by Jacqueline Acho and Eva Basilion
Maybe we do know something…
Remember when AIDS was still a mystery? In the early 1980s, people in the US were suddenly becoming sick and dying of a strange new illness. It was something we had never seen, and we were confused and afraid. By the time we started understanding the cause and how it is transmitted, AIDS had been declared an epidemic, beginning its decades-long course of widespread destruction.
Is something similar happening today? More and more people are dying from mass shootings, and we wonder why. With technology, the images come faster and more graphically now. Concertgoers in Las Vegas lying in pools of blood with their cowboy boots still on. First responders and caretakers doing the best they can. But 59 people are gone, one by his own hand, in the worst mass shooting in modern American history.
We might not expect such shootings in our backyard—if we don’t live in Newtown, Charlestown, Memphis, or any one of the towns across America that have witnessed the 1516 mass shootings (defined as four or more people shot in one incident) within the last 1765 days—or a mass shooting every 9 out of 10 days. It feels confusing because many of these perpetrators don’t fit the convenient political narrative of whom we’ve been told to fear. Yet these acts of violence are happening and getting worse; in 2017 alone there have been more mass shootings than days.
Could this be another epidemic? We believe it is. The age of the angry white male is here.
White male anger has been simmering for decades, and now it’s boiling over. There are other signs besides mass shootings. Statistics show white men are the only demographic now or across history to see their mortality increase—often by their own hand, whether holding a drink, a needle, a pill, or a gun. This is the white American male, king of the hill, by whom and for whom medicine was created in the first place. What is going on?
This new epidemic is not caused by a virus; it is caused by an emotional malady – an empathy deficit disorder. And it’s not a natural outcome for these men. Rather, it’s the function of a system that saps us of humanity and empathy, grooming homegrown terrorists. It’s not all men of course, but too many. Let’s examine what our system does to men.
- We urge men to go it alone, whether in the corporation, the community, or society. Our system is built around the myth of “survival of the fittest,” encouraging men to climb to the top of the pyramid for that prize of being #1. But empathy is a contact sport and isolation is the harshest form of punishment. So you can imagine what this does to men who have been leaning into the system for a very long time. Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock was disconnected from family and friends; even his longtime girlfriend had “no idea” he was planning to hurt anyone.
- Boys are cared for primarily by mothers, not fathers. There are two times in life when humans’ empathic capacity expands almost exponentially. Early childhood is the first. What would the world look like if more men did more caring? What would our little boys act like if they modeled men who had more time to listen, hug, and play? In Stephen’s case, it is possible that his empathy was truncated early. His dad was a bank robber, some say a psychopath, who disappeared when Stephen was 7. We might want to think that doesn’t affect a son, but we know that’s wishful thinking. Mom struggled to raise the kids but would have no way of knowing what it was like for a boy trying to become a man. The parental gift of empathy would have been in short supply to young Stephen.
- We devalue fatherhood. The second chance at growing our empathy muscles comes from parenting, especially of young children. Science is now proving what our grandmothers have always known: that parenting increases empathy in the brain. For those of us who didn’t get a chance to realize our empathy the first time around, a connection to our own children is a way of remembering that early love that ushered us into the world. We’ve boxed men out of this equation for generations. Stephen had no children and no chance.
To add insult to injury, as the world becomes more connected and relies less on command and control, the role of the patriarch is shrinking. By acting as both terrorist and savior, the patriarch can recreate meaning in a world that has moved on. The latest findings suggest that Paddock was planning his attack for a very, very long time. Creating the largest mass shooting in the history of the US had become his new job.
The rest of us are victims too, of course, but we are caught in the crossfire of the angry white man’s self-loathing. Of his lack of connectivity. Of his empathic impotence.
It’s a painful deficit, which we’re now feeling, but which we need to also recognize and name. Only then can we stop asking, “Why?” and actually do something about it.
Jacqueline Acho earned her Ph.D in organometallic chemistry from MIT and helps organizations support empathy through the Acho Group, a strategy and leadership consulting firm. She is a former partner of McKinsey & Company. Eva Basilion has a Master’s from the Harvard School of Public Health and is a former infectious disease epidemiologist. She advocates for children in many ways, including on the Board of the Hanna Perkins Center for Child Development. Together they write and speak about how lack of empathy manifests in a world of hurt at work and at home, including a forthcoming book The Currency of Empathy® – the Missing Link to Innovation and Inclusion. They love their husbands, son, fathers, family, male friends, and clients.
Thanks to Elizabeth Brown for her inspiration and edits on this post.
Picture credit: FBI Billboard