The Struggle to Predict—and Prevent—Toxic Masculinity

That means it’s worth digging into people’s histories. Whisper networks have been the de facto means of protecting women in the workplace; the taxonomy provides an intellectual framework for giving them a louder voice, because it suggests that men with a history of harassment and abuse probably also have a future of it.

Now, some writers have used the idea of toxic masculinity to draw a line between harassment, abuse, and mass shootings. They’re violent, and the perpetrators tend to be men. But here, Moffitt’s taxonomy may be less applicable.

Despite what the past few years have felt like, mass shootings are infrequent. And many mass shooters end up committing suicide or being killed themselves, so science on them is scant. “Mass shootings are such astonishingly rare, idiosyncratic, and multicausal events that it is impossible to explain why one individual decides to shoot his or her classmates, coworkers, or strangers and another does not,” write Benjamin Winegard and Christopher Ferguson in their chapter of The Wiley Handbook of the Psychology of Mass Shootings.

That said, researchers have found a few commonalities. The shooters are often suicidal, or more precisely have stopped caring whether they live or die, says Adam Lankford, a criminologist at the University of Alabama. Sometimes they’re seeking fame and attention. And they share a sense that they themselves are victims. “That’s how they justify attacking others,” Lankford says. “Sometimes the perceptions are based in reality—I was bullied, or whatever—but sometimes they can be exacerbated by mental health problems or personality characteristics.”

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Though reports on mass shooters often say that more than half of them are also domestic abusers, that number needs some unpacking. People have lumped together mass shootings of families—domestic by definition—with public mass shootings like the one in Las Vegas, or school shootings. Disaggregate the public active shooters from the familicides and the number of shooters with histories of domestic abuse goes down. (Of course, that doesn’t change preposterously high number of abused women murdered by their partners outside of mass shooting events.)

What may really tip the mass shooter profile away from Moffitt’s taxonomy, though, is that people in the life-course persistent cohort do uncontrolled, crazy stuff all the time. Yes, some mass shooters have a history of encounters with law enforcement, let’s say. But some don’t. Mass shootings are, characteristically, highly planned events. “I’m not saying it’s impossible to be a mass shooter and have poor impulse control, but if you have poor impulse control you won’t be able to go for 12 months of planning an attack without ending up in jail first,” Lankford says.

Moffitt isn’t trying to build a unified field theory of the deadly patriarchy. When I suggest that the societal structures that keep men in power relative to women, generally, might explain the behavior of her LCP cohort, she disagrees. “If sexual harassment and mass shootings were the result of cultural patriarchy and societal expectations for male behavior, all men would be doing it all the time,” Moffitt says. “Even though media attention creates the impression that these forms of aggression are highly prevalent and all around us, they are nevertheless still extremely rare. Most men are trustworthy, good, and sensible.”

She and her colleagues continue to look for hard markers for violence or lack of impulse control, genes or neurobiological anomalies. (A form of the gene that codes for a neurotransmitter called monoamine oxidase inhibitor A might give some kids protection against lifelong effects of maltreatment, she and her team have found. By implication not having that polymorphism, then, could predispose a child raised under adverse circumstances to psychopathology as an adult.) Similarly, nobody yet knows what digital-native kids in either cohort will do when they move their bad behavior online. One might speculate that it looks a lot like GamerGate and 4chan, though that sociological and psychological work is still in early days.

But for now, Moffitt and her co-workers have identified risk factors and childhood conditions that seem to create these bad behaviors, or allow them to flourish. That’s the good news. “We know a lifestyle of aggression and intimidation toward others starts so young,” Moffitt says. “It could be preventable.”

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