Fifteen Minutes of Feminism

64. Fifteen Minutes of Feminism: Confronting Systemic Male Violence As Kids Return to School (with Jackson Katz)


September 7, 2022

With Guests:

Jackson Katz is a scholar and activist working on issues of gender, race and violence. He is co-founder of Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP), as well as the author of two acclaimed books and creator of the award-winning Tough Guise educational documentary series.

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In this Episode:

In this episode, we consider the American landscape as children go back to school.  As mass shootings devastate communities across the country, parents are packing bulletproof protection in their children’s backpacks and sending them to school with lessons on how to survive a mass shooting. Jackson Katz joins Dr. Michele Goodwin to discuss the complicated issues at the heart of this crisis including questions related to masculinity, why mass shootings are overwhelmingly committed by men, and the implications in light of the rise in white supremacy in the United States.

Background reading:


00:00:12 Michele Goodwin:

Welcome to “15 Minutes of Feminism,” part of our “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin” at Ms. magazine platform. As you know, we report, rebel and tell it just like it is, and we’re gearing up for a new school year, and there are real questions about what children are going to confront in terms of violence in the wake of Uvalde, in the wake of Buffalo, in the wake of Indianapolis. We could go all across the country and name spaces where people are scared. They’re terrified about the possibility of their children, their family members confronting gun violence, and really it’s beyond just that, isn’t it? This is exactly what Jackson Katz is going to talk with us about. 

Dr. Katz is an educator, author, lecturer, friend to us at Ms. magazine and a social theorist who is internationally renowned for his pioneering scholarship and activism on issues of gender, race and violence. He has long been a major figure and thought leader in the growing global movement of men working to promote gender equality and prevent gender violence. I couldn’t be more pleased to have him on this episode. 

It’s such a pleasure to have you back with me on the show, Jackson. Thank you so much for joining us as we are thinking about back to school at a time in which there is just such toxic masculinity that we’ve seen in the Uvalde shooting. We’ve seen that in so many instances, in Buffalo, across the country, right. We could just name state by state, city by city, but parents are sending their kids back to school with protective armor in their backpacks. 

00:02:06 Jackson Katz:

Yeah. What a time we live in, and what a time for young people to be growing up and the normalization of certain kinds of violence basically, the way that violence is just a part of … and the fear of violence. By the way, it’s true that other categories of people and groups of people have been dealing with the fear of violence. If you live in communities in the United States that have high levels of gun violence, not necessarily school shootings but gun violence, this is not a new concern, right. But for a lot of white middle class families who are sending their kids to schools in the suburbs or whatever, even in colleges and universities, who have had an expectation. Again, I know that it’s not fair that it’s disproportionate, impacts burden the people in impoverished communities, communities of color often have these issues that have been longstanding, and now a lot of white middle class families are dealing with some. Again, there’s some overlap and there’s some differences. 

It’s kind of pathetic that it’s become so normalized in every different community in the different ways that it manifests itself. Let’s be honest, the vast majority of violence in our society, interpersonal violence is done by men against women, men against other men, men against people who aren’t women or men, in other words beyond the binary.

The issue really is what is going on with men? Why do so many men use violence in various ways?

Let’s be honest, I mean your opening sort of question invoked the gun culture, and we have this crazy gun culture in the United States. The carnage, the millions of people literally who have been either murdered or injured over the past 40 or 50 years is just astounding. It’s astounding how normalized it’s become. And yet, by the way, last thing, it’s amazing how so few people in the mainstream conversation are willing to say out loud that it’s men committing the overwhelming majority of that violence. 

It’s like I feel like I’m the kid in The Emperor Has No Clothes. I mean I’m not the only one, but I’ve been doing this work for a long time trying to say, let’s have an honest conversation about masculinity and masculinities. Why are so many men using violence? There’s a reason why men use violence and why a tiny fraction of violence, especially gun violence, is done by women. It’s a gendered reason. And feminist theorists and activists and others have been talking about this for decades, but getting into the mainstream conversation has been an incredible uphill climb

00:04:42 Michele Goodwin:

So, I’m wondering about why that is, and I’m going to get to that question. I really appreciate this opening. So what is toxic masculinity? Because some people might be saying that just sounds like hating men. This toxic masculinity stuff. So, help our listeners and others understand what you mean by toxic masculinity. 

00:05:04 Jackson Katz:

Well, to be honest with you, Michele, I don’t use the term toxic masculinity. I’ll answer your question, and I think it’s an important conversation, but men like myself and others who do the work that we do working with men and young men, and I work with everybody, not just men.

I never use the term toxic masculinity. I don’t think it’s a useful term. I’ll tell you there’s many reasons, and I know for the sake of brevity I’ll just give you a couple key ones.

Toxic masculinity, to me, is almost internally contradictory because toxicity suggests an organic substance, a poison invading an organic substance. But masculinity is a social construct. It’s a political construct. It’s based in structures of power both in the family and in the community and in other institutions. 

So, thinking about a toxic poison agent on the one side and a social construct on the other—those are two different things.

The other thing is, when we use the word toxic masculinity, people often think of the individual: his toxic masculinity. There’s something wrong with his wiring. He’s an abusive guy or his behavior, his characteristics are somehow problematic.

My argument is this is not about individual pathology. This is a structural problem. It’s like saying racism is an individual, toxic racism. It’s like racism is a structural problem. Individuals manifest that and they should be held accountable for their behavior, just like men are individually representative of a larger systemic force, but they should be held accountable for their individual behavior. So, that’s one of the reasons why I have a problem with the word toxic masculinity.

The other is just that I do think it’s a shut down word. I think a lot of men hear the word as a criticism of their very essence of their “manhood”, and you could say that’s not true. We’re just talking about the bad behavior, but I think if the goal is bringing men into the conversation, as Loretta Ross says, calling them in rather than calling them out. 

00:07:09 Michele Goodwin:

Yeah. She’s been doing real work in that space saying that we need to revisit the whole cancellation culture. 

00:07:15 Jackson Katz:

Yes. If you don’t want men to shut down, if you want them to be engaged in the conversation, beginning with a term that is somewhat alienating to a lot of men doesn’t work. By the way, the men who are comfortable with the term toxic masculinity, generally speaking are already there in a sense. I mean in other words they’re already supportive of the general feminist understanding of the world and gender justice and fairness. They’re not the problem. I mean I’m not saying that everybody, including myself has got it all figured out and is in any way perfect. I’m just saying, if we want to expand the scope of our ideas and the reach of our ideas we have to be reaching— 

00:07:56 Michele Goodwin:

—then language really matters. All right. So, with that then, what do you think then as the term is used, what are people trying to say by using that term and then why, substantively, haven’t these issues been covered in mainstream media? 

00:08:13 Jackson Katz:

I mean I think what people really generally refer to when they say toxic masculinity is abusive behavior of some kind, whether it’s sexual entitlement or aggressive behavior or violence. When it’s uncalled for or performative violence or dominance. It could be everything from mansplaining to shooting up a school but it’s, generally speaking, referred to as bad behavior that in the engagement and by men or young men that is in someway connected to a gendered understanding of manhood. 

I think one of the reasons for the resistance to talking honestly about men and violence is it’s similar to white people being resistant to talking about racism. It’s like, It’s not me. Oh, yes, I see it’s a problem but I’m a good person and I’m not racist and I don’t act in racist ways.

I think a lot of men get defensive just like a lot of white people get defensive around discussions about racism because we’re talking about larger systemic forces rather than just individual failings. 

00:09:20 Michele Goodwin:

So, you’re really one of the leading experts in the world studying in this space. I’m wondering then how people come to understand its reach because you’re right. Some people may reduce this to it’s the one off, it’s the one individual who was upset that his girlfriend dumped him or said goodbye, and then he shot a few people. Or it is the one guy who’s upset about something and then shoots people at a grocery store in Buffalo.

But you’re suggesting that really this is something deeper, it’s been part of a culture. It’s been part of the kind of sociology of how we’ve grown up as a country. So, you’re basically suggesting that it’s almost everywhere, is that right? What’s the reach? I mean is it just the laypeople, or would you say that this kind of culture that we have extends broadly, even in the institutions that are supposed to protect us from, perhaps, things like this. 

00:10:25 Jackson Katz:

Yeah. I mean it’s all that and more. This is a big issue in our species and it has been for a long, long time. I mean think about it this way, Michele, again, as you know and we’re doing our best to get some important issues out but it’s so much bigger.

I would say violence is not an end unto itself. It’s a means to an end. People use violence for a reason. They’re trying to get something. They’re trying to perform a certain kind of manhood, if you will. They’re trying to gain or maintain control in a relationship. In some cases, they’re resisting the imposition of violence against them or control against them so they’re reactively using violence. But violence always has to be understood as a means to an end.

The question becomes then: Why are so many men and young men feeling like they need to use violence to get something? What are they trying to get?

00:11:21 Michele Goodwin:

Yes, why? What are they trying to get? 

00:11:26 Jackson Katz:

Well, in a large part of the equation, again, I’m not totalizing this but it’s respect. They want to feel like they’re being validated as men, they’re being successful as men, and if they can’t get what they want through nonviolent means they’re going to take it through violent means. And by the way, this is true of interpersonal relationships. When men in a heterosexual relationship are abusive to their wife or their girlfriend it’s often, if not always, about using violence to get something from her, to gain compliance, to punish her for transgressing against his authority. It’s not just, it comes out of nowhere. This is, by the way, very similar to the insurrection. 

00:12:07 Michele Goodwin:

I was just thinking about that, Jackson. This is January 6. I’m imagining it as you’re speaking. 

A man waves a “Come and Take It” flag from the stairs of the U.S. Capitol after breaking a police line as protesters and supporters of Donald Trump gather outside the building on Jan. 6, 2021. (Joseph Prezioso / AFP via Getty Images)

00:12:12 Jackson Katz:

That’s right. The rightwing and largely white but not exclusively but overwhelmingly men but not exclusively. White men who couldn’t get what they wanted, which is the reelection of Donald Trump through democratic means, they’re going to take it by force, which by the way, this is all happening at the microlevel in relationships, at the macrolevel in politics. 

00:12:33 Michele Goodwin:

Oh, my gosh, this is really chilling but you’re right because that was what was coming to mind for me, and it’s even in the backdrop of discourse today already being queued up about the investigation of the former president, about the search of Mar-a-Lago. So much.

Look, this is part of our 15 Minutes of Feminism platform, and I could go on for hours with you on this, but I do want to turn back to … before I let you go, I want to turn back to this question about what are parents to do in light of this culture? You have parents who have sons and daughters, but their sons, they may be very concerned about their sons. There’s one thing to have the values in the household, but I think from prior conversations that we’ve had, you’ve got to be concerned about what kind of online resources your kids have access to. You might be rearing your kid in one way in the home, but your kid is getting access to something totally different on social media. How do we address that as we go back to school this year? 

00:13:45 Jackson Katz:

Oh, my goodness. I mean it’s a great question and I have a son in college. I mean, wow, how do you summarize this?

Let me put it this way, I think we need to redefine strength in men. So, I think a big part of what a lot of young men want is to be strong or to be seen as strong, and yet all the models … many of the models that they hear of “masculine strength” are these cartoonish ideas of strength that do not meet the moment in the 21st century. To say the least, they cause huge problems in terms of heterosexual men’s interaction with women because a lot of these women want to be treated with respect and dignity for obvious reasons. And yet a lot of men are hearing from the Andrew Tates of the world and other influencers on social media, as well as the former president and his followers, politically and otherwise, they hear that being a man means you’re powerful physically, you don’t take stuff from anybody, you never back down when you’re in a fight or an argument. It’s like all these really cartoonish, and I would argue, self-defeating ways of thinking about manhood. 

If parents can help their sons thing about being strong is not just about physical strength. It’s about moral courage. It’s about taking risks. It’s about speaking up when you see injustice. Even if people in the moment criticize you, like your friends at a party and they’re doing something that you think is uncool and you figure out a way to say that’s not cool. We shouldn’t be doing this. That’s an exhibition of your strength and your character. It’s not about weakness, even if in the moment it might cause some awkward interaction with your fellow men. 

Can I also say one other thing, Michele, before our time? 

00:15:25 Michele Goodwin:

Yes. Yes.

00:15:27 Jackson Katz:

We need more men who have the guts to speak out about abortion rights and about the threats, not just the threats, the actual diminution of women, especially women’s basic fundamental bodily autonomy. There’s an awful lot of men who agree that it’s wrong and that the country is going backwards, but I think those men have to find a stronger voice.

I know that a lot of men are filled with anxiety about that, which I appreciate, because it is women’s leadership that is in the multiracial, multiethnic sense that is driving the reproductive justice movement. But men have an incredibly important role to play both personally and politically. I think that we need to get over, some of us, have to get over our anxieties and just start speaking but because we need more men in the public conversation. Not just in private supporting women and others who can get pregnant. We need more men publicly saying, This is not okay. We are going to stand with these women and we’re going to stand with our brothers as well and say this is fundamental issues of justice and fairness and equality. We’re not going back, and we’re not going to allow women to just stand alone in struggling with that issue, or any number of other issues. 

So, I would say to men, especially men who are influential, whether in their families but in their communities and their workplaces, we need more leadership from men. We need more adult men’s leadership. If we want to have boys and young men who are rising to the occasion of the 21st century, we need adult men who are modeling that for those boys because the pressure on young guys like high school students and college students, they’re in adolescence and late adolescence and the intense pressure on them to conform can be overwhelming. It eases their burden a little bit if they see powerful adult men saying this and modeling it for the young men. 

00:17:19 Michele Goodwin:

Well, with that, Jackson, I want to thank you for joining us for this episode of “15 Minutes of Feminism,” counted in our own feminist time. I am so hopeful that you are going to come back and join us again. I really enjoy being in conversation with you. 

00:17:39 Jackson Katz:

Likewise, Michele. I love your activism and it’s an honor and pleasure to be in dialogue with you. Thank you. 

00:17:49 Michele Goodwin:

Guests and listeners, that’s it for today’s episode of 15 Minutes of Feminism, part of our “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin” at Ms. magazine platform. I want to thank my guest Dr. Jackson Katz for joining us for a very critical, important, urgent conversation about matters involving male violence, systemic male violence. What many people are describing as toxic masculinity but which he urges us to rethink. I want to thank you, our listeners. I thank you for tuning in for the fully story. We hope that you’ll join us again for our next episode where you know we’ll be reporting, rebelling, and telling it just like it is. 

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This has been your host, Michele Goodwin reporting, rebelling, and telling it just like it is. “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin” is a Ms. magazine joint production. Michele Goodwin and Kathy Spillar are our executive producers. Our producers for this episode are Roxy Szal, Oliver Haug, and joining us now, Allison Whelan and as well our new social media content producer, Sophia Panigrahi. The creative vision behind our work includes art and design by Brandi Phipps, editing by Will Alvarez, and Natalie Holland and music by Chris J. Lee.