Thursday, April 25, 2024

Lack Of Societal Rites of Passage for Boys Is Fueling the Mass Shooting Epidemic, Says Filmmaker-Author Frederick Marx

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If we do not initiate the young, they will burn down the village to feel the heat.

(African proverb)

With an average of around two mass shootings a day in the US, it’s no doubt that the country is facing an epidemic of gun violence. There has been a long-running debate over gun control laws, but this addresses only one side of the equation. It is also important to look at the people who pull the triggers and address the social issues that lead them down an extremely destructive path.

Of all mass shootings since 1966, 95% of them have been perpetrated by males, and over a quarter have taken place in schools. Some perpetrators, such as those of the Columbine High School and the Jonesboro, Arkansas shootings, were in their teens or pre-teens. This has been a troubling trend for almost 25 years, and it’s impossible not to wonder what could lead young boys and men to commit such heinous acts.

There are many theories on what leads an adolescent male to open fire on innocent civilians – mental illness, easy access to firearms, violent shows, and video games, extremist ideologies promoting racism and misogyny, and copycat killings. While there are indeed links between these causes to mass shootings, they fail to completely explain the phenomenon. Author and Oscar-nominated filmmaker Frederick Marx points to a different underlying cause: that teen boys no longer have socially acceptable means of proving to the world that they’re men. This manifests in multiple destructive ways, with mass shootings being one of the most extreme. Other negative outlets include substance abuse, petty crime, gang violence, fraternity/sports hazing, and sexual assault.

According to Marx, in today’s industrialized society, boys are no longer initiated and mentored into young adulthood and maturity, in ways that prove to themselves and to the world that they are worthy. These rites of passage (ROP) demonstrate the boys’ toughness and courage, and that they deserve to be called a man, along with the associated privileges and responsibilities of adulthood. Marx’s book Rites To a Good Life delves into the importance and power of these ceremonial stages, in initiating the young into our communities.

“I strongly believe that, if our modern society had a way to initiate and mentor these boys, they would not pursue an extremely perverse but nonetheless logical form of initiation, which is committing mass murder. It’s their way to prove themselves as men, as a force to be feared and recognized.”

Most mass shooters are aware that their acts could likely lead to their death, and some even end their own lives before they are caught. Marx says that initiation is always about facing literal death, or at the very least, the fear of death.  The subsequent pain and vulnerability that initiates feel prove the initiate’s courage and their willingness to face death and extreme hardship – suitably preparing them for adult years that typically include suffering and adversity.

ROPs are broken down into three phases – separation, transition, and return. In many indigenous societies, this involves the first hunt, where the young boys leave the village, face the challenges and danger of slaying the beast, and, upon their return, they are celebrated by the village and conferred official status as adult men, which includes the responsibility of mentoring the next generation of boys.

Marx argues that adolescent boys have an innate drive to be seen and acknowledged as equals in the adult community, but modern Western society does not give them socially sanctioned ways to do so. Today’s markers, such as obtaining a driver’s license or voting for the first time, lack the rituals and ceremonies that provide the “truly transformational” power of initiation. Furthermore, religious rituals such as Bar Mitzvahs or Catholic confirmations have lost their previous potency, amid worsening consumerism and declining religious affiliation.

“These rituals no longer carry the initiatory and transformational potential that they used to have, because they’ve been co-opted by capitalist culture. They’ve become devoid of real meaning, and are now just blind ceremonies that kids think they have to go through in order to receive the material gifts that come along with the minimal inconveniences.”

According to Marx, the absence of significant ROPs means that there is no psychic transformation for boys, because no one sets them up psychologically to “die” to their adolescent self and be “reborn” into their new adult self. Also, the community’s adults rarely come together to celebrate someone transitioning into adulthood, leaving the person without a feeling of being transformed.  They must jettison the “me, me, me” thinking of childhood and adolescence, in order to transition into a fundamental marker of adulthood: “us, us, us.”

To combat a growing sense of isolation among adolescent boys, especially since the Covid years, Marx proposes communities come up with culturally relevant ROPs that embody the community’s values and genuinely celebrate the person’s passage into adulthood. There should also be sustained intergenerational exchange of knowledge, with elders mentoring the youngsters, while the youngsters inspire the elders with their creativity and energy.

“Most teens don’t have the full capacity to appreciate human life, because their brains are not yet fully developed. This could lead them into taking others’ and their own lives lightly, which may manifest in mass shootings. ROPs help teens develop a greater sense of community, and a sense of being part of a whole that is bigger than themselves. They also don’t understand the limits and the capacities of their own bodies and their own mortality. It doesn’t need to be a literal brush with death, but there has to be a metaphorical one, so that initiates feel like they’re frail and vulnerable. This will help fuel the transformation and cement in their memory a physiologically felt sense of the importance of human life,” Marx says.

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