Some of my fondest childhood memories are of muggy Saturday nights on Hungerford Common.
Year after year, most summer weekends, my auntie and uncle would drive me, my grandma and my two cousins to a pub just outside Hungerford. The grown-ups would sip shandies on the trestle table, while Jeff, Rich and I would charge off into the wilderness to climb trees, play torch tig (Americans: flashlight tag) and chase one another round the anti-tank pillboxes near the railway. My involvement in these outings ended in 1985; by the time I was 15, the appeal of bashing stinging nettles with sticks had begun to wane, and I was deemed old enough to look after myself on a Saturday night.
In August 1987, Michael Ryan, an unemployed 27-year-old local labourer, left home with an arsenal of high-powered weapons and embarked on an hour-long killing spree through Savernake Forest and the sidestreets of Hungerford. He killed 17 people before taking his own life. It was the first mass murder by a lone civilian in the UK (all prior atrocities were related to civil war or sectarian troubles). To the world, it was shocking. To someone who, while not having met Ryan or any of his victims, had nonetheless played in those fields, had trodden those streets, it was incomprehensible.
So for those who were wondering, that’s the reason why I’ve always taken a close interest in atrocities that, on the face of it, are none of my affair.
Ryan’s motives are not known. He left no note, and the only other person who might have offered some insight, his mother, was among those he killed. Speculation has centred on schizophrenia, his “unhealthy” relationship with his mother, the death of his father, an (unproven) obsessive interest in the Sylvester Stallone film First Blood and, of course, easy access to powerful weapons.
In this case, as with most mass shootings, the contributing factors were numerous and unique. So dashing off glib statements like “It’s the patriarchy, stupid” with barely a sideways glance at the facts is, in my opinion, deeply insulting to the memories of those who died.
I promised last time that I would attempt an alternative explanation of why so many of these slaughters are perpetrated by men (97%, or 94%, depending on your source); one that doesn’t involve “toxic notions of masculinity”. And I suggested that the culprit was not social constructions of masculinity, but masculinity itself.
Now, to elaborate. I wrote a few posts a while back about the differences between men and women, but to save you shlepping through all that, here’s a summary: men and women are broadly – to a remarkable degree, in fact, considering the sexual dimorphism in many other species, including some of our closest biological relatives – very similar. There are a few minor peculiarities of anatomy, brain architecture and chemistry, but when it comes to capabilities, on average, there’s barely a hair’s breadth between us. If you plucked out any one woman and any one man from the populace and tested them, the chances are they would score comparably on a whole range of attributes, from intelligence to religiosity to tolerance for soap.
But there is an important difference. Males of most species, including humans, display greater genetic variance than females.
If you score groups of men and women on almost any ability or character trait, the men’s results tend to be spread more widely than the women’s. Think back to your maths class: chances are one or two guys were streets ahead of everyone else – and that most of the lowest-scoring pupils were boys, too. The girls tended to bunch in the middle. And it’s true across a huge range of characteristics, from cognitive ability to promiscuity to sprinting speed.
(There’s no universal consensus on why this should be so, but some researchers have theorised that traits linked to genes on the X-chromosome in women are “averaged” across their two copies of X, while no such averaging is possible in men, since they have just the one X-chromosome.)
How do we know this phenomenon is genetic, and not cultural? Well, a cultural bias either favours one sex or it doesn’t. If nurture, not nature, was creating some difference between the two, we would expect men on average to score higher, or lower, than women (see graph below). A systematic bias cannot simultaneously make some men better than most women and also make some men worse than most women. The patriarchy can’t promote one sex and undermine it at the same time. The variance must be underlying.
So while most generalisations are nonsensical, if not utterly false (“All men [as individuals] are more intelligent than all women”, and “Men are, on average, more intelligent than women”), there’s one generalisation that’s true of the sexes as a whole: men are more varied than women.
I shall use my beloved graphs to illustrate.
The y-axis (up) represents the number of individuals with a certain score; the x-axis (across) the scores recorded. The actual attribute being measured here could be almost anything, but for the purposes of this argument, let’s say it’s niceness, or conscience, or emotional intelligence.
The area under the red curve includes all the women in the world; the area under the blue curve, all the men. As you can see, the overlap is huge, and the majority of individuals of both sexes fall between the same range of values. But as explained above, the red curve rises higher than the blue, because women are more “bunched in the middle”; on the flipside, the tail of the men’s curve extends further in both directions. The men’s scores are more widely distributed than the women’s.
(For comparison purposes, here’s the graph you’d expect if cultural factors were at work. If men and women were born equal, a systematic cultural bias would improve all the results of one sex, shifting their curve uniformly along the x-axis; remove that bias, and the curves would overlap perfectly. But the cultural theory is totally powerless to explain the pattern in the first graph.)
There’s been a lot of discussion about the upper end of the scale; how the fat and thin bell curves could explain why there have been no female world chess champions, and why women are so underrepresented in boardrooms and the top tiers of academia. The outliers, it has been argued – the extreme high achievers – are more likely to be men purely because men are more varied. There’s a good blogpost (by a woman) about the top end of the curve here.
But high flyers are not our concern. We’re interested in the losers in life’s lottery. Let’s zoom in on that left-hand corner.
Let’s assume that a minimum score for empathy (or social responsibility, or niceness, or whatever your chosen criterion) is required for you to be a decent, functioning, law-abiding member of society. Most of us are born with a high enough score that we’ll never be in danger of breaking the social contract and doing something horrific, no matter how shitty things get. Unfortunately, not everyone can be on the right or in the middle.
In the genetic lottery, we are all the result of several throws of the dice. It’s not that the dice are loaded differently for men and women, but that nature is rolling different dice.
The exact values aren’t important, but I’ll pick some (low) arbitrary ones to illustrate the point. In setting a woman’s score for a particular trait, nature throws, say, six six-sided dice, with values from 1 to 6. When creating a man’s score, it throws the same number of dice, with the same average score, but with a wider range of values – say, six eight-sided dice, with numbers from 0 to 7. If you repeat this process seven billion times, 3.5bn with the six-sided dice and 3.5bn with the eight-sider, you’ll end up with a large majority of individuals, both male and female, with scores somewhere between 16 and 26. But some of those sets of die rolls are going to produce very low numbers, and because of the different dice used, men can get a lower minimum score than women. A desperately unlucky man (here, it would be one in every 262,000 men – not far, by freakish coincidence, from the proportion of men who commit mass shootings) would score a flat zero. But the unluckiest of unlucky women, because of her “safer” dice, can’t possibly score lower than 6.
Hence, even though men are not (necessarily) any more violent or lacking in empathy than women on average, when it comes to extreme events such as mass shootings, men are more likely to be the culprits. It’s only the outliers – those very, very rare individuals, the majority of whom, because of greater variance in the male genome, happen to be male – who are capable of the unthinkable, the cowardly, the contemptible.
My guess is that the true explanation for the 97% figure is a hybrid one. I think there’s something in this bell-curve stuff; I think the role-model theory I talked about in my last post is worth looking into; I’m even willing to concede that “toxic notions of masculinity” might play a part. But citing them as the chief cause, without a blind bit of regard for the evidence, is not helping anyone. I have no doubt that the patriarchy is responsible for all manner of society’s evils; I just don’t think school shootings are especially high on the rap sheet.
We need to approach this problem like the many-headed hydra that it is. We need tighter gun controls, better mental healthcare, and quicker identification and remedial action for potentially antisocial individuals. We need more responsible coverage from the media, less airtime and less reverence for these pricks.
And yes, Jessica Valenti and Anita Sarkeesian, while we’re at it, we could also address toxic masculinity issues – relieve the interminable pressure on men to be the biggest, the fastest, the toughest, the richest, the best. But remember, harmful ideals of manliness are not the work of man alone. Women have done just as much to foster unhealthy expectations: women who want bad boys, women who write “Only real men need apply” on their internet dating profiles, women who want to “feel protected”, women who value wealth and status and confidence and risk-taking and strength. This is still a world, after all, where an 80-year-old mass murderer has no trouble procuring himself an attractive 26-year-old wife.
Men and women made this mess together; we must unmake it together.