Exploring the Kyriarchy: Our Violent Culture

America has always been a violent nation.

There has not been a single generation of Americans that has not experienced a major war. The violence of America’s wars today largely occurs on another continent. It is normal; we continue to work, to educate our children, to shop, to dream and hope - all while our leaders, and our tax dollars, work to commit violent acts in other nations. Historically, this doesn’t make us much different from other nations and other civilizations, but we often leave it out of the discussion when we talk about America’s gun violence.

In a previous post we explored how America’s focus on punishment, particularly violent punishment, prevents us from dismantling systems of injustice. Violence is America’s modus operandi. Just as we have almost always been at war, so has the state warred with our citizens, or codified violence into law. From the first fugitive slave law in 1793 to the Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott, the United States authorized and enabled slavery, a violent and torturous institution. The Jim Crow era and the use of lynching to enforce it continued our legacy of violence. The criminal justice system has long had a history of violence. The war on drugs has maintained a degree of violence between police killing citizens and prohibition facilitating an underground market, which facilitates gang violence. In March 2018 the US Attorney General issued a memo to US attorneys expanding this violence by pursuing the death penalty for drug dealers.

Today, laws and the criminal justice system maintain our legacy of violence. Most states have a version of a “stand your ground” law, which requires no duty to retreat to protect oneself or others. There is evidence that the war on drugs and civil forfeiture laws have made policing more violent. But there is also evidence that police culture attracts violent people. Several recent incidents highlight the excessive force of police officers in the US. A new lawsuit in Georgia claims that a sheriff's deputy had his ex-wife jailed because he didn't like her Facebook post about him. In the recent trial of corruption in the Baltimore police department one officer testified that they carried toy guns to place on people they shot. A recently released body cam video shows that a North Carolina officer tased a jaywalker and bragged about it. In March 2018 officers in California killed an unarmed man in his own backyard. 

Some have blamed people with mental illnesses for violence, particularly mass violence. But people with disabilities, including mental health and developmental disabilities, carry a greater risk of violence, including sexual assault and police brutality. The vast majority of mass shooters have no mental health diagnosis. In fact, people with mental health issues are far more likely to be the victims of violence than to perpetrate it. 

Still others have argued that the violence of America’s youth is caused by violent video games, movies, and TV shows. It may be worth considering that these media reflect our violent culture, rather than cause it. From near constant and normalized war to Jim Crow to the war on drugs and our violent culture of policing, we have more to choose from than video games and movies. We may want to consider our country’s history of violence, our culture of violence, our patriarchal nature.

Evidence shows that most mass shooters are men, and that they have a history of violence, particularly domestic violence. Sergeant Robert Sgambelluri of the Illinois State Police wrote an essay about police culture and it’s impact on officers’ families. He noted that isolation, the need for control, entitlement, authoritarianism, and rugged individualism can spill over from police work into families leading to violence. He also noted how police loyalty toward other officers can place victims in precarious situations, as a victim of domestic violence can be seen as a threat by other officers to the officer accused. But it doesn’t require a police officer to commit these acts of violence. Nearly three women per day are killed by a current or former romantic partner. The characteristics of a toxic masculinity are common among men in America: authoritarian views, a sense of entitlement, a need for control.

Masculinity and violence doesn’t end at violence towards others. In fact the greatest percentage of gun violence victims are suicides committed by older men. Masculinity in modern America requires a lack of expressing emotion. The most acceptably expressed emotions are aggression and sexual desire. The state of American relationships has changed, so that men now place the bulk of their emotional labor onto their romantic partners, which creates an enormous amount of pressure on women in heterosexual relationships. When their marriages fail or their spouse dies, older men have trouble connecting to others. This kind of isolation can lead to suicide. 

An old poem suggests that boys are made of “snips and snails and puppy dog tails,” while girls are made of “sugar and spice and everything nice.” Culturally we believe that the differences we see in boys and girls, and in men and women, are biological. It’s what we’re “made of.” Girls in our culture are expected to be calm, emotionally aware, and to relate to others emotions. Boys are expected to be active, loud, and messy. Our cultural expectations of what girls should be and what boys should be are just that - cultural expectations. These expectations invade so much of our ideas of boys and girls that the idea of raising a child without gender turns heads, or even requires calls to Child Protective Services

Sex is biological, but gender is socialized. Research shows that mothers speak to their six month old daughters more often and using more words than to their six month old sons. Parents also socialize their children’s gender by encouraging gender related activity and providing gender biased toys and clothing. Beyond parents, peers and media often strictly enforce gender binaries. The results of such strict gender socialization are boys who are discouraged from expressing vulnerability, from being perceived as weak, from close intimate relationships with friends who are not romantic partners. Rather, boys are encouraged to bottle up emotions, to show strength always, and to dominate others.

Many responded to the Parkland high school massacre by suggesting that we need more police in schools or to arm teachers. This is further evidence of our patriarchal, violent culture: more weapons, more violence, strength, force, power. However, the presence of school resource officers can lead to greater suspensions, expulsions, and arrests of students, particularly students of color. Our focus on punishment isn’t protecting students from violence; but, rather, preventing students from gaining the education they need. 

It’s clear that we need to take a radically different approach. One that doesn’t require a show of strength, or domination over others. Young people need strong relationships; with each other, with adults, with authority figures. They need examples of how to build, not just how to tear down and destroy. They need a version of masculinity that is not toxic, but one that is healthy, healing, and creative. Violence is a symptom of an unhealthy culture, not a sick mind. It’s time we take measures to repair what is really broken: our violent culture.