Where does the urge by young men to strap on powerful guns and shoot up a bunch of strangers even come from? Why do young men keep doing it? Why are they so angry?
For a possible answer, we might take a look at our society’s major myths. In the Western world, the familiar myths that help us make sense of the people and events around us glorify male archetypes, heroes who tamed wild, unknown lands. I’m thinking of the notation at the edge of old maps that say things like “Beyond here, there be dragons.” Often the myth that fuels our perception of events is that of the redeemer— the young man who journeys far from his home to fight unknown foes and come back to his home as a hero: Odysseus/Ulysses and Perseus in classical times; the Lone Ranger, Luke Skywalker and Spiderman in ours. This kind of hero uses his superior strength, intelligence, skill with weapons, and the favor of the gods to tame evil giants, one-eyed monsters, and greedy evil-doers.
The problem is that today, most of our worlds have been conquered. And so our continuing reverence for this kind of myth creates a tension that cannot be resolved without making trouble for society. It no longer serves our tamed and heavily populated world. Yet, to the extent the brave warrior archetype is the one which fills young peoples’ imaginations, men will want to be the warrior and women will want to be with the warrior. All young people want approval, and hopefully admiration, of their peers and parents. But allowing this kind of myth to fuel their approach to the world only gets us all in trouble. this kind of thinking helps young men up so they face setbacks as if they have just drunk ten cups of coffee. They want to DO SOMETHING NOW!! They don’t set themselves to studying and planning and working with others. They come to believe that strapping on a semi-automatic weapon and shooting the people at the church or synagogue down the road or their high school will somehow vanquish society’s enemies. Yet the real evil we must face is more likely to be a pervert in the apartment in the next building or a greedy corporate raider–not to mention climate change woes–not a one-eyed giant in a strange, far-away land.
Now, before you start, YES, we have way too many guns floating around in the U.S.A.—an estimated 400,000,000 of them, including 10,000,000 – that’s millions – assault-style rifles, capable of shooting over 40 bullets in one minute. We thoughtful people can’t seem to get our lawmakers to hear our demands for sensible gun control legislation. And YES, some of these shootings are committed by people who are mentally ill. But it is a very low percentage, less than the occurrence of serious mental illness in the population. (And, by the way, we are doing almost nothing to help these people before a tragedy occurs. See my blog Following up on Parkland) And YES, violent video games might give people ideas. But women play video games, too, and they almost never commit mass shootings. 60% of Japanese people play these video games—more than in the U.S.A., but they hardly commit any gun violence at all. Men in European countries and Canada face problems with their jobs and anger over perceived unfairness in the workplace, but they hardly ever engage in shooting sprees. So how do we make sense of this?
In the U.S. we are seeing the convergence of three problems: the availability of firearms, the build-up of these economic and social provocations and stressors and a third factor—a lifetime of hearing and seeing this conquering hero archetype projected around them over and over again. The combination is deadly.
We need new myths.
There are still new worlds to explore and conquer. It’s just that they will not be discovered or explored by superheroes, cowboys and adventurers. The new worlds we face as a society will be explored by teams of people working cooperatively, depending on their intelligence, reasoning ability, and support teams—like astronauts, who depend on an extraordinary team of scientists and technicians to make their giant leaps for mankind. It will not be by loners, acting on their intuition, innate skill, and big guns. There are no one-eyed cyclops out there for us to shoot and save the world in an instant. We need great stories that give praise to intelligence and reasoning ability, skills that will fuel the ambitions of young men and women going forward. Our new heroes will be scientists and people who can lead people to work together to solve such problems as infrastructure needs and mitigating the impact of climate change.
How much happier the young men of our society—and the people around them—would be if they were raised to praise and wish to emulate the good father, rather than the man who abandons his family to have adventures. how much happier and better off if our young men held as their idea not Odysseus, but more like the Jimmy Stuart character in It’s a Wonderful Life. Or if they were raised to emulate the idealism and self-sacrifice of Jimmy Stuart again in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, making a difference without a gun anywhere in sight. Those movies were very popular in the past, but more recently have been replaced by comic-book strong, independent men or X-men who have no family responsibilities and who chase evil-doers with guns blazing. They’re not even pretending to try to get back to Penelope.
I think our society recognizes that the lone hero archetype isn’t quite right, but it doesn’t quite know how to fix it. Let’s all try.
And where shall women find heroines to emulate in the old myths? There’s certainly no place for a lady in any of them, at least not as an actor having the adventures. another reason for some new myths. But my thoughts on that will have to wait for another day. Coming soon.