Uncivil Discourse: On Being Called a C-Word

I’ve been receiving a lot of “incoming” about yesterday’s TIME.com column, which, by the way, was picked up by Andrew Sullivan – who totally agrees with me - here.

I’ve posted a few of the more tame responses in the comments section but I do draw the line at anonymous strangers calling me a cunt. (I also refuse to spell it, ‘c-nt’ as if I, not the hostile anonymous stranger, am the one with something to hide.) Those threatening, hostile responses went straight to my spam filter.

I care deeply about young men and the problem of violence, so I want to give myself another chance to make my thoughts clear. Here’s my omnibus response:

Dear Men Who Have Sent Emails To Me, Calling Me a Cunt and/or:

  • Men Who Called Me a Moron
  • Men Who Said I Hate Men
  • Men (and Women) Who Think I am Incredibly “Irresponsible” and/or Writing “Fluff”, “Bullshit” etc.
  • Men Who Said I Deserve to Die
  • Men Who Have Totally Twisted or Contradicted My Actual Words,
  • and Others who are mad at me about yesterday’s TIME.com column, including women who may also be mad at me but from whom I did not receive openly hostile/repulsive emails:

So, to all you folks: I’m wondering where, exactly, did I say anything about women never being violent? Where did I say that all men are violent, or even that all men are potentially violent? Where did I say that all men are programmed to be murderers? Where did I write that I think men should be castrated or “culled?”

I said there are, of course, rare female serial killers. “Rare” is the operational word. I also said america’s worst “mass murders” (which are different than serial murders) were committed by men. I gave links to these data, and linked also to publicly available and accurate data from the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI. To repeat: 90 percent of murders are committed by men, and nearly 80% of murder victims are male.

I called this fact — the “overwhelming maleness” of murder — a public health crisis that we are refusing to examine as we would any other public health problem: by looking at possible risk factors.  A risk factor doesn’t MAKE someone ill or make someone commit murder. It is a variable that puts someone at elevated risk for a bad outcome. For example, swimming in the ocean near a colony of seals is a risk factor for being eaten by a Great White shark. Does that mean that many or most swimmers will be eaten by a Great White Shark? No. But it’s important to know this fact because then we can place warnings about where swimmers should safely swim. We can hire spotter planes to survey the water from a distance and update the public about shark sightings. We can track sharks with electronic devices. We can even close beaches occasionally or cordon off special swimming areas for extra monitoring.

Violence, unlike shark attacks, is incredibly common. Yet we expect authorities to take shark attack threats, and other low-probability threats, seriously. We should do even more to prevent violence. While violent homicide has declined in recent decades, it still destroys lives (not only the victims but their families and even the lives of the perpetrators) far more often than it should. And it disproportionately harms YOUNG MEN. A lot of the commenters seem perfectly happy to accept this unacceptable fact as a by-product of being male.

Why would we do that when we have alternatives we’ve not fully explored? For example, if we know — as we do – that being a young man (and, especially,  being a young black man) is a “risk factor” for killing or being killed by another human being, we can pay more attention to the stresses and challenges of making the transition from boyhood to adulthood. At the top of my list would be creating more programs to screen and treat mental health problems, job training, prison reform, mentorship programs, improved educational opportunities etc. As I mentioned in my piece, the ancient initiation rituals for young men have largely fallen away, except in a few religious communties. We should bring back these time-tested ways to channel men’s strength and fearlessness into socially acceptable venues rather than into violence.

What I can’t understand is why anyone would not want to do this? Why would we want to keep putting our heads in the sand? Because “not all” men are violent? Well, “not all” people get childhood leukemia either. But by focusing on the unique features of childhood leukemia, scientists have  been able to dramatically increase the life expectancy of kids with cancer. We could do the same with violence if we stopped being so utterly juvenile about what it means to make epidemiological, evidence-based observations. “Not all” women get anorexia or develop migraines or osteoporois. But being a woman puts a person at greater risk for these problems and not studying them along these lines is irresponsible and idiotic.

By understanding risk factors such as the sex disparity in violence, we can work harder to prevent terrible occurences that we might otherwise consider random or inevitable. That was my point. Plain and simple.

Many of my commenters, here, at TIME.com, at CNN, and in my personal email inbox (where I have been called a cunt several times today) have chosen to be aggrieved rather than listen openly to my words. I don’t hate men; I am a proud mother of young-adult sons and am happily married to a great guy (who’s got a hefty dose of testosterone.) Am I remotely suggesting that all men are violent or potentially violent? Come on! Certainly not. What I said is the truth: being a man is a risk factor for being both a murderer and a victim. How is this not worthy of concern, investigation, and intervention?

We need to support young men at risk for violence more effectively, give them more opportunities to grow to be good men. Would more intervention have saved these poor souls in Colorado? We don’t know, and probably never will. But we can learn from these devastating experiences and other homicides that are disproportionately perpetrated by men. I gave the example of depression in young men. It often (not always) looks different than in young women, with more suicide and more violence. Why on earth should we be silent about something about which a better understanding might prevent lives? Some have accused me of wanting to castrate or “cull” men etc. Honestly, people? Grow up. Those kind of knee jerk angry and absurd statements are the easy response to a tough, tragic problem our society is unwilling or unable to confront.

About ErikaChristakis

Yale Lecturer in early childhood education/Licensed teacher/Former preschool director and Harvard College house master/some-time journalist. In possession of: unmarketable bachelor’s degree (Harvard, anthropology), semi-marketable graduate degrees (public health, education…). Rewarding career at the intersection of family, society, and schools (including long stint in parenting vortex). Forging a new path to connect all of the above.
This entry was posted in My story, Public Policy, Women-related. Bookmark the permalink.

40 Responses to Uncivil Discourse: On Being Called a C-Word

  1. Jeffrey Palermo says:

    I have to admit, after reading the title, I was probably one of the people at least THINKING cunt. However after actually reading your article and your response here, I couldn’t agree more. Your article was well thought out, accurate, and (as always with important issues) hits close to home. I’m sure you don’t need this short validation from me, but I always like to comment when I see something that I would like to see more of.

  2. Thank you very much for your honest and thoughtful reply. Much appreciated!

    • Dear Erica: I am so sorry for this and this is so hurtful for me to read. I deplore our society these days. I just do. In our day we respectfully disagreed. Then we had pie and coffee and kissed each other and went home with, “see you next week?” I wish we could get back to my grandparents time. Those were good days. You did not deserve any of those words. I think you have a good heart for the poor. I noticed your last name. Are you Greek? Do you still attend Church? I do. I am Roman Catholic and I go to a lovely church in Vancouver, B.C. with a lovely Philippino priest. I grew up in Seattle, Wa with lovely people of all colors and ethnicities: Lebanese, Hispanic, Philippino, Irish and so forth. The 60s and 70s were groovy times. I went to an integrated Caucasian and African American High school. I learned a lot there. I took gym glass with African American girls. We are all the same under our clothes and athletics are a great equalizer. Cheers and Blesings. Liz+

  3. dpops@gpops.net says:

    cunt.

  4. gammitts says:

    Perhaps it’s the perceived audacity of a woman actually trying to understand and help men that has angered these people. Powerful groups become freightened when they are perceived as weak or problematic and they can present with a nasty backlash. This situation reminds me of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the audacity of a black man to feel sympathy for a white woman! Let’s get him!

    • I agree. A strong woman with strong opinions always gets knocked down like this. I have been called worse. I have grown a thick hide like an alligator. But, I try to keep my heart soft. Hard to do in these times.

  5. Chris Cherry says:

    Mass murders, spree killers and serial killers are such a statistically small group that you really can’t even conclude they are primarily male. The total number of murders where the perpetrator’s sex is unknown + the total number of murders where the perpetrator is female well exceeds the number of murders where the perpetrator is known to be male. Translating that to the number of people who have killed more than four people in their lifetime there is probably as much evidence to support the hypothesis that women commit *more* serial/spree killings than men, but are far better at not getting caught as there is to them being exclusively male.
    Since prior violent offenses actually counter-indicates someone likely to commit a serial/spree/mass murder, you can draw no conclusions between violent crime statistical demographics and the demographics of serial/spree/mass murderers. Run this by anyone in the math department at Harvard. Simply put, there is no evidence to support or disprove your claim, so your claim must be assumed untrue.
    That said, it’s true that violent crime in the United States is a genuine public policy concern and is certainly worthy of great debate. The problem is, there is so much political and personal risk to honestly discussing such topics that I am not at all confident it can be debated honestly and openly.

  6. Peter J. Pawlak Jr. says:

    Hi Erika,
    My main thought when I read your article was that the point was obvious. Clearly, men are different than women in many ways, including that they are more prone to violence. So I was originally mystified about the purpose of your article. I now realize that you are really pointing out something that many today do not like to discuss or admit, namely that men and women are different. That doesn’t mean they are not equal, but humans can be equal and different. Many in society today are ‘violently’ opposed to having such discussions.
    I think that your point might have been better received by some if you had also pointed out the ways in which young men help society because of their ‘more aggressive’ tendencies. For example, the vast number of military, law enforcement, and fire&rescue are younger men. (Or that many men feel compelled to protect others–like in the example of guys covering their girlfriends in the Colorado massacre.)
    I like your point that we should look to help boys transition to men, or key an eye out for those who need a little extra help. You noted history in your article, and I believe that in our rush to make everyone ‘equal’ by eliminating any differences, we have lost some outlooks that have served societies well in the past.

    Best regards,
    Pete

  7. Carolyn in Baltimore says:

    I thank you for your article. The thought in my mind reading it was ‘brave woman’ and right on!’. The next step in looking at risk factors is seeking causes – like male culture where admitting weakness or depression is not allowed, where lashing out in anger is seen as a viable response to frustration. It strikes me a funny to think often the solution to acting out male adolescents is to immerse them in more male culture: Big Brothers, scouting, the Army.

    Thanks for bringing up the topic in a way that will be noticed.

  8. Honest Dan says:

    This is a great article. Can you write about other similar situations too? You could title it: “The overwhelming blackness of violent crime”. Just like you did in this article, you can write about how it keeps happening, but nothing is done to change the situation or affect the young black adults before they go out to commit a crime that they are 8x more likely to commit than a white person.
    There is plenty of statistical data (way more data on this than on what you wrote about in your maleness article) on this which would be great to back up the article.

    It would be a great thing for society to bring this issue to the front page of Time and CNN. I thought there could be a profiling issue, but since it is fine to profile men vs women, I see no reason why you wouldn’t be able to profile blacks vs whites.

    Give it a whirl- I’ll be checking daily to see if you ‘man up’ (or woman up) and confront that way more threatening issue.

    Thanks!

    • Dear Honest Dan,
      If I thought you were being ‘honest’ and not trying to stir up trouble, I might – as you suggest – “give it a whirl.” In fact, I DID mention very openly in my column that young black men between the ages of 14 and 24 comprise 1 percent of the U.S. Population and account for 27% of the murders. This is a heartbreaking and horrific statistic, a true breakdown of our society and a failure of citizenship on all levels.

      Unfortunately, I suspect that your motives are not constructive and that, alas, is the problem with having an ‘honest’ dialogue about the risk factors for violence and, indeed, for all public health problems. Women have suffered for millennia from “experts” trying to parse out uniquely female risk factors (some of which turn out to be spurious.) Now the men who are angry with me are feeling the heat.

      It’s COMPLICATED. But your suggestion certainly does not seem to be offered in a spirit of problem-solving.

  9. Marsh says:

    Erika,

    CNN lead me to your blog post and I thought it was written. People should put their emotions aside when dealing with the facts of a situation. I too believe that violent crimes by men are just one of the results of parents thinking that boys are ‘easier’ to raise than girls. Keep writing the truth. Truth has never been proclaimed without resistance.

  10. Jared says:

    I think a large part of the issue is the double standard, and how it affects men. Strict gender roles are imposed not only on women, and this “tough guise” that is endorsed and enforced in society today most probably has an effect on these statistics you qoute. Thank you for your article and hopefully opening at least one person’s eyes to this issue.

  11. chloestatute@gmail.com says:

    The article just pointed out a statistical fact. The reaction it caused was ridiculous. Guys, you’re acting all hysterical and defensive. Man up. Deal with the facts. Rape is another crime often committed with murder; statistically speaking the perpetrators are male. Stand up for yourselves, and stand up for women. Everyone should be standing up for each other.

  12. Grackle says:

    Great blog post and a great article. I don’t understand why people have to be so defensive and angry, particularly when you were very, very clear that you aren’t blaming all men by stating that the great majority of murderers are male. Facts are facts. Speaking of which, the fact that too many people responded to your article by being intensely misogynistic doesn’t bode well either. I wonder how they would have responded had a man written it?

  13. Qasim says:

    It’s the way you word it, it’s so annoying and provoking. You say things like “being a man is a risk factor for being a murderer”, that itself is so annoying. It’s like you’re saying that simply being a male means that I could lose control of my “maleness” and unexpectedly pick up a hammer at any minute and start smashing people’s head’s in. As if I’m “at risk” and I’m not really in control of my actions. It’s just so patronizing. I don’t think it’s what you say, but how you choose to say it. Your main point isn’t wrong, but you sprinkle it with annoying phrases here and there that seem like underhand little jabs towards men that come across as condescending.

    But I know what you’re saying, you’re right in saying that most violent crimes are committed by men. You’re right in saying that it is something that should be examined more thoroughly, I know you aren’t an insane prat who wants to cull/castrate men. I get your point, but you just articulate it all so badly and make it sound more offensive than it needs to be.

    • What is wrong with these overly sensitive commenters???? Seriously, am I suppose to use Orwellian newspeak to describe reality? “Being a man is a risk factor for being a murderer” annoys and provokes you. TOO BAD. Being a woman is a risk factor for being severely depressed, for having an abortion, for breaking a hip… I could go on. This squeamishness about violence has to stop.

      But thank you for not calling me names. I really honestly appreciate it. My spam filter is literally bursting with vitriol and foul, misogynist name-calling right now, so I’m grateful for your civility. But I would urge you to reconsider your discomfort with my wording. I would argue that we’re just not accustomed to talking straight about violence, so things that shouldn’t be offensive may strike certain people that way.

      • gammitts says:

        Erika, come on, where is my comment to the guy who said cunt? i thought it was funny! I know it was immature and somewhat counterproductive, but us gals aren’t perfect either. And you left his comment in! I”m new to blogging, so maybe I don’t understand how my comment got taken out.

      • Qasim says:

        Way to be even more patronizing. You’re basically going “Hey, why so upset? All I said was that men are risky, dangerous creatures that you pretty much have to keep at bay with a stick. What’s with all the bitching and crying, boys?”.

        Androgyne made some good points. The thing that I don’t like about your argument is that you claim that simply being a man puts you at risk for being a murderer. I hate that language. You’re implying that we men aren’t really in control of our actions and we’re controlled by some external “maleness”. I’m not at risk for being a murderer, I don’t care what you say. I am not at risk. I’m not at fucking risk.

        You’re analogy doesn’t make much sense where you say “being a woman puts you at greater risk for getting migraines”. Sure, maybe being a woman does put you at risk for getting more migraines, but that’s completely different. A migraine is not a voluntary action like murder, migraines come along all on their own. Getting a migraine isn’t really comparable to committing mass murder.

        Saying “being a female puts you at higher risk for getting migraines” isn’t an offensive statement. However, if someone were to say to me “you’re at risk for being a murderer because you’re male”, then I would be EXTREMELY offended. I’m amazed that you can’t understand why that would be offensive. It’s obviously offensive and then you basically tell us to stop whining when we (inevitably) do get offended.

        Like I already said, I think it’s the way you articulate your argument that offends people.

      • I’d still like to engage in substance, so please hear me out. There is a difference between plural and singular that you seem not to understand. I didn’t say that YOU, personally, are at risk for being a murderer. (How would I know what your risk is?) However, it is an epidemiological fact that if your risk approaches zero (we all have some infinitesimal risk, so we can’t say that you or I are at zero risk), it remains a fact that your ‘risk” is still higher than the “risk” of a person identical to you in every way but sex. For a description of the difference between “absolute” and “relative” risk, see my prior post about alien abduction. It’s relevant to this discussion because for someone like you, who is at truly infinitesimal risk of violence, your “higher” risk than a woman identical to you in every other way is essentially meaningless. You’re not going to murder anyone, period. But there are indeed plenty of men for whom both the absolute and relative risk is much, much greater than for women. That is why we MUST use a term like “men” – standard public health language – to tease out what is going on. Then we may discover that there are particular kinds of problems we need to attend to that we would miss if we didnt use “men” as a variable. We do this all the time with all kinds of fixed and changeable variables: income, sex, education, wealth, age, race. It’s how we understand the basis of health problems. I have never made an argue about the essential nature of men – nor do I plan to make such an argument. it’s deeply insulting for you to claim that i have portrayed men as monsters and it is a huge disservice to men who are plagued with problems that put them at “greater risk” for violence. Does a discussion of risk factors offend people? Clearly, sometimes. But keep in mind that many of the people who read my piece at TIME.com were so relieved to hear someone talking about the problem of violence in a more honest way, with the hope of trying to solve it. A statistician or epidemiologist would probably do a better job of explaining this more clearly, although I do have public health training.

        Let’s get away from “men” and take a less ‘extremely’ offensive example for you:

        Are you offended by this statement: “Youth is a risk factor for divorce.” (True.) How about “Young people are at greater risk for divorce than older people.” Is that offensive? Are you offended by “Young people who choose to marry are at greater risk of divorce.” How about “People who choose to marry young are at greater risk for divorce.” Are we allowed to say any of these things about young people who make the choice to get married? If we aren’t allowed to say them because young people might be offended, then are you saying that we can never learn anything about this very critical factor in the cause of divorce? Do we just pretend this isn’t a risk factor so we avoid your offense? What if — as is the case – your offendeness prevents others from getting the answers they want?

        And, by the way, migraines might well have non-biological triggers. I suffer from migraines, for example, and I feel one coming on now. I’m perfectly happy to hypothesize that being an EXTREMELY offended woman is a risk factor for migraines.:)

  14. Sorry! I actually did delete because i was worried things were getting a little heated – and, honestly, I’ve been very creeped out by some of the stuff men have been sending me (which I have NOT posted here.) I just didn’t want to egg on these dudes. But as soon as I deleted it, I realized I was being too controlling. I’m new to blogging, too, and am wrestling with how much I get to “control” my own blog! I very much want to create a forum where people engage in ideas.

    Here’s to ‘us gals’ (and everyone else) not being perfect!! Thanks for writing back and I promise I’ll keep my hands off the keyboard next time you common.t

    • Our society has become unforgiving. We are too easily offended and bite back. We call this “thin skinned.” it is not a compliment. Just tell the truth. Most people long for it and recognize it. All others will mock and deride it for they never cared for it anyway. :-)

  15. Dear Erika,
    Welcome to the internet that feminists have long known. Say something honest but critical of men, and they will barrage you with hate mail, crash your site, and frequently threaten you with rape, dismemberment, or worse. I guess they are just trying to convince you of how nice they really are.

    • It really has been unbelievable. And then they cry ‘hurt feelings’!

      • gammitts says:

        Being a feminist can be hard! I recommend a daily dose of “Jezebe.l” The writers are so totally unapologetic and they’re so damn funny. I’ve bookmarked several of their articles for future grad school papers I’ll be writing once fall comes. Lindy West is my favorite. Her rape joke article was so on the mark. She just brought everything out in the open with no wincing, no whining and no personalizing of the subject. Are you familiar with her ?

    • Levin says:

      No. That’s a victim mentality. Stop going “Waaah! The menz are picking on me coz I’m a feminist!”. This is just how the internet works. Everybody threatens and swears at each other on the web. It has nothing to do with feminism. I’m a man and I’ve had people on the internet say that they’re going to kill me and batter me. If you get into arguments on the internet often enough, someone is going to give you some abuse. It doesn’t just happen to women or feminists.

      • gammitts says:

        You’re right. Anytime you identify yourself as some kind of “ist” you’re opening yourself up to some kind of opposition.

  16. Amazone says:

    But! The simple FACT men reacted to your article this way PROVES there is an inherent problem of violence in men! Duh!

    • Leoeyes says:

      exactly. All these responses show that men are threatened when their *power* is called out. The problem that still has no name even in your great article, Erika, is male dominance i.e. patriarchy. Male power does not imply that men are thereby healthy and happy. All the disorderings you name– the suicidal tendencies, depression, and what I call misdirected rage, etc– stem in part from a bedrock entitlement that especially white (also the demographic of mass killers!) men have and others lack. It’s more complicated than that, but male social/psychological issues do not just happen like the weather–it’s a product of society- a *patriarchal* society.

    • Qasim says:

      Yeah, we men are just so evil, aren’t we? What else is new? I’m getting pretty bored of all this “all men are brutal monsters” bullshit. It’s kind of like listening to “get back in the kitchen” jokes. Very boring. Yawn.

  17. Androgyne says:

    Part of the delicacy surrounding this issue is how one frames it. On the one hand, we can say that men who are depressed, suicidal, etc. are more likely to perpetuate violence. Or we can say being a man is a risk factor for being a murderer; the implication being all men are a risk factor…

    There is a different set of implications for each of those statements. The first is concise, specific, and measurable — a qualified generalization. The second is a stereotype that speaks about “something” inherent within men. Even though the statistics support the stereotype, every man and woman recognizes a stereotype when they see one. We react negatively to stereotypes because we also intuitively know that for every stereotype, even for every qualified generalization, there is a black swan. The problem is not just squeamishness (although this certainly is one of the problems associated with this issue). The problem is also over-relying on empiricism to back up the claim. When you perpetuate a stereotype about men, you shouldn’t be surprised if men react with sensitivity to your claims, even if the generalization is statistically supported.

    Let’s look at one of your replies to a poster:

    “What is wrong with these overly sensitive commenters???? Seriously, am I suppose to use Orwellian newspeak to describe reality? “Being a man is a risk factor for being a murderer” annoys and provokes you. TOO BAD.”

    A little over one hundred years ago, women gained the right to vote. If many of us imagined the kind of talking-down to that women might have received back then, the talk might start along these lines:

    ”What is wrong with these overly sensitive women … ’Women are unfit to vote because the physical nature of women unfits them for direct com­petition with men’ annoys and provokes you. TOO BAD.”

    In both cases, the reasoning depends on identifying, targeting, and perpetuating a stereotype about something inherent within a particular sex. In both cases, the language isn’t particularly sensitive to the targeted sex. As a writer, it is fantastic that you are provocative. But you also need to be sensitive to your readers — both male and female — if you are writing for their benefit. That is how you might use your language more productively…

    In terms of content, it might be more productive if you examine what the contemporary man lacks instead of what contemporary man IS. Great, we all get it: men who are depressed, suicidal, etc. are more likely — although not as a rule — to perpetrate violence against themselves and others. Whatever are we supposed to do about it?

    I think you bring up a great point in this section:

    ”…we can pay more attention to the stresses and challenges of making the transition from boyhood to adulthood. At the top of my list would be creating more programs to screen and treat mental health problems, job training, prison reform, mentorship programs, improved educational opportunities etc. As I mentioned in my piece, the ancient initiation rituals for young men have largely fallen away, except in a few religious communties. We should bring back these time-tested ways to channel men’s strength and fearlessness into socially acceptable venues rather than into violence.”

    I’d only add that not all mental health problems are treatable. Additionally, when you say “screen and treat,” I’m not surprised that some men think of culling, dystopias, and regulation. These fears are deeply embedded in the fabric of American society. We are a very anti-totalitarian people. It can’t be helped that a phrase like “screen and treat” is metonymic to Samuel Butler’s Erewhon.

    Aside from those two points, you make a solid argument for a means which allows young men to channel the masculine aspects of their nature into more productive ends. This issue is definitely worth being investigated and I hope you go somewhere with it.

    • Thank you very much for your thoughtful reply. I want to be measured in my response and I really do appreciate your points. I agree that the ‘talking down’ to women 100 years ago would have been along the lines you suggest. But at the same time, I can’t help being frustrated by the implication that my comments about men were analogous to what your hypothetical statement suggests about women. I never suggested nor do I believe that men are “unfit” in ANY way for anything. Nor have I made any biological or essentialist argument. So why compare my comment about 21st century men who are offended by my writing (you were quoting my pissed off comment to being called a CUNT, not to the original column I wrote) to the way 19th century men dismissed disenfranchised women a century ago. It feels like you are unfairly denying the context of men’s power.

      But if you are going to analogize to the state of powerless women from a bygone era — which strikes me as mischievous!– at least make a proper analogy! If you’d done so, it would have read something like: “What is WRONG with these overly sensitive women??? …All I’m saying is that being a woman is a risk factor for being depressed.” Throwing in over the top phrases like, “women don’t deserve the vote because of their physical unfitness etc.” manipulates and exaggerates what I said.

      I want to return to the risk factor language because I think the naysayers are missing a point. It’s not a stereotype to say that someone is AT RISK for an outcome. Of course, we need actual data before we can make such assertions and there is, of course, a long history of manipulation of data, either willfully or through cultural biases. Moreover, as I said in an earlier post, sometimes risk factors don’t generate sufficient additional information to justify focusing on them. (For example, knowing that my dog is at increased risk for farting compared to my goldfish is probably not something we need to worry about, except those of us sitting in my living room.) But in the case of violence, we have both excellent data on the distribution of violence by age and sex. AND it’s a huge problem. In that case, we need to turn over every possible stone. Naming risk factors should not be a political or insensitive act on its face; a risk factor puts someone at greater risk for an outcome that may or may not happen, that’s all. If we can’t talk about risk factors except in circuitous, coded ways, how do we have a prayer of solving our real problems. Are we really so sensitive and so afraid of uncovering truths that we can’t do this??

      I think your proposed language (“men who are suicidal and mentally ill are at greater risk of violence”) doesn’t actually capture all that is potentially knowable about violence in the same way that looking at maleness as an INDEPENDENT risk factor can be. If you looked at men and women, depressed and non-depressed, violent and non-violent, you might (and, in fact, do) see that youthful maleness acts as an independent risk factor that needs examination. We should look at all aspects of this problem if we want to understand why, for example, mass homicides are so much more frequently committed by mentally ill young men than mentally ill middle aged women. I really believe our country can handle this kind of discussion. It’s not the 19th century with people measuring skulls. We have a more evolved society, with less racism, less sexism, less homophobia, less child abuse. Isn’t it time that we stop fearing misinterpretations and hurt feelings and look at problems more with more open eyes? I think we should.

      The irony is that the fear of being insensitive harms the very people (young men) we wish to protect. “Whatever are we supposed to do about it?” you ask. There are so many things! We need to think creatively and expansively.

      Finally – and thank you for reading this! – I think there is a role for provocation. I was genuinely surprised that a vocal minority was so offended by what I wrote; I hardly imagined such a response nor sought it. I wanted to issue a wake-up call, not an assault. On the other hand, provocation is sometimes necessary to push people out of their orthodoxy. I’m quite certain this piece would not be so popular (it’s still the second most emailed at TIME days after I posted it) if I had scampered and skirted around the issues. And I still maintain that a male byline would have elicited a lot more yawns.

      • Androgyne says:

        I appreciate your measured response. I try to keep my own responses measured and it usually makes for a more civil discourse. I’ve also found that civil discourses usually makes for deeper, more illuminating discussions…

        Just to clarify a point, I understand you’re NOT saying that men are unfit for anything; and to further clarify, I used the classical physical unfit argument merely as an example for a similar-but-different argument that men used back then. These statements are comparable in the effects they achieve. That said, yes, there is far more evidence to back up the statement that we’re using today to describe the connections between young men and violence versus the physically unfit argument that men used in the late 19th century. Given the historical context (plus the amount of vitriol you received in the mail), you’re responding to more than just hypotheses; and I certainly didn’t mean to manipulate or exaggerate what you said… that’s just the best I could come up with to put it in perspective at the time!!

        I do believe you’re making a biological / essentialist argument, though, when you say, “Being a man is a risk factor for being a murderer.” The risk factor is tied to “being.” Not sure how else to interpret a statement like that other than in the biological sense but I would be open to hearing other interpretations.

        The risk factor language certainly seems to be a sticking point. To my ears, when you say X is AT RISK for Y, that doesn’t quite match the meaning of essentialist words like “being” and is.” Those are very definitive words that take advantage of using the verb form of “to be.” The result is a rigid, essentialist argument about something inherent in men. For some men and women, the problem is that we know there are black swans. A good example is that even though men in the 19th century argued that women can’t vote because they are physically unfit, there were probably a couple of women who could whoop their husband’s butts. The physical unfitness argument also seems like a more effective way to analogize the state of powerless women than to say, “…being a woman is a risk factor for being depressed.” The physical unfitness argument seems far more disenfranchising…

        That is why I proposed the language of “greater risk.” I know, it sounds weaker; but I believe it is more accurate. It leaves room for error and black swans. You also used it yourself when you said, circuitively: “a risk factor PUTS someone at greater risk for an outcome that may or may not happen.” I emphasized “puts” in that sentence because that different from saying, “Being a man IS a risk factor for being a murderer.” For the latter, the risk factor is maleness, which is inherent for young men. It’s an essentialist argument. For the former, you’re saying risk factor(s) put someone at greater risk for sh!t happening, which is not unlike saying, “if you drink and drive you are at a greater risk for getting into an accident.” The difference is that to “put” someone at greater risk for an outcome implies a transformation which increases the risks for the involved — drinking and driving, riding motorcycles, participating in extreme sports — whereas with the essentialist argument, there is no transformation (or choice) that exacerbates the probability of sh!t happening because it’s taken as a given.

        I agree that we need to have more open and frank discussion on this topic. My only caveat is that we should watch the way our words create meanings. Language can be manipulated, politicized, and exaggerated if we don’t pay attention. Hurt feelings aren’t worth fearing; misinterpretations are far more troublesome. For example, the very manner in which many men have responded to your original article…

        You are right in seeking to provoke society into thinking about an important topic like this. Sometimes we need a kick in the rear to wake from our dogmatic slumbers and your’s is a good wake-up call. Kafka said in a letter to a friend “I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? [...] A book must be an axe for the frozen sea inside us.” I’m only advocating that we try to be thoughtful and measured with our axes!

  18. I think we are an impasse, albeit a friendly one! Saying that “Men are at greater risk of homicide” is NOT an essentialist argument, in my view, and that is what I wrote in my TIME.com column. There are all kinds of potential reasons why men should be at greater risk of homicide than women – i e the way we raise boys, the social expectations we place on young men, the dearth of job opportunities or stigma attached to men expressing their feelings, differences in access to mental health care and so on.

    However, I ALSO believe that “being a man is a risk factor…” is not an in inherently offensive thing to say, even if it can lend itself to mischief (like many statements). It is true, for example, that “being a woman is a risk factor for migraines”. Is that an essentialist argument about women’s biology? Possibly. I don’t think it’s a problem, in any case, or if it IS a problem — i.e. if we think that feeds into mythology about women’s bodies being weaker than men’s — we would still (in my book) need to state such a thing in order to better diagnose and treat migraines. It would be better, arguably (though not necessarily) to say that “Women are at greater risk of migraines” than men. But you were still objecting to that language. You said – if I understood your original comment – that both configurations were problematic and should be replaced with something like (I’m making up an association here): “Women who don’t drink coffee are at greater risk of migraines.” And I was arguing that we lose something important in the statement, i.e. it becomes about coffee drinking women as a risk factor not “women” as an independent risk factor.

    I know I’m nit-picking but I just want to be crystal clear here: I agree that “being a man is a risk factor” sounds potentially more essentialist than “men are at greater risk…” but you were objecting to both, as I understood it, when you suggested the alternate phrasing, “Men who are suicidal and depressed…” And I don’t think an essentialist argument is necessarily off the table, in any case, which is why I used the migraine example. (Even there, however, you could posit non biological reasons for why women have more migraines than men! This gets very exhausting!)

    I love the Kafka quotation! Please don’t be offended if I don’t write back again. I have a day job!! But I really appreciate your comments and agree that it’s important to wield the axe carefully! I have learned a lot from this experience. (And don’t forget a lot of people were grateful for my speaking out.)

    My next column will make far fewer ripples, I hope! In any case, it’s not about life-and-death issues. I need a break from my grandiosity. :D

    • Androgyne says:

      The devil is in the details and language makes expressing those details challenging. It is difficult to avoid being misinterpreted. In any case, thanks for an engaging discussion! I think I learned a few things, too :)

  19. Leoeyes says:

    sorry for re-posting but in case you missed this (and somewhat revised): Thanks Erika for brave column.
    All the “cunt”-slurring reactions demonstrate that men are threatened when their *power* is called out and the reaction is to put a woman who dares appear in public as a mainstream writer- thus has some measure of *authority* –gasp–in her place, to show her what she really is– a *cunt* etc. The problem that still has no name even in your great article, Erika, is male dominance i.e. patriarchy. Male power does not imply that men are thereby healthy and happy. All the disorderings you name– the suicidal tendencies, depression, and what I call misdirected rage, etc– stem in part from a bedrock entitlement that especially white (also the demographic of mass killers!) men have and others lack. It’s more complicated than that, but male social/psychological issues do not just happen like the weather–it’s a product of society- a *patriarchal* society.

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