Replaying in news outlets and on phone screens across the country, were the violent events that occurred in Cleveland, where a man by the name of Steve Stephens announced a killing spree on Facebook live and subsequently uploaded a video of himself gunning down a passerby. In his video, Stephens blames both his ex-girlfriend and his mother for his actions. This story has captivated an audience across the country, but unfortunately, it is not new.
Stephens’ actions are common and serve to highlight two destructive and oppressive behaviors that permeate society – the presence of toxic masculinity and the desensitization of violence. Here’s why:
What is toxic masculinity?
Toxic masculinity refers to the socially constructed attitudes that equate the masculine gender role as violent, unemotional, and aggressive. It teaches men to suppress their emotions and tells them that violence is the best way to prove their strength and power. This helps to shed light on why men have been responsible for the majority of mass shootings in the United States, and helps explain behaviors like that of Stephens’, or Cedric Anderson’s, who earlier this month entered his estranged wife’s Elementary School classroom and killed her.
What about mental illness?
Many have been quick to blame mental illness for Stephens’ actions, yet it is not our place to diagnose Stephens’ mental health. It is however, our place to highlight the deeper root causes of events like these. As YP4 ’14 alumni Kristina Agbebiyi explains, “Toxic masculinity is not mental illness,” and should be called out when it manifests itself in violent actions. Blaming mental illness does not shed light to this issue, and instead further preserves the value we place on toxic masculinity in society.
In the Cleveland shooting, toxic masculinity manifested itself by blaming Stephen’s ex-girlfriend as the reason for this violence and absolving Stephens of his responsibility in the shooting. It prioritized the feelings of men over the lives and wellbeing of women, a narrative not uncommon in society.
How do we become desensitized to violence?
The second destructive behavior brought to light in this incident is present in the way we, as consumers of social and mainstream media, react to instances of violence. The murder video was shared thousands of times on social media, reinforcing the normalization of violence in society, especially violence towards black bodies.
Instantaneous multimedia content around violent events expose us to a constant feed of graphic images. Specifically prevalent are images of shootings and violent acts towards black bodies. While video recording has become a powerful way to highlight violence against black bodies, it has also created a surplus of violent content on social media that desensitizes viewers into a point of acceptance. Violence against black folks becomes a trope, an archetype, engrained in society’s collective memory. This normalization is destructive in and of itself and equates blackness with the experience of violence.
What should we do about it?
As young people keen on challenging oppressive structures and enacting long-lasting change, we should be aware of these destructive behaviors and vigorously act against them. In this moment of grief and mourning we need to educate our communities, particularly men, about the dangers of toxic masculinity. More importantly, men themselves need to recognize the moments where they’ve done wrong, listen to the women they’ve hurt, and commit to bettering themselves.
We need to also remember that sharing violent content treats the deaths of marginalized individuals, particularly black folks, as a spectacle. While it’s important to bring light to the disproportional acts of violence against these communities, we must do so without recreating historical trauma and perpetuating the normalization of violence. The events that occurred last week remind us that there is much work left to do in our path towards achieving collective liberation.
**This piece was written by: YP4 ’14 & Curriculum and Leadership Coordinator Alicia Morejon and Civic Engagement & Policy Manager Andrea Sosa**