When we feel ashamed or judged, we have several possible ways of responding. One method of dealing with shame is to defend yourself vigorously, to deny anything is wrong, and to attack those who might think differently. We can imagine the loud protests of Hamlet’s mother, though perhaps Hamlet’s attack on his mother is equally revealing. A second method, which is my preferred method, is to try to suppress it, hide it, and pretend it does not exist, and I think I have plenty of company with millions of people struggling with feelings of inadequacy, guilt, and a myriad of shortcomings. This kind of shame destroys you from the inside out. The third and most difficult method of dealing with shame is to acknowledge it, confront it, and try to resolve it in some way. When we meet individuals who can do this, we admire them, praise them, and exalt them, which is as it should be. Think of a former member of the KKK who becomes a civil rights leader, for example.
In the aftermath of Elliot Rodgers’ mass killing, pundits, analysts, feminists, psychologists, and just about everyone else has jumped to understand and explain what may cause someone to want to kill with such intensity and drive. It appears that Rodgers dealt with feelings of deep shame and inadequacy because he felt he failed as a man because he couldn’t convince women to have sex with him. Many men, even those who have had their share of sexual encounters, share his shame, but fewer question the assumptions that create that shame. Men are expected to be on a constant mission to prove themselves through sexual conquests, and most men internalize this to one degree or another in the same way that women internalize attitudes toward body image.
It isn’t surprising, then, that many men reacted defensively to discussions of sexist attitudes and their dire consequences. Who is going to say, “I see now that I’ve bought into a dangerous belief system. I see that my way of thinking leads to mass murder.”? Not many, which might explain the emotional and unrelated defenses of Glenn Beck, Seth Rogen, and all the men who reacted negatively to #yesallwomen. Beck went on a long tirade against the idea that sexual assault and harassment is prevalent and suggested that people are calling normal, consensual sex rape. Rogen responded to Ann Hornaday’s critique of media that depicts women as trophies by tweeting, ““How dare you imply that me getting girls in movies caused a lunatic to go on a rampage.”
These men want to make clear that they are not part of the problem. They recognize that their attitudes and maybe even their actions are now being criticized as part of the problem, and they are saying, “Hey, don’t point the finger at me.” They may also realize they have internalized the values that oppress and torture men. We may want to respond to #yesallwomen with #notallmen, but the fact is that all men, at least in my culture, are familiar with the beliefs and attitudes that shame men for “purity” and women for “sexual prowess.” We feel it deep in our bones, and it makes us uncomfortable.
In the next wave, many women wonder why more “enlightened” men don’t speak up and stand with them. To be fair, many men have shown the courage to do this, but doing so requires us all to look inside and examine what we may prefer to hide and suppress. You don’t have to be a rapist or a murderer to recognize common feelings or assumptions you may have or may have once had, and it can create a kind of soul-burning shame.
Few tasks in life are as difficult as confronting our own shame. The attitudes and beliefs that define us as men and women touch us at the core of our being. A thoughtful, honest, complex, and courageous discussion of how to liberate and protect men and women will be lengthy and arduous, but a better world is possible.
PS: And let’s have a discussion about access to guns as well.
For more on shame, see the work of Brené Brown.