Once again we wrestle with piercing feelings of grief, bewilderment and anger. Yet again a young American male has unleashed his wrath against a vulnerable group of students. Our hearts ache, our heads shake and our minds reel. How can this keep happening? What can we do to make sure this never happens again?

We’re familiar with the spectrum of suggested causes as well as solutions—it’s a mental health issue, it’s a gun access issue, it’s a cultural issue. It’s all of those to some degree, but in my opinion it’s a horrific case of American Exceptionalism.

I love my country, but I really dislike the way that term is typically used. It implies that American culture is first and best, as if we’re all in a global competition for a mythical cultural gold medal. Having traveled to more than 60 countries over the years I’ve experienced qualities in every one of them that are admirable as well as unfortunate. Mine included.

Yes, we Americans have demonstrated an outstanding technological ability to fly humans to the moon or to instantaneously connect and communicate with others half a world away. But honesty also compels us to admit our exceptionalism in incarcerating the highest number of citizens per capita of any nation in the world.

In grief we must also admit the exceptional acts we regularly face—young males who randomly unleash deadly violence against their own kind. Even a short-list of the locations where slaughter took place over the past 19 years evokes memories and emotions that should never entirely fade: Columbine, Orlando, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Las Vegas, and now Parkland. (See my previous post, Our Spirits Groan.)

Each stands out in its own uniqueness of location and horror, but they share two common characteristics: the perpetrator was male and he was an American.

Of course, other nations have violent young men, but they tend to slaughter those who are different from themselves. They go after those of another religion, ethnicity, tribe or political persuasion. In the US our violent males slaughter randomly.

Why does this happen here and not elsewhere? My opinion is that American culture produces young males who are profoundly self-absorbed and entitled. (See my previous post, Brilliant Jerks.) At the same time they are deeply uncertain of their own significance and place in a dramatically changing cultural and economic landscape. And, they often pick up the message—whether through bullying, macho posturing, gangs, or violent video games— that the solution to disagreement and conflict is often best settled through some form of violence.

I had intended to start writing this blog last weekend, but found myself gripped by both sadness and anger at the violence recently unleashed in Parkland, FL. Having decided to take a break and see a movie, I was stunned at what appeared in the very first frame: this quote from author D. H. Lawrence, “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer.” It was all I could do to keep from gasping out loud at how horribly accurately this described exactly what I was grieving.

Man, how much I want to disagree with that statement! I know so many wonderful, connected, compassionate, life-giving men. And, Lawrence had a different, late 19th-early 20th century, American era in mind when he made that statement. But I have to also acknowledge the extent to which this quote fits today. So many young males in American culture are tough, alone, emotionless…and can so easily turn into killers.

In his book Guyland, author Michael Kimmel identified an American sub-culture of males, ages 16-26 whose key qualities are privilege, narcissism, entitlement and self-centeredness. They are convinced that they are the center of the universe, that they are the most sought out marketing demographic (unfortunately, they’re right), that they set the social rules, and that everyone else who wants to fit in, women above all others, needs to accept and adhere to those rules. As long as a male in that demographic succeeds, he’s in. If he doesn’t measure up by the group’s or his own standards, he’s out.

Some of those young males who find themselves “out,” simmer with anger and shame until they decide to resolve things in violence. Some of them grow older and never find a sense of community or significance, until the lava of hidden resentment suddenly erupts with deadly consequences. Then they become a headline.

Courage and humility require us to face the awful circumstances we repeatedly see in American culture. In the next post, American Exceptionalism, Part II, I’ll explore factors that indicate what some solutions might be.

3 Comments

  1. Very interesting article Craig…I hope this stirs up the pot a bit. The descriptions of stoic, hard, isolated , etc. define so much of our western movie culture yet what was also present in those movies was the sense of righting wrong. Here was a form of heroism that made all the shoot ups and lonely living iconic in its own way.
    I wonder if the battles in our culture that men face today somehow stem from having a great confusion about what real masculinity actually looks like?
    Are we meant for some deeper reason to live than the polarized ideals from present culture and the old west?
    Are we supposed to just meander around trying to find some balance between the two or is there something brand new that actually would satisfy the deepest ache of our masculine heart?
    In all of these fatal shootings I can’t identify with either side of the tragedy. I wonder about the soul of that man behind the gun and to what point he has traded the hope of a masculine identity. I am sad about the loss of life but the fact that I am isolated emotionally from it all- that I do not act to help young men become integrated into our culture…perhaps there is no place for these young men in our culture – so they choose the rage.
    More to discuss but I think we need to talk about this more.

    • Nathan, I really respect your honest wrestling with what is perhaps the core theme of these incidents: Do I really matter or measure up as a man? I think you also put your finger on part of the solution: What if each one of us men who play a contributing role in our neighborhood, workplace or place of faith, had one younger man we paid attention to, took out for coffee, took to a basketball game, to let him know he matters enough that we have our eye on him?

  2. Thanks for this article Craig. I recently read something similar in the NY Times that was good on this topic.
    https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/21/opinion/boys-violence-shootings-guns.html

    Its so striking to me that in so many past cultures and many still today in the world that young men 12-25 are going through cultural training and rituals that initiate them in becoming warriors, defenders of the weak, providers and future elders on behalf of their people. In many ancient cultures this is a stage of proving yourself and your value to the community. Your own value is tied up with your value to your people. I dont think we’ve really changed at all, young men are always out to prove themselves. The question is will we give them a culture to value and initiate them into? If not, they will assert themselves in some other confused way. Though random violence is socially unacceptable, its not just these cases where things have gone awry. For many guys i know sports and business are often times the places to prove oneself as a warrior and wiseman. Their hearts are still suffering as well. In the grand American culture mix we have lost the value of knowing what it means to be a man-what is good, bad, needs to be rewarded, needs to be guarded against, etc. I love that your ministry is at the heart of addressing this crisis and I pray more movements of ministry to men begin to establish themselves throughout our nation.

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