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Denormalizing the Signs of Impending Disaster

by Michael Schwalbe

Warning signs can go unheeded because we normalize them. According to some analysts, this is what happened in the case of the Challenger space shuttle disaster. On January 28, 1986, less than two minutes after taking off, the shuttle's solid rocket boosters exploded, killing all seven astronauts aboard.

In her book The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA, sociologist Diane Vaughan asks why NASA managers decided to launch the shuttle, despite warnings from engineers that the mission should be delayed because of potential problems with the solid rocket boosters in the below-normal January cold.

Vaughan's answer points to what was normal in the social world of NASA at that time: minor compromises in design and performance; equipment that deviated slightly from specifications; and pushing ahead with flight schedules, despite engineers' worries over seemingly small technical anomalies.

According to Vaughan, the recommendation to delay the flight was ignored because having problems and anomalies on the shuttle were taken-for-granted aspects of NASA culture. So was the tendency for engineers to worry. Against this backdrop, Vaughan says, signals of danger appeared mixed, weak, and routine, and thus were not taken seriously enough.

So far this year, eight mass shootings have resulted in nearly 60 deaths. As at NASA in the case of the Challenger, there have been ample warning signs. But because these signs are so commonplace in our culture, we have either ignored or failed to see them.

After each shooting, the question has been asked, Why do people do this sort of thing? The experts typically consulted are psychologists, who cite depression, social isolation, anger, and shame as causes. The most often mentioned contextual factor is the easy availability of guns.

But to ask, Why do people do this sort of thing?, is already to ignore the obvious pattern. It is not people of all kinds who kill because they are depressed, isolated, despairing, angry, or feeling shame. The shooters are all men. So the question we should be asking is, Why do men do this sort of thing?

One reason this question is seldom asked is that violence and manhood in U.S. culture are thoroughly normalized. As anti-violence educator Jackson Katz documents in his film "Tough Guise," over the past twenty years violence has come to be the defining feature of manhood in America. Violence and masculinity have become nearly synonymous.

This is not to say that all men are violent, or even that all men go around pretending to be Rambo just beneath the surface. Of course not. Yet all men are judged by a cultural standard that says a real man -- one who deserves all the privileges of being a member of the dominant gender group -- should have a capacity for violence and a willingness to use it when necessary.

The same cultural standard says that real men are able to exert control over the environment, over others, and over themselves. To be a victim of external forces is thus nearly the opposite of what it means to be a man in U.S. culture. It is hard to feel put upon, demeaned, or controlled by others, and still feel worthy of respect as a man.

The great contradiction, however, is that in a capitalist society most men don't have much power. A relative handful of men control vast economic resources, make laws, control the police, and command armies. These men can indeed make decisions, backed by force, that deny most other men and nearly all women control over their own lives.

On the one hand, then, real men are expected to be able to exert control; on the other hand, they lack the resources -- wealth, status, institutional authority -- to do so. Under these conditions, it is not surprising that some men try to compensate for their lack of power by displaying a capacity for violence, or a lack of fear of other men's violence.

Most of the time, most men are not overtly violent. But when a man tries to exert control and then rages against people and circumstances that frustrate these efforts, we are not necessarily alarmed. We are not alarmed because he is doing what we expect men to do.

Fortunately, such frustration does not usually lead to mass killing. Yet this is simply the logical extreme to which violent masculinity leads. When the burden of shame for failing to meet the cultural standards of manhood becomes unbearable, and a man feels there is nothing left to lose, mass killing may be a perverse attempt to restore, with irreversible finality, a sense of control.

As at NASA, the warning signs today are abundant. But they are mixed, weak, and routine.

Not all men are violent. Nor are men who occasionally commit acts of violence always violent; they can often be kind and gentle, too. And because it is possible to point to rare instances when women are violent, we can be misled into thinking there is nothing special about men that should compel our attention.

But the most serious problem is that we normalize the relationship between manhood and violence, and thus we take for granted what should be clear warnings about the potential for violence that our society instills in every man. When men learn to stake their self-worth on having power and being in control, and yet live under conditions that frustrate and humiliate them, we should not be surprised when explosions occur.

It may be strangely comforting to see the problem of mass shootings as a psychological one. If the problem stems from psychopathology, then we don't have to look critically at our culture of manhood or at how our society concentrates power in a few hands. Certainly, men suffering from depression and excessive anger may benefit from support and therapy. But therapy will never solve our collective violence problem.

If we understand the problem in cultural terms, we can see that the dangers go beyond being the victim of a "random" shooting. The logic of violent masculinity puts the whole planet at risk. By this logic, the natural world has no value in itself, but exists mainly to provide resources for expanding one's power. By the same logic, which is also the logic of U.S. imperialism, it is better to destroy the world than to fail to dominate it.

What we need is a cultural shift away from defining manhood and nationhood in terms of a capacity to dominate. We need to reject the worship of power and of "commanders-in-chief," and instead make democracy the primary value by which we judge our social institutions. The warning signs are all around, writ small in every mass shooting and writ large in every war. Our survival depends on denormalizing these signs and heeding them soon.

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