This is our truth, tell us yours
Content note for suicide and suicidal ideation
It seems as if this blog, sometimes, only exists to remind me of the aspects of being a man that I need to reflect on. Men who experience a crisis in their masculinity is one of those aspects of being a man.
I’ve written about it in terms of men who have self destructive eating problems, and I’ve written about it in terms of Elliott Rodger and his murderous choices. These are gendered issues, and as a man I feel the need to reflect on them.
In the circumstances it is hard to ignore Omar Mateen.
In my experience of working in bars frequented by men who have sex with men the man who becomes irrationally angry is not a stranger to those places.We had nicknames for them; lone wolves, or crazy sharks, nicknames that dehumanized them, that emphasized the irrationality that drove them.There were other men in those places who could be violent, but thoseirrational men, who always seemed slightly out of place, were the men we most othered and feared.
If I have learned anything about understanding anger it is that the first step in helping msyelf, and others, is understanding that anger is not a first order emotion; anger exists, and flourishes, because of something else we feel or have experienced.
Learning to say not ‘I feel angry’ but ‘I feel angry because…’ is essential.
I cannot complete that sentence for Omar Mateen. Beware anyone who tells you that they can. Responsibility for that could only have rested with Omar Mateen, and he is not going to complete the task.
There are enough occasions though, in my life when I have seen a man who has sex with men become irrationally violent to say it’s a known pattern of behaviour. Since I live in the UK, where firearms are much less common, I’ve never seen that behaviour involve firearms, but I’ve watched as a violent man swinging his belt cleared a circle around him on a dance floor. When he was brought down, and subdued, he cried like a child, but could not explain why he wanted to use his belt buckle as a weapon against anyone within his reach. I’ve talked, the morning after, to a young man whose live-in lover had beaten him black and blue for no reason he could articulate, and been told ‘He was just angry’ as if that were an explanation rather than justa symptom.
I’ve no statistics I can fall back upon, no meticulous studies of cases that provide points of congruence, but I know that my intuition was that men who presented as straight, and isolated from community or family, were higher risk for irrational violence than others, has been useful in those situations.
None of this helps explain Omar Mateen. None of it would matter if it could. What matters is that each of us who experiences anger can explain it, and address it rather than excuse it.
Omar Mateen experienced a crisis in his masculinity as an individual, but the willingness to accept anger as a way of being is a fault line that runs through masculinity collectively. If you don’t have a clinically diagnosed disorder, anger is the consequence of other things, yet we don’t teach young men to ask why. Quite the opposite – we laud and elevate the idea of the angry young man as being a norm, a stereotype that we acknowledge rather than challenge, even a position of some cultural significance that excuses bad literature or worse films so long as they are written in the language of rage and contempt for the old order.
The temptation to see Omar Mateen as an exception or an outlier is wrong. He is as average as the English football fans in France, with their bitter songs about past conflicts, their racism and homophobia, and their overwhelming sense of grievance that the world does not value the mighty English as much as they think they deserve. (And yes, I know you could write a similar sentence about Italian ultras, or Russian hooligans, but I live in England.) Omar Mateen may be no different, emotionally, to the older, white, working class men who will vote for Britain to leave the EU of an inchoate, inarticulate anger about a society where they do not matter, where their lives have been devalued and debased to a point whereEnglish politics is always about someone else, somewhere else, a Mondeo man or a Worcester woman who would never fit in in Grimsby or Easington.
What made Mateen different is a toxic cocktail of opportunity, ideology and the culture of the gun, the way in which the firearm becomes a penis substitute for men rendered figuatively impotent by circumstance, not his emotions. If we don’t explore why anger occurs, and what it means, we’ll never understand why men like Omar Mateen opt for ‘suicide by cop’ and the notoriety of being a mass murderer rather than a life of quietly dealing with inevitable disappointment.
Do we ever say to our young men that disappointment is also a normal part of life? Do we ever say to them that the price of being potentially a winner is that we must also accept potentially being a loser? Do we ever teach them that if reality and our ideologies clash, we must react with reflection, not anger?
I grew up in a house where, as a child,I learned to catalogue the nighttime sounds of angry words,to judge the moment when, head under the blankets, I might expect to hear crockery hitting walls. I had to unlearn, as a consequence, the belief that anger, untempered, incoherent and bitter is righteous, useful or even justified. Somewhere, just before I might have lost myself entirely, I had to learn the humility to understand that what made men like Omar Mateen a mass murderer is the same set of emotions, many of the same circumstances that made life with men like me potentially dangerous. It’s as if, when some men, too many men become angry, their conscience and their morality hides under the blankets while their rage is throwing crockery at the walls.
As a digression here, I’m a firm believer that amongst the principal defects of our criminal law system is its Anglo-Saxon obsession with the harm caused, not the motivating emotions and behaviours. Leave aside sexual ofences. Look at the ladder of consequences that is the Offences Against the Persons Act, with increasing tariffs of punishment for offences as the harm caused becomes more grievous. I’ve even sat in a magistrates court and heard a bail application where counsel for the defendant argued that his client, who had gone from common asault, through affray to a charge now of GBH, should be treated as a low risk for re-offending becuse this was his first serious asault, as if the ladder of prior ofences had not been a clear warning signal that this young man was dangerous. He got bail though, and a warning from the magistrates to be sensible until his trial. No-one in that room thought to comment that the third offence,a GBH from a well thrown punch, was as serious as the first offence, a minor rbuise from a badly thrown punch -the only difference being the degree of skill, or luck, involved.
Anger management is part of the answer, of course, and part of the toolkit available to the courts now, but even then the emphasis is on managing anger. My emphasis, as a man, is on questioning whether anger has any utility at all.