Antoinette Tuff performed miracles on that crucial day at an Atlanta area charter school. Talking an obviously distressed and irrational young man down from what would most assuredly be another catastrophe of America’s young children at the hands of a man with mass casualty weapons. Listening to the 9-1-1 recording and her interview with Anderson Cooper, the nation saw just how close these school officials and students escaped tragedy. And even more astounding is that neither Antoinette herself nor the intended shooter lost their lives. It was indeed a miracle. But what touched many of us through this ordeal was exactly how Ms. Tuff handled the situation. She did not use special operations 101 or psychological training in crisis management, nor did she fight violence with more violence to defuse the situation. She used the principle of love to save lives. Tuff was able to connect in that brief moment with the shooter, conveying to the young man that he mattered in the world and was loved. Where others had likely failed to convince him otherwise, Tuff got through. She penetrated the man’s soul, and by that, the plan was averted and the nation was spared.
We are in the midst of a national crisis—a fight to recover the souls of young men lost, caught in the throws of a self-deprecating patriarchy and its stratified emphasis on race, class and gender. These particular interlocking social constructions of a manufactured reality have not served the emotional well-being of our young men especially well. If you are a young man in our society and you are black, mentally ill, poor, homosexual, or emotionally traumatized from early childhood experiences (whether it be from a fractured home or abuse)—you are among those at greatest risk of killing or being killed. We care very little about those who are outside the norm of white, middle-class, mentally/emotionally healthy, heterosexual males. And yet we emphasize that their masculinity is of utmost importance.
Our society places emphasis on masculinizing male children by withholding affection (in comparison to females), consigning to them gender-appropriate toys, and communicating calculated signs of “appropriate” forms and displays of affection. This image of masculinity is only hastened by the over-exposure of violence to our culture (and young men), which reaffirms their image-conscious masculine identities. In other words, what it means to be a man is further manufactured by media outlets including Hollywood films, sports broadcasting, hunting & fishing shows, and video games—all which commodify maleness, branding it for profit.
Interestingly, we expect our children to decipher and understand the difference between “good” violence (hunting, defending the country in times of war, sport shooting, etc.) from that of “bad” violence. This task is difficult enough by loving, informed and concerned caregivers . Without positive and influential role models, these young men not only lack the ability to categorize violence, but they also lack effective coping strategies.
These same young males who emerge with little guidance, are the same ones who believe in their mind that (whether real or imagined) they matter very little in the world and often feel left out and left behind, particularly young men of color (our most vulnerable resource). This can evoke the deepest sense of pain, driving many young people to make life-altering decisions with dire consequences. Enveloped within our nation’s narcissism, we pretend that human conflict found in the popular saying “sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me” cannot hurt as bad as physical pain. We now know this could not be further from the truth. It matters greatly that we humans feel loved, affirmed and empowered in ways that allow us to flourish in productive ways rather than destructive ones.
These “random” acts of violence are not entirely individualistic actions and maybe not so random after all; they were created and maintained due to our unapologetically and grossly unequal society, predicated on the status hierarchy of white over black, male over female, Christian over non-Christian, and wealth over poverty. The inequality in our country serves to make these men feel emasculated as they often relate manhood to material objects like cars, ostentatious jewelry, neighborhoods, shoes and women, which may explain why disrespect, humiliation and shame are often triggers of violent acts.
When men of all stripes do not have an equal voice, they have few options. Between our emphasis on patriarchy and our skewed definition of masculinity combined with our lack of direction for these souls, it is no wonder they turned to destructively violent means when they feel unheard or threatened. Many turn to affirming themselves by “being a man” and resorting to violence, chaos and self-destruction. Others who feel unheard, make the world see them through a horrific and monumental event. Either way, the lack of positive, self-worth-promoting entities in a patriarchal society make the affirmation of self through violence all the more likely.
Antoinette Tuff accomplished something that few others could have done. She was able to divert another potential Sandy Hook and national tragedy by showing genuine concern and love for the shooter. (That is not to say that anyone could have reasoned with the other mentally ill individuals who have killed our children and loved ones in other mass shootings. I wonder if the strong souls who lost their lives were even given a chance to do so. But in this case, one person was given a chance—and it was the right person.) She practiced the convictions of her faith in Jesus who taught his followers to love our enemies; she was able to affirm to Brandon Hill that he mattered in the world. She let him know that he was loved. And she meant every word.
Dr. Darron Smith is an assistant professor in the Department of Physician Assistant Studies at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. Follow him on twitter @drdarronsmith.