Children Who Might Commit School Shootings Are Not “Potential Sickos”

The issues of gun control and school shootings have been heavily conversed in the United States lately, so it shouldn’t be any surprise that Donald Trump weighed in with a number of tweets. The one that I want to focus on right now, however, reads as follows:

Now, there is a lot in this tweet that is concerning. The very concept of teachers being forced to carry guns is terrifying, and I genuinely hope that that never becomes a reality. But, at the same time, I think that this is the issue that the majority of people who read this tweet will focus on, and it is the issue that will be discussed more prominently. And there is something else in this tweet that I find terrifying, and worth discussion.

Namely, I want to talk about Trump’s repeated reference to shooters as ‘sickos’.

Now, before I get into this, I want to clarify something: anyone who commits a shooting has committed a terrible, sick act. They have taken innocent lives out of this world, and a very strong argument can be made that that is unforgivable. I am not trying to defend their choice to murder people, because that choice is indefensible.

What I am trying to say is that, especially lately, we have been talking more and more often about what causes people to commit shootings. And the general consensus seems to be that mental health tends to be to blame. Heck, even Donald Trump seems to be aware that mental health is involved in a person’s choice to take up a gun and murder others.

Now, the degree to which mental health is involved in gun violence is debatable. Only 14.8 percent of mass shooters in the United States are diagnosed as psychotic. People with mental illness contribute to roughly three to five percent of all violent crimes (most of which do not even involve guns), and when people with mental illness do use guns in a violent fashion, that violence is typically turned on themselves (in 2013, nearly two-thirds of gun-related deaths were suicides). So when we say that “gun violence is a mental health problem”, we need to remember that mentally ill people are not one gun away from murdering a whole bunch of people.

But there is a video that has been circulating around social media in the wake of this discussion that I would love to draw to your attention now.

This video is an open letter from Aaron Stark, and it bears the very intriguing title, “I was almost a school shooter”. In it, Stark talks about his experience in school, and how he had a “very chaotic and violent childhood”. He describes being bullied, and he describes how, as a result, “I got angry, and I started hiding weapons everywhere”. He states that, the only reason why he did not commit a shooting at his school was because he did not have access to a gun.

“People say mental health is the issue, and that’s true. My mental health was in sad shape. I was severely depressed and suicidal. I felt like I had nothing at all in life to look forward to, and so I literally had nothing to lose. When someone has nothing to lose, they can do anything, and that thought should be terrifying. So, yes, mental health was an issue. A bigger issue was love. I had a severe lack of love,” Stark says.

Mental health is not the only reason why gun violence happens. However, anyone who would be willing to take a human life is not a healthy person. These are people who are deeply pained, deeply rejected by their society, and, as Stark says, severely lacking in love.

These are the people who Trump is referring to as ‘sickos’.

And I’m not necessarily concerned for the men who have already committed shootings; that is an issue far too complicated for me to comment on. What I am concerned about is the young boy who is in pain, who is angry, who is in need of support and love so that he can avoid doing the terrible thing that he has been considering, and yet he is further alienated by his own president, who dismisses him as a potential sicko.

The language that we use when referring to people matters. And ‘sicko’ is a very dismissive word. ‘Sicko’ does not create room for discussion, and yet discussion is absolutely necessary for any young person who is considering this. ‘Sicko’ does not create room for love, and yet love is vital in avoiding this exact problem. ‘Sicko’ is the sort of word that discourages a young man from coming forward and talking about his feelings, because he doesn’t want to be dismissed as a ‘sicko’. So he doesn’t come forward. He just sits with it, and lets it fester. He allows it to progress, until the absolute unthinkable happens.

The truth is, it does not take a monster to do this sort of thing. All it takes is one lost, hurting, loveless child.

It bothers me to see the leader of a country use this sort of terminology, because it gives the rest of us an excuse to follow his lead. And we cannot do this. We cannot think in dismissive terms when it comes to other human beings. We cannot allow our horror of what might be to further doom other children who have not done it yet. These are children who need love and compassion and understanding, and if the president of the United States isn’t going to give it to them, then we need to make sure to give it to them. We need to be there to listen to people who need it. We need to be open-minded and non-judgemental when it comes to what they’re saying. We need to watch our language, and make sure that we are not alienating them further. Because that is so easy to do, when we are so used to doing it.

I am firmly of the opinion that creating stricter gun laws will help to fix this issue. This is something that we need to do; but at the same time, it will not make children stop feeling this way. It will only make them stop killing each other in such great numbers. This anger and this pain and this loneliness is not alright, and it leads to so many other problems – more than just school shootings. So we need to do something to fix it.

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Do No Harm, Not Even To Yourself

If you identify as a yogi, then chances are, you’re aware of the term ‘ahimsa’.

For those of you who aren’t aware, ahimsa is one of the five yamas, or the moral and ethical guidelines that yogis try to live by. And ahimsa specifically refers to this idea of doing no harm, or engaging in no violence.

Ahimsa can be translated in many different ways in our life.

In the specific scenario of practicing yoga, ahimsa can be utilized by listening to your body. You never push yourself beyond what you are capable of. You do not cause yourself injury, and if you think that you might, then you back off a bit and forgive yourself, in full knowledge that if you just keep practicing, then you will eventually be able to push further, much safer.

I have heard ahimsa utilized as an explanation for why someone is a vegan or vegetarian – because they do not want to cause harm to any living creature on this planet.

We might frequently think about ahimsa utilized when it comes to our relationships. Ahimsa is an explanation for why we should not try to hurt other people. Why we should refrain from violence, or from intentionally harming another person’s psyche.

Yet, there is another use of the word ‘ahimsa’, one that I think is vital for everyone, yogi or otherwise, and one that I think needs to come before we utilize ahimsa in our relationships.

We need to practice ahimsa for ourselves.

And I’m talking about a very similar concept to practicing ahimsa in yoga: whenever something isn’t benefiting us, when it is only going to harm us in the long run, then we need to learn when to back off. And, I know, this sounds like common sense to most of us, but I think that there are many factors – some external, some internal – that makes us frequently push ourselves too far for our own health.

Expectations, for example, can be a form of harm that we put on ourselves – whether these be the expectations that others have put on us, the expectations that we put on ourselves, or the expectations that we place on the world at large. When we are constantly striving to prove something, first and foremost, we have a tendency to do harm to ourselves in an attempt to reach that goal. We sacrifice mental health. We pick ourselves apart, creating deep insecurities and self-hatred. We hurt ourselves, without even meaning to.

And according to the practice of ahimsa, all of this is a sign that we need to back off a bit on our expectations. Ease up. Allow things to be as they are, all in the faith that someday, they will grow to become something better. But we will not grow if we are constantly causing ourselves harm.

And there are millions of ways that we cause ourselves harm, every day.

We cause ourselves harm by holding onto toxic relationships that no longer serve us.

We cause ourselves harm by demanding that we fit into a specific image – that we be strong and silent and selfless and beautiful.

We cause ourselves harm when we allow people to hurt us, all in the effort to avoid hurting them.

And as a woman who lives in a society that tells my gender that we should be self-sacrificing at any given turn, as a person who has struggled with depression and anxiety, as someone who has literally self-harmed and battled eating disorders, I am no stranger to doing harm to myself.

But by doing harm to myself, I began to learn just how important self-love is. Because if you cannot love yourself, then you cannot fight for yourself. You cannot stand up and tell people when they are treating you in a way that you do not deserve to be treated.

When you cannot love yourself, then that opens you up to a plethora of harmful behaviours. It might create judgement or jealousy, as you look down on others who have what you feel you lack. When you feel angry about who you are as a person, then you take that anger out on other people, even if they had nothing to do with it.

When you cannot love yourself, then you cannot properly give love to the world around you. And, likewise, when you cause harm to yourself, then you cause harm to the world around you. That is because love will always start with you.

Part of ahimsa, in all of its translations, is simply accepting who you are as a person. Accepting that you are limited, but that you possess the ability to grow if you give yourself the chance to do so. This is why we back off on yoga poses that might cause us harm. This is why we stop being so hard on ourselves and the way that we look, or the place that we are in in our daily lives. Just because we can’t do something today, that doesn’t mean that we won’t be able to tomorrow – all it means is that we have to give ourselves time and patience to get to that place, and if we hurt ourselves in the process, then we stunt that growth. And it is easy to give time and patience to other people, but it is rarely natural for us to give it to ourselves. And we need it. We need it if we are ever going to grow, and do some lasting good in the world and in our lives.

So, breathe. Forgive yourself for what you perceive to be your faults. Give yourself time and self-care and a cookie, if you need it. And remember: do no harm, not even to yourself.

This article is part of a series about the yamas. To read more, click here:

Satya

Asteya

Why We Can’t Let Hope Die In These Difficult Times

I don’t know if there has ever been a point in history where the world-wide news couldn’t be described as … depressing.

That isn’t to say that the world is a terrible and awful place. But terrible and awful things do happen in it all the damn time, and lately, I’ve personally found myself more deeply affected by it than usual.

And trust me, I’m usually affected by it. Outrage and desire for change are not unknown emotions for me. But, lately, a new emotion has been creeping up: hopelessness.

I have a few reasons for feeling this way. But as I don’t have all day to list them all, I’m only going to focus on one: the most recent shooting to occur in the United States.

It’s frustrating. It was frustrating from the moment I first heard about it on the news, because the way I see it, there are many countries that have proven one surefire way to avoid mass shootings by enforcing stricter gun laws, and yet the States simply refuses to do it. And because of that, people are still being murdered. Children are still being murdered. And I don’t understand. I don’t understand why the States seems to be engaging in this war on its own people. I don’t understand why the right to bear arms matters more than the right to live. I don’t understand, and I’m beginning to lose hope that this change will come about in the near future.

You might disagree with my view on this matter, but I’m not necessarily asking for you to agree with me. I’m only trying to explain where this hopelessness comes from.

And the reason why I am using this example to explain my hopelessness is because I recently watched a video posted to Facebook that featured a woman talking about this tragedy. In the beginning of the video, the woman echoes my own hopeless feelings, making such statements as, “Congress will do nothing to change this bloody course.” Yet, as the video continues, the sentiment begins to take a turn toward the optimistic, ending with such statements as, “Congress will not change, so we must change Congress.”

My initial reaction to this video was something akin to: “well, I agree with the first part, but the last part isn’t going to happen”.

How long has this been going on for? How many men, women, and children have already lost their lives, and received nothing but thoughts and prayers in return? We have gotten so accustomed to this endless cycle, of hearing about shootings, getting upset, demanding action, and then forgetting about it when action doesn’t come. Will we ever actually do anything different?

But the more that I thought about this video (and trust me, it stuck with me), the more that I realized that there was no other way that it could end but on a note of hope. And I don’t simply mean that in the sense that the video couldn’t gain traction on social media if it wasn’t hopeful: I mean it wouldn’t have served any purpose if it wasn’t hopeful.

If it ended where my recent thoughts have been ending, on this idea that change will never happen, then it would become a self-fulfilling prophesy: change would never happen. Nobody would be fighting. Because people don’t fight for things that they don’t imagine will ever happen. And if people aren’t fighting, then change will never happen. There will be no reason for it to happen.

Change won’t happen. People will continue to be murdered. It’s the same thing, every day, and we let it continue.

No, if there is any possibility of change in this world, it comes only from hope.

If you tell people that there’s a chance, then you open their minds to the possibility that you might be right. You make them see the possibilities. You make them want to fight to make it happen.

And maybe the steps we take are small, but they are still steps. Maybe the world isn’t made right in one day. Maybe there are still causalities along the way, and maybe that is a terrible tragedy. But an even worse tragedy would be to allow it to keep happen, to give the message to the world that this is alright. We accept this.

Because I don’t accept this. I can’t live with this. And from what I’ve seen of my community, I’m not alone in this thought process.

And it is very easy to lose hope in times like this. It’s very easy when you’re throwing yourself into the issue, full-force, motivated for the change and frustrated that you’re not seeing it. It’s very easy when you’re distanced from the issue, and you simply don’t understand why this is happening. It’s easy, but it’s also dangerous.

We need hope. Hope motivates action, and action motivates change. It just motivates change slowly. At a glacial speed, at times. But the small victories are still victories, and if nothing else is accomplished, keeping the fight going is at least a victory. Whenever you allow the fight to die, that is when the goal dies as well.

So whenever you are starting to feel hopeless, remember this: you are not alone in this. Even when it feels like you are surrounded by people who don’t understand, who aren’t listening, there are always going to be people in there who do understand. People who are afraid to speak up. People who need to find the courage to say something. And if you keep talking, if you keep fighting, you will eventually find these people. And together, you will be heard. You will create change.

Why Toxic Masculinity Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means

I’ve used the term ‘toxic masculinity’ now and again when discussing feminism, and I’m always slightly surprised by the reaction that I get.

It doesn’t seem to matter the context in which I use the term. It doesn’t seem to matter how much I explain what the term means. Every single time I bring it up, there is always at least one person who hears what I’m saying and they think that I mean that men are toxic. They assume that I am saying that men are all evil, and they are to blame for all the negative things that exist in this world.

Which isn’t what I mean. At all. Honestly, some of my best friends are men.

No? Not buying that blatant excuse? Okay, I guess I’ll have to explain a little further then.

So, in order to understand what I mean when I say ‘toxic masculinity’, you’re going to need to understand the feminist theory that gender is performative. First put forth by feminist scholar Judith Butler, this theory essentially states that gender is not what’s between your legs or what comes naturally to you as a human being – gender is a performance, and we are all given the script from infancy. And by the time that we’re adults, we are so accustomed to performing our parts that we don’t even realize we’re performing them anymore.

So a lot of the ways that we perform our gender – the way we dress, the things we say, the thoughts that cross our minds – they are all learned behaviour. Women aren’t more emotional by nature; women are perceived as more emotional because women are encouraged to discuss their feelings whereas men are discouraged from doing the same.

You may agree with this. You may not. But this is the theory that toxic masculinity rests on.

Because what the theory of toxic masculinity argues is that some of the behaviours that men are taught to engage in to prove their masculinity are, in fact, toxic.

And I don’t only mean toxic to other people – although it is certainly that. From a very young age, men are told that violence and domination are two surefire ways to prove that they are men. In our media, you are much more likely to see men solve their problems by punching them than by discussing them, and you are much more likely to see men respond to rejection with harassment than with genuine understanding. And this has contributed to a society where 99 percent of perpetrators of sexual violence are men. Men are also responsible for 98 percent of mass shootings and 90 percent of murders.

And women are not the only ones who are victimized by male violence (although that fact shouldn’t make you care any more or less about the fact that this is happening). Although one in four women will face domestic violence at some point in her life, 68 percent of homicide victims are men.

So, yeah, violence and domination is a real-life problem that affects all of us for the worst. And yet, that doesn’t seem to stop our media and our society from telling boys that violence and domination is one way to prove that you are a man.

But this is just one form of toxic behaviour that men might engage in to prove their masculinity. There are so many more.

For example, men are told from a young age that “real men don’t cry”. They’re told that nobody cares about their emotions, so “toughen up” and “be a man”. So, of course, to prove their masculinity, men will suppress their emotions and avoid talking about them. And perhaps because of this, depression in men goes woefully under diagnosed, despite the fact that men are four times more likely to die by suicide than women.

Men are also told from a young age that “real men” are “players” and “lady-killers”. They get all the women, all the time, and women love them. This contributes to this idea of women as conquests and trophies, yes, but it also contributes to this idea that a “real man” is heterosexual, and intensely interested in sex.

Men are told that “real men” have big penises, despite the fact that trans-men are not born with penises.

Men are told that “real men” are muscular, which contributes to poor body image for men who do not feel that they fit that image.

Men are told that “real men” are white – in fact, Asian-American men are frequently emasculated in our media.

This is what I am referring to when I say ‘toxic masculinity’. I am not saying that men are evil. I am not saying that men are toxic. I am saying that society has put in place certain methods by which men are expected to prove their masculinity, and many of these methods are toxic – to the men who do not live up to these expectations, to the men who do, and to everyone else around them.

And this is part of why I believe that it is important for us to talk about toxic masculinity, even despite the negative connotation that many have ascribed to the discussion. Because in recent news, we have had multiple movements that discuss some of the unfortunate side-effects of toxic masculinity, such as the #metoo movement and Bell Let’s Talk Day, but we haven’t been discussing the matter directly.

And if we are going to make some actual, lasting changes, we need to talk about it. We need to stop telling boys to bottle up their emotions, or to fix problems through violence. We as a society – men and women alike – need to change the definition of what a “real man” is, and we start by changing the way that we talk to men and boys about their masculinity.

Because there are so many ways to be a “real man”. Real men identify as men – that’s literally the end of it. And that means that real men do whatever the hell they want, so long as what they do doesn’t hurt others or themselves.

“Why Didn’t She Just Say No?”

“Why didn’t she just say no?”

I’ve heard this question come up, again and again, especially in the wake of the #metoo movement.

I’ve heard this question come up in response to the allegations against Aziz Ansari. A woman going by the name of Grace explained going on a date and engaging in a sexual encounter with him, which left her feeling ignored and violated. This story was quickly picked up by the #metoo movement as an example of rape culture, and has since faced plenty of criticism by people who think that this story devalues the #metoo movement.

After all, why didn’t she just say no?

And when this question is asked, I find myself going back to all those stories that I’ve heard about the women who did say no.

I think of Raelynn Vincent, who did not respond to a man when he began catcalling her. At this point, the man got out of his car and punched her in the face, breaking her jaw and her teeth.

I think of Lisa and Anna Trubnikova, who were both shot by Adrian Loya, Lisa’s coworker who became obsessed with her and began pursuing her romantically. When Lisa showed no interest in him, he murdered her and seriously wounded her wife, Anna.

I think of Mary Spears, who was shot and killed when she refused to give a man her phone number.

And, yes, I know that not all men will respond with violence to the word “no”, but that doesn’t erase the fact that we have all heard these stories. That doesn’t erase the fact that women are socialized to not say no to men, especially if they don’t know him all that well. Because it is an all-too common narrative for men to respond with violence, and no woman wants to be the one who says “no” to the wrong man.

But maybe that’s sexist of me, right? I mean, not all men beat women, and some would argue that it’s misandry for me to assume that he might. “Stop assuming that every man is a rapist,” they say, in the same breath that they blame my sisters for being raped because they should have taken precautions against it.

So let’s forget the threat of violence for a second. Let’s talk about the role of women.

“Why didn’t she just say no?”

Could she? Is that allowed? I honestly don’t know anymore.

Because if she says no, then she’s a friend-zoning bitch, isn’t she? She’s a tease who led him on. And, I mean, come on, he’s such a nice guy. But I guess women don’t like nice guys. They like bad boys, the ones who treat them poorly, the ones who ignore them when they say “no”, the ones who put them in their place. Those are the guys that really get the ladies, aren’t they? Or, at least, that’s what I hear.

When I was in elementary school, girls would be scolded by the teachers if she let the boys touch her, because what sort of message was she sending to him? Obviously, she wanted to be treated badly. But if she didn’t let the boys touch her, then, come on, it’s just a joke, don’t be so stuck-up, you need to relax a little bit!

When I was in high school, a girl friend of mine told me that if a boy spent any money on me while we were on a date, then I was obligated to sleep with him, whether I wanted it or not, because he expected it.

I guess what he expects is more important than what I want. I guess sex really isn’t about me at all, is it?

“Why didn’t she just say no?”

She couldn’t. Society has taken that word away from her. Society has made ‘no’ a dirty word, so we’ve invented other ways of saying it. Instead, we say, “I have a boyfriend”, because a man will respect another man before he’ll respect our freedom of choice. Instead, we say, “I have a headache,” because physical illness is the only appropriate reason to not want sex right now. Instead, we give out fake phone numbers and fake smiles and fake interest until we’re far enough away to be safe. Safe from violence. Safe from judgement. Safe from expectation.

“Why didn’t she just say no?”

Well, the thing is, she did. She said no with her body language, with her subtle little hints. She said no in all the ways that society has allowed her to say no – she said, “next time.” She said, “I don’t want to feel forced because then I’ll hate you, and I’d rather not hate you.” She tried to physically remove herself from the room, and she stopped moving when he touched her. But apparently, one would need to be a mind reader to notice all of that.

“Why didn’t she say no?”

But that isn’t quite the right question, is it? Instead of blaming her for not saying the word “no” precisely, we should ask why she didn’t feel comfortable saying no. We should ask how we can change our society so that women can say no directly, so that they don’t have to dance around the subject.

And we begin by listening for the word “no”, presented in all the forms that it comes. Because the absence of a direct “no” does not mean “yes”.