S3E5: “Boys will be boys.” / Benjamin Sledge, Jim Taylor, Niobe Way

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Why are guns a symbol, for many, of masculinity? Are boys and men more violent? Or do they turn to violence and guns as tools in the absence of other alternatives to dealing with their problems?

Note: This season of American Diagnosis was originally published under the title In Sickness & In Health. 

This podcast was created by Just Human Productions. We’re powered and distributed by Simplecast. We’re supported, in part, by listeners like you.

Niobe Way: We increase fear, and then we increase aggression, and then we increase gun violence.

Benjamin Sledge: …and they believe that the only way that they’re going to get attention is through extreme violent action…

Niobe Way: I thought, “Oh my God, that’s my boys.”

Celine Gounder: Welcome back to “In Sickness and in Health,” a podcast about health and social justice. I’m Dr. Celine Gounder. This season we’re looking at gun violence… in America. Since our last episode came out… we’ve seen two more mass shootings make the headlines in this country.

Captain Garo Kuredjian, Media Relations Officer with the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office: …of shots being fired at the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks…

Celine Gounder: At the Borderland Bar and Grill… in Thousand Oaks, California… a 28-year-old former Marine… shot and killed 12 people. He injured another 22.

Captain Garo Kuredjian: I don’t know if that threat was neutralized or not. But I can confirm there were at least 6 victims inside.

Celine Gounder: …and at Mercy Hospital in Chicago, where a 32-year-old gunman shot and killed his former fiancee and 3 others.

Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson: There is no doubt in my mind that all those officers that responded were heroes, and they saved a lot of lives, because we just don’t know how much damage he was prepared to do.

Celine Gounder: At the time of this episode’s release, we’re still learning about the shooters and why they may have done this… but their profiles have become disturbingly common when it comes to mass shootings in America: young… male…  and with a history of violence… against women. Last episode we talked about modern gun culture… why people own guns… how they use them… and what they mean to them. Over the next few episodes, we’ll take a look at how gender and race relate to guns. Today… we ask… why are guns a symbol… for many… of masculinity? Are boys and men more violent? Or do they turn to violence… and guns… as tools… in the absence of other alternatives to dealing with their problems?

Celine Gounder: Mass shootings… like those at the Borderline Bar and Grill… and Mercy Hospital… are perpetrated… almost exclusively… by boys and men. In fact, nearly three-quarters of all homicides in the United States involve a man… killing another man… and an even higher proportion of suicides involves men… killing themselves. What is it about American men that leads some of them to such extreme acts of violence? Does it really just come down to “boys will be boys”? That men are fundamentally violent… by their very natures? To start us off, meet Benjamin Sledge. He’s the Executive Director of a nonprofit that works with the music industry and mental health.

Benjamin Sledge: In addition to that… I spent 11 years in the United States military. Most at that time was under the Army Special Operations Command, and I’m a recipient of the Bronze Star, Purple Heart and two Army Commendation medals for my actions overseas.

Celine Gounder: Benjamin’s family can trace their military heritage all the way back to the Civil War. As a kid, Benjamin looked up to his grandfather, who was a paratrooper in World War II. His grandfather was a big part of teaching Benjamin what it meant to be a man.

Benjamin Sledge: My grandfather was a lot about honor and integrity, and he really pushed that hard with my brother and I. … All that I knew was that in order to be a man, you honored your word, you did the right thing, and you toughed it out.

Celine Gounder: As close as he was with his grandfather though, there was a side to him he didn’t see… until it was too late.

Benjamin Sledge: I mean, it’s kind of a travesty that I didn’t learn about it until my grandfather had passed away, and shortly before he passed away, he wrote his memoir, and I began to see in those pages just how deeply the loss of his friends in combat really affected him.

Celine Gounder: When Benjamin was stationed in Afghanistan, he made friends like this too. He knew how important they were… especially in a war zone.

Benjamin Sledge: It’s not weird to hug your friends there, and you show more of that deep feeling side in combat, crying over those that you’ve lost, comforting each other when you’re going through difficult times. … For me personally, my wife left while I was in Iraq… that was one of the darkest times in my life. … And I didn’t know how I was going to make it through and make it home. … Man, it was just– all of those guys rallied around me and loved me through it.

Celine Gounder: So if these relationships were so meaningful to Benjamin’s grandfather, too, why didn’t he talk about them?

Benjamin Sledge: As warm and as loving as my dad and my grandparents and uncles have all been… there wasn’t that sensitive side to the masculine soul. It was just kinda like, “Buck up, kiddo.”

Celine Gounder: Benjamin isn’t the only one who thinks this…

Niobe Way: My name is Niobe Way, I’m a Professor of Developmental Psychology at New York University and the author of Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and The Crisis of Connection.

Celine Gounder: Niobe’s research looks at masculinity through the lens of teenage friendships. Specifically… the friendships between boys.

Niobe Way: …if you look at boys’ friendships, it is definitely a story about masculinity.

Celine Gounder: Niobe’s observed the same ideas of what it means to be a man as Benjamin described. That attitude of buck-up… man up… is at the heart of why men struggle to hold on to deep  friendships.

Niobe Way: Boys talk about wanting friendships, close friends with other boys, having close friendships with other boys. They talk about their love for these friends, being lost without, feeling “lost without them.” … They talk about sharing secrets, and not just secrets about crushes, but also secrets about things that are happening at home that are difficult. And needing people, someone, and usually referring to another boy, who they can share those vulnerabilities with and won’t be laughed at or judged.

Celine Gounder: But when the boys reach adolescence, Niobe says she sees a change.

Niobe Way: …you all of a sudden start to see these boys really trying to struggle to hold on to these relationships that only a few years earlier they thought were so important.

Celine Gounder: What’s going on here? According to Niobe, adolescence is when social pressures push boys to distance themselves from their friends… in the name… of becoming a man. That image of a man as independent… trustworthy… strong… stoic… self-sufficient. All the positive things that Benjamin got from his grandfather.

Niobe Way: Those are all beautiful qualities… To be autonomous and stoic… It’s what we do is we have those qualities and then we put them at the expense of the other ones.

Celine Gounder: Qualities like building deep friendships… expressing emotions… vulnerability. Things that our culture thinks of as feminine and weak.

Niobe Way: Listen to the quote, it should give everybody the chills. “It would be nice to be a girl because then I wouldn’t have to be emotionless.”

Celine Gounder: It’s not that boys stop having friends… but the nature of those friendships… changes. According to Niobe, chasing this image of masculinity… leads boys to isolate themselves emotionally. This is especially true of friendships with other boys. Too deep a friendship between boys… could lead some… to challenge their masculinity… and call them gay.

Niobe Way: …and the reason why I know it’s linked to masculinity is because… you could say anything related to close friends and they’ll add a “no homo” in there. … What they’re trying to say in a homophobic way is “I’m not gay.” … And that whole compulsion to assert that somehow boys’ friendships, which is just a human desire and need that we’ve known throughout our human history, all of a sudden becomes sexualized and a matter of what is straight of gay.

Celine Gounder: Niobe thinks this push toward a stoic, cold masculinity is cutting boys… and men… off from half of their natural human selves. And that’s dangerous.

Niobe Way: The boys who are committing these school shootings and all sorts of things, happens between, typically between, 16 and 25 which is, again, right this age where boys are really putting pressure on themselves as well as on each other to disconnect from the so-called feminine side of themselves… We have given basic human qualities a gender, and then said to boys, if you act like– if you talk about needing relationships and wanting intimacy with the same sex, and you identify as being straight, that somehow that’s problematic. It’s not a being a man. … We shouldn’t be surprised that some of them grow up to act crazy because essentially, they’re living in a culture that’s literally inhibiting their basic human nature and demeaning it. The clash between culture and nature creates a problem for boys and men.

Celine Gounder: Benjamin says he sees this in the adult men around him.

Benjamin Sledge: None of us really have deep close relationships with one another. We have friends but aside from that, it’s like guys that you go to the bar and you grab a drink with, or you hang out in married groups and you’re like, “That guy’s cool,” and, “His wife and my wife get along.” …as opposed to having those deep soulful, meaningful connections that I had, especially in the military. … I’m extremely close with the guys that I served overseas with. We still call one another, text one another. … We’re so close with it, we know everything about each other’s lives. We know our deepest darkest secrets. We’ve cried together, we’ve laughed together, we’ve been through some of the most traumatic experiences together, and there’s this deep brotherhood.

Celine Gounder: What opens men up to one another, says Ben, is sharing their hurts and hang-ups. But all too often, they’re afraid to make themselves vulnerable… it’s the last thing they want to reveal. Obviously, loneliness is not unique to men. It’s also not a guaranteed path to violence. But Niobe and Benjamin agree the isolation a lot of boys and men feel… can predispose to violence… including gun violence… and mass shootings.

Niobe Way: I’m not arguing that boys should be able to cry. If that was all I was arguing… it wouldn’t be so difficult because I think everybody can resonate that boys should be able to cry when they feel sad. It’s much deeper to me than that.

Celine Gounder: It’s about having the emotional tools to be able to face the hardships and struggles in life. For research for a book on depression, Benjamin collected surveys from over 500 people about their mental health. The questionnaire tried to get at the root of their depression or suicidal thoughts. Then he saw the results…

Benjamin Sledge: That was kind of mind-blowing for me…

Celine Gounder: Nearly 75% of people surveyed said they were overwhelmed by stress. They didn’t know how to handle their feelings or relationships.

Benjamin Sledge: We have an entire generation of people that don’t have the skills necessary to become mentally resilient and face down trials and adversities and the things that they’re facing in life. Then we give them access to firearms. To me, I’m like, “That’s insane.”

Celine Gounder: Benjamin’s experienced these struggles, too. Remember how his wife left him while he was deployed in Iraq? Coming home to an empty house was harder than he’d anticipated.

Benjamin Sledge: Because I had literally come back from Iraq…and …my wife had left. And she’d already moved out and got all of her stuff And she was seeing some guy. … And I’m just like, “I just either want to kill both of them or kill myself because everything is awful…” … I was just like, “I’m alone.” And I’d just gotten home, and it’s the most horrible feeling in the world… and I didn’t know how to process it. … And thank God for friends who stepped in and said, “You know, it’s not okay for you to be alone.”

Celine Gounder: Benjamin’s friends saved his life. But the military… for all the good it can do for male bonding… it’s not a panacea. The Thousand Oaks shooter… was a veteran.

Celine Gounder: Benjamin and Niobe see generations of boys and men who haven’t had the mental or emotional skills to handle problems in their lives. Without the tools to handle stress, loneliness and other problems… they turn to something else… like… violence… and guns.

Jim Taylor: … gun ownership is one of those things that’s tied to a type of masculinity.  We see it being represented frequently in music, in movies, television shows, books…

Celine Gounder: This is Jim Taylor. He’s a Professor of Sociology at Ohio University. He studies the nexus of gun subcultures and masculinity in America.

Jim Taylor: We’re  saturated with these themes and images of males using guns in different  contexts for all these different forms of entertainment.

Celine Gounder: Classic American male archetypes like the lone cowboy…. the pioneer… the soldier. They all have admirable qualities. They’re also all categories where men use guns to solve their problems.

Jim Taylor: There’s this emphasis on the guns being the solutions to the problem, or being a necessary a part of life, more so than you would expect to see for the average citizen in their day-to-day life.

Celine Gounder: Take this line from the movie Shane:

“A gun is a tool, Marian; no better or no worse than any other tool: an axe, a shovel or anything. A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it.” —Shane

Celine Gounder: Jim says popular culture reinforces guns as a tool… often in defense of a character’s masculinity.

Jim Taylor: And frequently  there is this somewhere  in that backstory, that the  males are using them to be a  real men, to find their manhood, to  prove their masculinity, to fill in some  void where their masculinities are being challenged…

Cass Callicot: You gunna take that challenge? Or be called a coward?

Mark McCain: What’re you gunna do, pa?
—The Rifleman, Season 2, Episode 15, Day of the Hunter

Jim Taylor: So  being saturated with  these messages about this  idea of if your masculinity  is challenged, and you have access  to a gun…

Mark McCain: Well, are you gunna shoot him?
—The Rifleman, Season 2, Episode 15, Day of the Hunter

Jim Taylor:  …this is  something that  might, in some situations,  restore your manhood. … The  fear of not  being a real man,  or seen as a real man, the  fear of not fitting in, whatever  it is, but it is the fear or climates  of fear that’s probably the most worrisome  constant and gun-related violence, and it’s just  not discussed enough.

Celine Gounder: Jim thinks this narrative of guns and masculinity distorts the way boys and men think about solving problems. He thinks of it like going down a buffet line…

Jim Taylor: …when a person goes to a buffet, they’re surrounded with all of these options. Some of them very good for you, some of them okay for you, and some of them are just really bad choices. … If the message males regularly hear and receive is: guns equals male, equals man, equals big tough badass, then when you’re facing a masculinity challenge on any level from dealing with the neighborhood bully to dealing with world powers, then maybe you turn to the gun or the more violent, dramatic option in the cultural buffet. We’re left to face the potentially toxic consequences of this decision.

Celine Gounder: Jim thinks part of the answer lies in reminding men there are legitimate alternatives to violence.

Jim Taylor: That’s a better, stronger definition of courage, bravery and masculinity in my book. I think it would definitely lead to some better outcomes.

Celine Gounder: Reflecting back on these conversations, it seems like this big problem of masculinity and violence boils down to how we raise our boys. It’s about how men are allowed to feel… to make connections with others. In short… it’s a cultural problem.

Niobe Way: The solution can sound overwhelming because, oh my goodness, how do we change, how do we change a culture? I’ve discovered that actually the solution is not so complicated.

Celine Gounder: Toward the end of our conversation, Niobe told me a story about this. It sounds small, but I think it’s a step in the right direction. She was talking to another group of students and read aloud a passage from her book Deep Secrets to the class:

Niobe Way: The first quote in the opening chapters, is a very emotionally fraught quote. So, it talks about, “We just know each other, we understand each other.” It’s a boy talking about his best friend… The class, predictably, started to giggle. … And I said, “Why are you giggling? Would you tell me?” Finally some kid said, “Well, you know, he sounds gay.” I said, “Well, okay. I didn’t actually ask about sexuality, so he could be gay. I have no idea. But let me just tell you something. Over the almost 30 years that I’ve been interviewing boys, about 85% of boys sound like this at some point during the teenage years.” And it was total silence. … Then one of the boys said, “For real?” I said, “Oh, yeah.” … This is what teenagers sound like. This is what teenage boys sound like. And, Celine, do you know what happened? It was an amazing transition. I didn’t expect it. … All of a sudden, I had 12-year-old boys raising their hands, telling me about how they had wanted to close friendships with, or they had this friendship, or these two boys in the classroom had been close, they were in the classroom together, they had been close, and they had a falling out over some issue. … So all I did was normalize it. … So at some level, I think the solution for parents, teachers and healthcare professionals and all sorts of folks who interact with young people, it’s just to normalize that these desires, needs and capacities are just human capacities and essential for our health and growth. …There’s lots of reasons for hope.

Celine Gounder: Maybe… if we give our boys and men more options… more freedom to feel and express… if we give them the full range of human, emotional tools… they won’t feel the need to reach for violence as a tool for coping. Without changing any laws… that culture shift… arming men with their feminine sides… could make a huge dent in our rates of gun violence.

Celine Gounder: Next time… we’re going to talk about the flip side… of gender… violence… and guns.

Celine Gounder: Today’s episode of “In Sickness and in Health” was produced by Zach Dyer and me. Our theme music is by Allan Vest. Additional music by The Blue Dot Sessions. Audio from outside the Borderline Bar and Grill care of Ventura County Star reporter Jeremy Childs.

Celine Gounder: You can learn more about this podcast and how to engage with us on social media at insicknessandinhealthpodcast.com, that’s insicknessandinhealthpodcast.com. If you like what you hear, please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. It helps more people find out about the show! I’m Dr. Celine Gounder. This is “In Sickness and in Health.”

Benjamin Sledge Benjamin Sledge
Jim Taylor Jim Taylor
Niobe Way Niobe Way
Dr. Celine Gounder Dr. Celine Gounder