#Toxic MasculinityLU: Terrorism and the “Big Build”

Content warning: terrorism, gun violence, mental health. 

This column explores topics concerning toxic masculinity. Tweet your thoughts, questions and concerns with #ToxicMasculinityLU, or email me at lawrentian@lawrence.edu with the hashtag in the subject line.

This Saturday, Apr. 20 marks 20 years since the Columbine High School shooting of 1999. This terrorist attack was orchestrated by two teenage boys, who murdered 12 of their classmates and a teacher at the high school. “The Washington Post” reports that there have been more than 226,000 students that have experienced gun violence in schools since Columbine, with 143 students being killed in these terrorist attacks at 233 schools in the U.S.

If these numbers do not make you mad, here are some more things to consider: According to ABC News, in 2018 the U.S. averaged a little bit more than one deadly mass shooting per month, among them the school shooting that took place at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. and the shooting that took place at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg.

Aside from the obvious issues of gun regulation and the frequent denial of white terrorism in the U.S., there is one striking commonality among the majority of these mass shootings: the person behind the gun is almost always a cisgender man. Of the 20 deadly mass shootings in 2018, 19 of them were conducted by men. In one year, we saw several incidents of fathers killing their children and wives, teenage boys massacring their peers at school and your “average Joe” taking lives in churches, restaurants and neighborhoods.

It is undeniable that toxic masculinity is playing a major role in the terrorism seen in America. Many of these male suspects are angry, violent and apathetic loners. Toxic masculinity makes all these characteristics manifest in all types of men. And before I get into the details below: do not think I am validating the lofty claims that terrorism is a mental health issue rather than a gun control issue. Instead, I am highlighting how toxic masculinity promotes violence and aggression by restricting men from accessing and relieving emotional tension that is building up within them.

In 2005, psychiatric expert Suzanne Brownhill and other psychology researchers penned a paper titled “’Big Build”: Hidden Depression in Men,” which concluded that men who are experiencing depression will not talk about how they feel, and may even lack the ability to understand that they are depressed. Instead, men tend to lose sleep, become more irritable, fight and act violently when they are confronting major mental health issues. Men also will not seek help from their loved ones or professionals and even will distance themselves from these people. 

Because of toxic masculinity, many men are conditioned to repress their emotions. This tends to make men incapable of expressing their emotions, partly because they are afraid of seeming “weak,” and partly because they do not know how to even articulate how they feel. This creates the “big build”-up of emotions and frustration within men that ultimately get expressed through extreme anger and violence, which, as evidenced by the statistics above, is frequently resulting in massacres at mass proportions. 

As we move closer towards solutions to the rising numbers of terrorism in the U.S.—with gun regulation on the top of that list—we need to consider how our gendered expectations are only worsening the situation. Mental health screenings should be an essential part of the process of buying guns. Schools should provide free and accessible counselling for all of their students and need to take more action when students report domestic violence in their households. In general, we need to be frequently checking in on our loved ones to ensure everyone knows they have someone to turn to when complicated feelings of anger, frustration and depression seep in. Each of these approaches help limit the reaches of toxic masculinity and can dismantle the big build-ups that are happening within the people of our homes and communities.

In the next edition of my column, I will take a deeper look into mental health and the disproportionally high suicide rates among men, and how toxic masculinity affects the individual mind.