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Wednesday, Feb 8, 2023

Gun Violence Is a Product of Social Illness, Not Mental Illness

We’re all tired of talking about gun violence at this point, maybe because the shooting in Parkland, Florida a few weeks ago marked the sixth time that The Onion has published its morbidly titled article, ‘‘‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.”

The statistics are as familiar as they are terrifying. Among developed countries, the United States is the site of the most gun-related homicides. On average, this country sees more than one mass shooting per day, with mass shooting defined as an event in which four or more people are killed or injured. In our cultish devotion to the Second Amendment, the right to own firearms translates to far more deaths by gun violence than by terrorism.

We’ve all encountered the myth of the “lone wolf,” the misunderstood and unassuming white-male-shooter-who-is-definitely-not-a-domestic-terrorist. Too often, media reports are quick to emphasize the guy’s backstory, as if the fact that he likes to play video games or spent a lot of time alone as a child is supposed to soften the image of this white-male-shooter-who-is-definitely-not-a-domestic-terrorist. And almost always, there is a reference to mental illness — even if it is just to say that the shooter has no history of diagnosis.

Why is this? To note the absence of anything is to imply that one expected to find it somewhere. So when reporters casually note that there were no signs of mental illness in the killer, the unspoken assumption is that mentally ill people are more prone to carry out acts of violence.

This is blatantly untrue: Individuals diagnosed as mentally ill are responsible for less than five percent of shootings, according to the book “Gun Violence and Mental Illness.” A 2016 study by Health Affairs found that members of this demographic are more likely to kill themselves with a gun than to carry out mass murders. Why, then, does mainstream media seem intent on equating mental disorders with violent behavior?

To answer this question, we must begin with another: What do we mean by “mental disorder” in the first place? The label has long been tossed around, frantically and carelessly, like a hot potato — forced as a badge of shame upon the social misfits of a given time and place. Those who fulfill the norms of a particular era are granted the status of mental wellness. Those who diverge from these arbitrary standards are stigmatized as insane or ill.

Let’s remember, for instance, that “female hysteria,” homosexuality and “gender identity disorder” (“a strong and persistent cross-gender identification”) were once listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). These so-called conditions were all considered mental illnesses, insofar as they diverged from the heteronormativity and traditional gender roles of the twentieth century.

This quick jaunt through American history suggests that categories of mental pathology are rooted far more in politics than in science. There is no universal definition of “disorder,” but rather a wide range of interpretations of the human experience, some more oppressive than others. More often than not, when we call someone mentally ill, what we are saying is that they do not belong; we isolate and dismiss them as outcasts.

What does this have to do with gun violence? Well, it is trendy and convenient to blame mental illness — a term whose stigma has survived the ages, even as its criteria have fluctuated wildly — because people with mental disorders have long been regarded as social deviants with questionable moral standards anyway. To suggest that the Parkland shooter acted out as a result of “mental health issues” is to provide a believable explanation for his behavior, while ignoring the possibility that the problem could reside anywhere beyond his brain.

Yet the shockingly steady stream of mass shootings hints at a pathology that is social, rather than psychological, in nature. The majority of American mass shooters are white males — 54 percent, according to 1982 statistics by Mother Jones. Overall, men commit 98 percent of all mass shootings and 90 percent of murders. This is not a coincidence.

Toxic masculinity — and in particular, toxic white masculinity — has long been socially permissible, so ingrained within our cultural psyche that it goes by largely unnoticed. It is by virtue of white men’s institutional power that this condition has never descended to the status of mental pathology. (The line between normalcy and disorder does not exist, after all; it is drawn, erased, and redrawn over time by parties in power.) Yet if we were to envision a world in which “toxic white masculinity disorder” made its way into the DSM, it would not be much of a mental leap to imagine the following symptoms: an aggressive sense of entitlement, the suppression of emotions and the need for dominance, among others. The believability of such a diagnosis would certainly be on par with that of “female hysteria,” which was apparently the result of “wandering wombs.”

The link between social conditioning and violent behavior is clear. So why has mental illness become the scapegoat for our staggering rates of domestic terrorism? Because to identify toxic masculinity as the root of gun violence (besides the actual guns, of course) is to accept that we inhabit a society more deeply damaged than we are prepared to navigate. Violence does not exist in a vacuum: Sexist, racist, ableist, classist and heterosexist ideologies entitle the most privileged among us to exercise control over others, culminating in the deadly power of the straight, cisgender white male. It is not a handful of “mentally ill” people who are the problem, whatever “mentally ill” is supposed to mean; it is the entire system that is ailing. 

In drawing parallels between pathology and toxic masculinity, I do not mean to disempower those who identify strongly with clinical diagnoses, or to trivialize the very real suffering associated with many of the conditions we refer to as mental illness. Rather, I wish to recognize that we operate within a highly confusing and imperfect system, in which everyday aspects of the human experience — anxiety, depression and hearing voices, among others — are treated as deficiencies and invitations for moral judgment, whereas white supremacy and toxic masculinity are accepted without a second thought.

When news of the next mass shooting comes out, take note of the killer’s identity. That person will probably be white, and will almost certainly be male. Observe how major news outlets frame his story, and remember that the questions they pose are as important as the answers they seek. Acknowledge that while it may be tempting to identify the problem as a “mental illness” within the individual, labels are often more reflective of the system than the self. This is not so much a matter of “broken brains” as of a broken society.