term Martial Arts itself is a misnomer to a great degree. The term budo is translated into English as the “Martial Way” or the “Way of War” but a more accurate translation would be the “Way of Stopping Violence” or of making peace. This current propensity of so called toxic masculinity is nothing new, the realities of instant prolific communication has merely heightened its exposure. On a governmental level the two main responses to confrontation are war or sanctions that aim at crippling foreign populations. There has always been a department of war/defense but never one whose chief aim is peace.
Again, I do not believe we have the current epidemic of mass shooting because disaffected young white men are watching too many violent movies or are playing too many violent video games. What is at the root of this however are young men who loose themselves in the fantasy that those and other mediums reinforce? This ideal male that stretches back to John Wayne, Dirty Harry, or the like has ingrained itself within our culture and finds life today through the rhetoric of Donald Trump or Rush Limbaugh. It is the mentality that says that the rugged individual, properly armed, can survive the apocalypse when history has taught us the opposite; it is the community of connected people that has the strength and tenacity to make it through. It is not our ability to knock down our opponent that makes us a man but rather our desire to reach down and pick them up.