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In Defense of Male Fighting

Horrific mass shootings routinely bring out strong and passionate views from all sides of the political spectrum. Is the breakdown in family to blame? Or is it not enough background checks and lax firearm regulations, violent video games, mental illness, a cultural fixation on aggression as a solution to problems? The pundits and politicians have all the answers—yet somehow the mass shootings don’t stop.

Behind this debate over violence, however, lies a counterintuitive truth about conflict.

In a certain way, mass shootings—most often perpetrated by males—are a sign that we need more fighting. They are a reclassification of violence from direct to indirect, a shift from confrontation to elimination. Let me specify what I mean here. Gun violence provides a false avenue for loners and sometimes mentally ill young men to store up resentment and then unleash it all at once in overwhelming, lethal force. Rather than direct conflict against bullies or a bitterly resented group as a whole, it provides a false alternative, a fake ace up the sleeve. Rather than confronting those who torture our psyches, weaponized violence gives the illusion that we can just eliminate such people and situations altogether.

Gun violence against unarmed people allows the shooter to self-aggrandize and self-justify his own victimization and impotence. As he cuts down others, he’s getting off on a sick, gory pornography built around a loss of masculinity and an inability or unwillingness to fight directly. While some teens are clearly smaller in stature and unable to fight well physically, mixed martial arts (MMA) and wrestling programs might give them an opportunity to build up their self-respect and resistance to bullying. A real man uses his strength to protect innocent women and children and stop anyone or anything that gets in the way; he doesn’t use it against innocent people.

Mass shootings don’t come from an excess of masculinity and testosterone; they come from a distinct lack of it. They’re a one-sided war from long-distance. Gun violence against unarmed people is close to the opposite of one-on-one fist-fighting or brawling—it is not a continuation or intensification of violence wholesale, as some journalists or psychologists might suggest, but rather a twisted bastardization of the just use of force.

To take several examples, training inmates to fight has had very positive outcomes in turning them from crime and instilling a sense of discipline and purpose. Violence ceases to be a chaotic free-for-all and becomes a defined, delimited contest. In my own experiences at boarding school, it wasn’t until I’d stood up to a bully and even punched him that I felt a sense of resolution and let go of my bitterness. I no longer took things so personally—we were just two guys with our own frustrations, not locked in some grand saga of struggle and injustice, and somehow our physical fight made me more fully realize that vital truth. We made up and everything was okay. I let the resentment go—one punch at a time.

Later on, around ninth grade, we started an underground boxing club in the boarding school dormitory, and the memories are among my all-time favorites. I can recall being round-housed by a student several grades above me and feeling a sense of exhilaration as I still managed to get in two good punches to his ribs while the trust fund kids cheered and hollered. At least I was fighting, living life, doing something instead of complaining and self-isolating in a loner’s self-indulgent mental exclusion zone. The months of feeling invisible and angry were—at least temporarily—overcome with a only a few hard punches.

Those times were preceded by memories of a far bitterer nature, such as when I was followed off the school bus in sixth grade by a larger boy being egged on by others who smashed me repeatedly in the face once the bus was out of sight. He punched me and pushed me in a ditch while blood dripped down my face as I cowered. It only ended when a neighbor saw the assault and shouted for him to stop. I felt weak and pathetic—and enraged. I had been taught by my single mother never to fight back and didn’t even know how. I had been taught that violence is always wrong no matter what. The memory left me intensely angry, confused, and feeling victimized. Not fighting back had increased the feelings of alienation and anger, rather than alleviating or softening them. Later attempts to deal with the bullying through the school only made the situation worse. I truly believe that fighting back right away, even if I’d walked away with a bloody face, would have made the situation much better—but I didn’t know it at the time.

In its own odd way, physical confrontation between males can also be a sign of respect. One-on-one brawling has its own kind of inbuilt equality. Even a far smaller guy going up against a larger one will get respect from onlookers—and all important self-respect—from getting in one good hit or jab. As long as fighters retain the ability to tap out without shame or medical attention, there’s no reason to see it as inherently horrifying or toxic. In fact, it’s natural. What’s unnatural is years of psychosocial exclusion and environments that lead already disturbed young men to think about killing unarmed people.

It is hard to shirk your words or actions when they can be met with punches in the face, and it’s much more difficult to think of violence as some abstract, high-drama, dark fantasy when it’s real, direct, and simple. Physical fighting leaves you with no high-powered rifle to grab. It can also have a strangely calming effect. You do your best and let the chips fall where they may. There’s no magic key or supernatural victory, no violent delusion of explosions and billowing black trench coats, just the necessity of being a man and defending your body with your body.

Defensive use of force—even in the face of weaponized attackers—can also be heroic. Looking at some recent news, we can see how an attempted mosque shooter in Norway was roundly assaulted and subdued by a 65-year-old congregant. The elderly defender, Mohammad Rafiq, prevented the gunman from killing anyone by wrestling him to the ground and pinning him until police arrived, along with the help of fellow worshipper Mohamed Iqbal. As in so many cases, decisive use of unarmed force was the answer, not the problem. Would it be better for those defending against aggression to be armed? Perhaps in some cases, yes, although the potential for such scenarios to spin out of control if guns are in the wrong hands—or wrong minds—is significant.

In any case, to return to the topic, the ability to defend yourself and those you love with your hands is not to be underestimated.

CNN anchor Chris Cuomo recently threatened to throw a man down a flight of stairs for calling him “Fredo,” and most jumped on him as overly reactive and aggressive. But if anything, as journalist Matt Walsh pointed out, this should increase our respect for Cuomo. Instead of hiding behind decorum and snide dismissal or engaging in the kind of mealy-mouthed self-righteousness that he often uses on-air, Cuomo confronted his troll directly, challenging the “punk” to be a man about his insult. Cuomo stood up for himself and backed up his anger with his own body, not threats to use other avenues or institutional power to get the better of his opponent. And that deserves respect.

Now, to give a fair hearing to the other side, it’s true that various mass shooters have gotten in fistfights and physical altercations. It’s also—dare I say—quite likely that they badly lost such fights or were ganged up on in them, leading to their twisted recourse. Fighting can stoke even more bitterness in the wrong heart and mind, and is not always the solution or resolution to a crisis. Fighting even just with fists can also lead to death and should not be romanticized as some kind of manly sport with no reasonable consequences or limits. While it can sometimes be strangely joyful if it is stripped of personal and malicious feelings, it can also simply be the culmination of feelings of victimization and can increase angry emotions and vengeful ideations.

Writ large, however, physical brawling is far preferable to weak young men mowing down innocents with firearms. That’s especially true if a healthy respect for it leads it to be more fully instituted in school programs and controlled environments.

Paul Brian is a freelance journalist. He has reported for the BBC, Reuters, and Foreign Policy, and contributed to The Week, The Federalist, and others. You can follow him on Twitter @paulrbrian or visit his website www.paulrbrian.com.