Editor’s Note: Richard Edmond Vargas is community organizer, music producer and social entrepreneur. He also is the co-founder of Success Stories, an inmate-led rehabilitation program in the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad, California. He is featured in CNN’s documentary, “The Feminist on Cellblock Y,” now available on CNNGo. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
He killed his homeboy in broad daylight for calling him a bitch. Everybody I was in LA county jail with knew his story. The scariest part remains that most of them and many men I tell the story to today casually respond with something like, “Well, I wouldn’t go that far but yeah, I could see that.”
Granted, most of the men I had this conversation with are in prison with me, but when 98% of mass murders are committed by men, and 90% of all murders are committed by men and 80% of those arrested for violent acts are men, it’s safe to say there is something wrong with how our culture socializes men.
Patriarchy is a social system that defines men as being inherently violent, dominant and controlling while rewarding them with power for being that way. It is no secret, especially these days, that we live in a patriarchal society. Why are we continually surprised when a man takes up arms and commits mass murder?
Cartoons, video games and contemporary politicians exalt male violence. This glorification echoes in our sports and movies. When the right person is performing it or it’s being performed for the “right reasons” (think police officers or members of the military), people even call male violence heroic. So why wouldn’t angry, entitled men seek to rectify their qualms with the world through unimaginable carnage? Every social cue they’ve received since childhood declared violence their birthright, it’s what makes them real men.
In my own life, I was taught by patriarchy that real men don’t ask for help. And because of the ways that patriarchy is racialized I was taught that black men, like myself, were supposed to act in certain ways. Hardened. Shallow. Unaccountable. When I was 19, I followed this script and decided that committing robberies was an acceptable way to deal with the fact that I couldn’t pay my rent. Though my girlfriend offered to help me pay it, I saw accepting a woman’s help as weakness and decided to rob instead. That led to me being sentenced to 10 years in state prison.
It’s due to this experience with patriarchy and the bad choices that I’ve made because of it that I see how patriarchy can lead men to becoming mass murderers. It’s true, America has a gun problem. The correlation between the availability of guns and the amount of mass shootings a country suffers is staggering. The work that the young Parkland shooting survivors and the #neveragain movement are doing, along with the leagues of their predecessors, is necessary and lifesaving. But we also must confront mass shootings’ other ingredient: men.
As long as men get labeled “pussies” for choosing not to fight, male emotion is sneered upon as weakness and masculinity itself is measured by the willingness to be violent, America may not always have a mass shooting problem, but it will always have a mass violence problem.
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But here in prison we have found a way out. I have sat in circles of men, incarcerated men just like me, who have committed horrific violence and had the hard, honest conversations that liberate us from patriarchy. I have watched men struggle free of their chains and whittle out new tools of self expression besides anger and violence. I’ve gotten to know the faces of men as they realize that what’s behind their rage is really embarrassment. And I’ve celebrated the freedom of that moment with them. I have seen men become whole, and gang members become peacekeepers. I have witnessed the solution to the other half of America’s mass shooting problem.
What doing anti-patriarchy work in California prisons and in my own life has taught me is that men have the capacity to feel, share and regulate the spectrum of human emotions. When we do this, the violence we’ve been taught comes so naturally to us feels foreign and unnecessary.
Before he shoots his first bullet, tomorrow’s mass shooter can experience this transformative process. But first we must culturally allow him to express feelings. In fact, we must demand it.