Misogyny, Religion, and Capitalism: Among the Many Causes of Mass Shootings

The initial posting of Monday’s blog entry “Everything Progressives Say About Mass Shootings is Wrong…and Racist” contained several paragraphs at the end about sources of mass shooting. I wrote these anticipating a complaint about failing to provide an explanation for the phenomenon after debunking the claim that the demographic intersection of white and male explains mass shootings. Latter that evening, I removed them to keep the focus of my essay on the fallacies of the progressive left. I include these paragraphs in the present entry as they are particularly relevant in light of article published in Tuesdays USA Today.

Despite being factually wrong, the left identitarian effort to make an intersection of demographic categories—white male—responsible for mass murder distracts the public from grasping the actual sources of mass murder. Even if we put the race question to one side and focus on gender, progressives and pundits still get it wrong. Many use sex and gender as stand-ins for particular forms of culture and ideology implicated in the production of oppression and violence. This move represents a leftwing form of sexism. Even when they shift their attention to the problem of misogyny and patriarchal structures, such as religion, they obscure its sources.

To be sure, misogyny is a source of mass shootings. Although the majority of men who assault their wives, girlfriends, and families do not perpetrate mass shootings or terrorist actions, nor do all mass shooters and terrorists have a history of assaulting wives or girlfriends, an association between the misogyny and mass violence makes theoretical sense and is indicated by the evidence. Mother Jones analyzed 22 mass shootings since 2011 and found that 32 percent had a history of stalking and harassment of women, 50 percent specifically targeted women, and 86 percent had a history of domestic abuse. Patriarchy in its extreme forms demands the strict subordination of women and children to men. But even in its basic form it normalizes gender hierarchies in which men enjoy a superordinate position over women and children. Patriarchal ideologies tend to generate misogyny, subjecting women and children to the risk of violence, often coded as “discipline.” Moreover, masculinist ideologies associated with patriarchal relations expose men to the risk of violence. Indeed, men and boys are more often the victims of masculinist violence and humiliation than are women and girls. Therefore, it is in the interests of males and females alike to eliminate patriarchal structures from human societies.

From yesterday morning’s USA Todays article “Mass Shootings and Misogyny: The Violent Ideology We Can’t Ignore”: “In the past week, three separate mass shootings have led to national discussions about racism, xenophobia and white supremacy. The other violent ideology animating these attacks has gotten less attention: misogyny.” Citing sexism and the construct of “toxic masculinity,” the article correctly notes that “gun violence is disproportionately committed by men,” and acknowledged the body of research that “misogyny can be a precursor to other forms of extremism.” According to the piece, shooters in Dayton, El Paso, and Gilroy “explicitly expressed hatred for women or embraced forms of extremism connected to a disdain for them.” There are other examples, most notably the 2017 Sutherland Springs, Texas shooting perpetrated by Devin Patrick Kelley, a young man with a history of abusive behavior towards women and children, that left more than two dozen churchgoers dead, and Elliot Rodger, who, in 2014, killed six and injured fourteen because he sought retribution against women for rejecting him and other men because he envied them.

Elliot Rodger, perpetrator of the 2014 Isla Vista massacre
Motive: retribution for “enforced celibacy.”

The construct of toxic masculinity refers to norms that form the basis of a traditional culture of masculinity emphasizing aggression and violence. Toxic masculinity is said to underpin misogyny and heterosexism (more often called “homophobia,” a term I don’t much care for, as it suggests a mental disorder rather than an oppressive ideology). Its results are seen in domestic violence and sexual assault. I find the construct of toxic masculinity problematic because it is often used in a vague way to substitute for explicit identification of the culture or ideology in question. In my work, I endeavor to identify the ideological systems that generate and perpetuate malignant forms of masculinity, which tend to be essentially misogynistic, attitudes marked by the desire to belittle, control, dominate, and humiliate women and girls. Misogyny is indicated by jealousy, suspicion, and violence. It is a dangerous presence.

The USA Today article cites useful sources in constructing its argument. An analysis by Everytown for Gun Safety finds that the majority of mass shootings between January 2009 and December 2017 were related to domestic or family violence. Jennifer Carlson, a sociology professor at the University of Arizona, explains: “Some of these murderers explicitly detail hatred toward women in their manifestos; for others, a sense of gendered aggrievement centered on masculine entitlement—what some call the ‘real men get revenge’ attitude—is clear in the way these mass killings unfold.” Carlson notes that “this is often intertwined with racism and white supremacy—a number of active shooters have explicitly linked their misogynist views about women to racist resentments regarding other men’s access to women’s bodies.”

Also noting this link is Keegan Hanks of the Southern Poverty Law Center. She says, “Leaders should be condemning all of these toxic ideologies that are part of an inter-connected belief system that leads to these tragedies.” I agree, which is why it is disappointing that nowhere in the USA Today article is religion mentioned. The role of misogyny in mass shooting is not only empirically incomplete when the influence of religious faith is omitted, but the omission also leaves the relationship between misogyny and ideology undertheorized. Like white supremacy, Islam, for example, represents an extreme culture of traditional masculinity, with attendant heterosexism, that seeks the subordination of women to men, advocates violence against women (see “Verse 4:34 of the Qur’an”), and fuels the persecution of gays. As we will see, Islam is not the only religion that provides a source of masculine entitlement.

The absence of any mention of Islam in an article about misogyny and mass killing is conspicuous in light of the evidence. Islamic violence and the threat of violence has become a serious problem in the West. Sexism and heterosexism are indicated in several incidents. In 2004, Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was assassinated for his film Submission, the killer leaving a note on the knife pinned to van Gogh’s chest threatening Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the feminist author of such works as Heretic and Infidel, and script writer for Submission, with death. In 2011, Islamist Linda Sarsour tweeted of Ali and Brigitte Gabriel: “I wish I could take their vaginas away—they don’t deserve to be women.” In 2016, in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, a Muslim killed 49 people and wounded 58 others. In 2017, Salman Abedi targeted a concert by Ariana Grande, attended by mostly young women and girls, killing 22 and injuring hundreds. (For further evidence of the violent character of Islam, you can turn to several entries on this blog. Here are some of them: Threat-Minimization and Ecumenical Demobilization; Assert Your Right to Tell the Truth; The Courage to Name the Problem; Leveraging the ChristChurch Massacre to Marginalize Concerns About Islam and Immigration.)

Working in the area of men’s studies, sociologists Michael Kimmel and Cliff Leek, in an essay titled “‘There is a GunMAN on Campus’: Including Identity in Mass Shooting Discourse” (published in the 2014 book Gun Violence and Public Life, by critical theorist Ben Agger), write that the slogan “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people” would be better revised as “Guns don’t kill people; men and boys kill people.” This appeal supposes that the original slogan, from a bumpersticker popular with gun enthusiasts, carries any validity in the first place. While it is true that shootings are perpetrated by people (what other entity would shoot people?), the slogan does not tell us why some people shoot people and others do not. So, while the first part is true (guns have no agency), the second part tells us nothing (people is not a motive). The hole is not filled by revising it in the way Kimmel and Leek suggest. A man is an adult male and a boy is an immature male of the species Homo sapiens. If you tell me you’re a man I only know your chromosomes and, very generally, your anatomy. I know nothing about your attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors. Prostate cancer is a male problem. Mass shooting isn’t. Kimmel and Leek’s rhetoric represents the peril of identity politics in academic production. Unfortunately, I see this reduction to identity everywhere in progressive rhetoric.

It does worse than obscure the source of misogyny to assign agency to sex and gender. Men and boys are not inherently misogynistic. It is sexist to suppose or suggest that patterns of male domination are baked into our species in the same way that the notion that racial differences result from natural history constitute the very definition of racism. Put another way, to say that males are dangerous is analogous to saying that whites are dangerous. A reflex in radical feminism that has worked its way into academic and popular cultures blinds progressives to this obvious truth. Once it is acknowledged that white males are not overrepresented in mass shootings (see Monday’s blog entry), some will drop the race piece and jump on the fact that males are overrepresented in mass shootings. But consider if we hold gender constant and then ask why blacks are six times more likely to commit homicide than whites. If we were to conclude that homicide is a “race problem,” then we risk being accused of racism. Rightly so. Being XY is simply not a causal agent in the production of violence.

From a sociological point of view, males of our species are born in patriarchal systems and socialized by culture and ideologically indoctrinated to reproduce the gender hierarchy, part of which may involve misogyny. Elsewhere, Kimmel does a good job on this score, writing in Misframing Men (2010) that American culture rooted in evangelical Christianity, chauvinistic and intolerant, is marked by “sanctimonious superiority, traditional gender norms, and a belief in violence as restorative,” producing a condition he labels “aggrieved entitlement,” in which mass murder is justified as revenge against those who hurt or are perceived to have hurt the perpetrator. He cites Columbine and Virginia Tech as paradigmatic of “restorative masculinity.” One can see how aggrieved gender entitlement can link with aggrieved race entitlement. Violence against blacks or Jews can be meaningful to a person who believes his misfortune are explained by the absence of race privilege in the wake of the successes of the civil rights movement. This is what Carlson and Hanks are talking about. If you have spent any time poking around the rightwing end of the social media spectrum, you know that misogyny and racism often go hand-in-hand.

Why do progressives include white supremacy as force often attendant to misogyny but omit Islam in discussions of criminal motivation? Kimmel implicating evangelical Christianity is refreshing (and he is drawing from the work of Ralph Larkin, so he is not the only one). Why should those trying to grasp this problem neglect the other Abrahamic tradition? The problem is not simply the theoretical paucity of going only part of the way to an explanation. When I suggest considering the role that Islam, or religion more broadly, play in the phenomenon of mass violence, I risk being called names. It’s fine to blame passive demographic categories, ideologies one thinks smears his political enemies, even the dominant faith belief of the trans-Atlantic world, but when the concrete problem of a really-existing patriarchal religion is identified, it leaves the objective observer vulnerable to the charge of bigotry. Or, as a sympathetic comrade noted today, it may spark a “what-about-ism.” That is, “Why are you bringing up Islam?” To lean on the thematic of my previous entry, the omission suggests an agenda. It makes mass shootings look to be the work of WASPs.

The failure to acknowledge the role of Islam in masculinist violence is a very real problem on the left. The parallel should be obvious, but progressive ideology is adept at producing double consciousness. In an interview with David Cohen in the Evening Standard (February 7, 1997), Ayaan Hirsi Ali is quoted as saying, “Just like Nazism started with Hitler’s vision, the Islamic vision is a caliphate—a society ruled by Sharia law—in which women who have sex before marriage are stoned to death [misogyny], homosexuals are beaten [heterosexism], and apostates like me are killed. Sharia law is as inimical to liberal democracy as Nazism.” These words have been used repeatedly to attack Ali, a woman whose genitalia was militated by proponents of Islam and escaped an arranged marriage, as suffering from the psychological condition “Islamophobia.” Moving beyond ad hominem, Ali is making a rational comparison between two ideologies with a similar character. Like Nazism, or fascism more generally, Islam is a source of violence. Progressives are quick to attribute violence to fascism, but not to its religious cousins.

The Southern Poverty Law Institute, noted earlier, works to prevent this understanding. As I write in a blog entry of October 27, 2018, “The Irony of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Authoritarian Desire”: “One sees this very obviously in their practice of labeling criticism of Islam—including even Muslims and ex-Muslims—‘anti-Muslim extremism.’ As the Abrahamic traditions are responsible for centuries of pain and suffering, and as Islam, especially as currently practiced throughout the world, limits and oppresses women, gays, and free thinkers, critics of Islam and religion are desperately needed for the advancement of human rights. Such voices of freedom and reason as Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Maajid Nawaz should be supported, not smeared, by organizations claiming to represent the struggle against hateful and divisive ideologies.” As I noted in that entry, the SPLC finally relented and removed Ali and Nawaz from the list, but it continues to smear critics of Islam as “extremists.”

The mass shooting in El Paso, Texas by Patrick Crusius, whose actions appear to have been motivated by loathing of race and ethnic groups with which he does not identity, is a manifestation of a problem in American life: white nationalism. The media has covered this matter extensively, most at the exclusion of other sources of mass shooting. I have identified some of the many mass shootings motivated by religious ideology to help fill in the picture. But white nationalism and religion and their attendant misogyny do not exhaust the constellation of sources that make mass shootings more likely. Among Crusius’ complaints in his manifesto were corporate strategies of automation and immigration and government action to facilitate the strategies, which are very real problems confronting working class American, albeit, in Crusius’ case, wrapped in a pathological interpretation resting on white ethnicism and entitlement. We see in Crusius’ thoughts anxieties about losing status in his own country.

It is easy to infer these anxieties from acts of workplace violence (review, for instances, the cases of Craddock and Martin). Alienation and white supremacy only sometimes intersect, but many of those who take up extremist ideologies or who take drastic action are broken by the chaotic insecurity of global capitalism, broken by the failure of capitalist society to consistently make available opportunities for people to live a comfortable, even enriching life. It must be understood that mental illness and religious fundamentalism or racist nationalism or capitalist alienation are not mutually exclusive categories. They are qualitatively different things that often overlap. When progressives complain that white nationalists are being excused on account of mental illness, they are ignoring the evidence. Bereft of class consciousness, progressives portray economic frustration and angst as racism and xenophobia. The modern left has abandoned class struggle. Identitarian thought, right and left, is a form of false consciousness filling the gap in understanding left by the absence of an authentic working class politics. Racism and sexism are no longer the exclusive territory of the political right. The identitarian left also feeds racial and gender divisions.

We must not ignore the problem of easy access to the means of easy death and wounding. In a culture where people are estranged from fraternal relations and guns are fetishized, tied to masculinity, and easily available, mass shooting or analogous forms of violence are more likely. Guns are a means to manifest belief and frustration in action. USA Today quotes Adam Lankford, a professor at the University of Alabama: “There are cultures that are far worse in their misogyny and treatment of women than the United States … places where spousal rape is not illegal, genital mutilation is common, women don’t have equal rights. But they have less access to firearms, so far fewer public mass shootings.” There is an obvious need to step up our demands for stricter control over the distribution and possession of guns. As I remarked to a comrade today, “A society with weak solidarity produce solitary agents of violence. The firearms industry is eager to put guns in their hands. And the government does little stop them.”

Mass shootings are a problem where religious fundamentalism, white nationalism, and guns have a safe purchase—and where class solidarity is strained and the class struggle languishes. Identitarians on the right feed the religious and racist sources of misogynistic motive. Identitarians on the left enable patriarchal culture and ideology by denying or downplaying the malignant character of religion. Both sides ignore the alienating conditions of capitalism. Those who believe in a free and rational society can no longer tolerate those who preach the message that race and sex indicate anything about what people believe or what people do. Society should judge people based on what they believe and do, not on the color of their skin or their chromosomes. I say this not only for the sake of justice, but for epistemic reasons. If belief and action are the subject of theory and analysis, then we can hope to explain mass shootings and do something about it. But if ideology is to stand in for the critical historical scientific work to be done, and if a return to class politics is not forthcoming, then we can expect to see the continuation of the political and social divisions that prepare the ground for extremist violence.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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