By Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez
A couple of weeks ago, when I heard that my 14-year-old son and his friend had been playing with the other boy’s air-soft pistols by shooting each other at close range, I saw red. “But it just stings like a bee-sting, Mom,” my son protested. “It just leaves a welt. Why are you getting so upset?”
At the time, I wasn’t sure why I was getting so upset — after all, these were only toy guns. My answer to my son was that a “bullet” could ricochet and end up hitting him in the eye, which is true and a rational explanation for why I flatly forbid him to engage in that kind of behavior any more with those guns. “Target practice only!” I insisted. But of course, what he and his friends do when I’m not around is impossible to predict or monitor.
Guns, Violence and Kids
Now, after the Newtown massacre, I am thinking more deeply about the issue of guns, violence and kids. I’m also thinking more about Nancy Lanza, the gunman’s mother, who he savagely shot in the face, leaving her dead in her pajamas in bed while he went out on his mission of mass murder.
I’m far from the only one who is asking what Nancy Lanza could have been thinking to make her home into an arsenal, complete with assault weapons and major ammunition, especially with a son living there who she knew to have social adjustment problems.
I hear that the good people of Newtown are shunning Nancy in death, focusing on the “26 victims” of Adam Lanza and refusing to light a candle in her memory. This seems like a classic case of blaming the victim, and yet of course Nancy does bear responsibility for the horrific massacre of the 26 innocent victims. If she hadn’t armed her son, he could not have carried out this crime.
So this begs the question of our responsibility as parents, especially, in this context, as parents to sons. I have two sons, and like Nancy I am divorced, with my sons’ father very distant from their day-to-day lives. It is my responsibility to raise them to be kind, good-hearted men, who use their warrior strength to protect and strengthen their communities, not to destroy.
But what a battle it is to keep the tremendously destructive tsunami of media and cultural violence at bay in our home! I don’t have TV in my house, and my kids don’t own a Wii or Playstation. But we do have computers, tablets and smartphones; we watch Netflix and go to the movies and have friends who are more casually accepting of (toy) guns than I am.
I have tried to hold the line on violent video games that the boys may have access to through the computer, and for the most part I think I’ve been successful. Even if they may sneak a violent game or two when I’m not around, at least they don’t play these games obsessively, with impunity, the way most teenage boys do in America.
We’ve talked at length about my objections to media violence, and I know they understand, even if they occasionally express the wish that they could just join the crowd and go on a good virtual shooting rampage like all the other boys they know. I’ve gotten into arguments with my older son, age 20, and some of my college students, who insist that there is no way they’d ever do in real life what they have so much fun doing in video games. I hope they’re right.
But I want to know why, as Americans, we tolerate and indeed seem to relish representations of violence, while at the same time we’re so fearful of actual violence that some of us are stockpiling weapons in our homes to prepare ourselves for the worst. In the old days—not that long ago, in the scale of human history—a whole town used to turn out for a festive viewing of a hanging. Today in places where conservative Islam reigns, women are stoned to death in public spectacles of participatory violence.
But how different is that, really, from the great American past-time of engaging in virtual violence of the most vicious sort? America is the most violent, militarized society on Earth and Americans are the greatest exporters of violence, both physical and virtual, to the rest of the world.
Most Victims and Perpetrators of Violence Are Men
Most perpetrators of violence—again, both real and virtual—are men. Men are the greatest victims of violence too, though women and children bear a disproportionate share, given that they are far less likely to be pulling the triggers. We need to start looking much harder at the way our culture encourages violence by selling us the story that real men enjoy violence and can handle it with insouciance. I don’t want my teenage son shooting an airsoft gun at his friend, and I don’t want him going on virtual “special ops” missions armed with a Bushmaster assault rifle.
I wish his father were on hand to back me up in this, and I think my situation as a mother trying to keep violence out of my home is probably far more common than we realize as a nation. We know that half of marriages end in divorce, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that of the remaining married couples, half include men who enjoy guns, violent video games and violent movies, and teach their sons to do the same.
So that leaves a lot of us women either on our own trying to fight the prevailing winds of culture and raise peace-loving men, or tolerating or going along with the culture of violence within our most intimate relationships and the private sphere of our homes. Yes, some women may themselves be violent. We still don’t know why Nancy Lanza felt the need to arm herself with such terribly potent weapons.
But the fact remains that of the steadily mounting toll of mass shootings in this country, not one has been committed by a woman. Women are way more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators, and even as perpetrators they are generally acting in self-defense. American women, I call on you to look deeply at this issue, and find the strength to stand up collectively against the violence. Mothers, we need to support each other on this!
Just as the Mothers Against Drunk Driving took a stand and changed the pattern of teenagers driving drunk and killing themselves and others year after year, by forcing legislators, schools, merchants and other parents to take collective responsibility for raising responsible kids, we need to start a new movement against the culture of violence in our country, both virtual and physical.
Then perhaps we could say that the 27 victims of Adam Lanza did not die in vain. Φ
Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez teaches comparative literature and gender studies with an activist bent at Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington, MA and blogs at Transition Times.