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Friday, 10 August 2012

Attribution Theory and White Male Mass Murder

By: Liberate Zealot
Content Warning: Mass shootings, White Supremacy, Christian Supremacy, Eliminationist Language

In Education Attribution Theory students perceive their unexpected successes and failures and attribute these events to internal or external causes.  Do they think it's about internal and/or controllable things like their effort and ability or external/uncontrollable luck or their teachers?  Education psychologists and researchers have examined this theory among different ages, genders, and countries to understand the different ways students make use of Attribution Theory.  When I was studying Education I was taught, though not everyone agrees with this, that as a whole boys and girls have different types of Attribution.  When something good happens, like they unexpectedly pass a test, boys attribute it to themselves, their efforts and ability.  Girls are more likely to attribute this to luck.  However, this method of internal vs. external attribution flips when students unexpectedly fail a test.  Then girls attribute this failure to themselves (they aren't smart enough, they need to study harder), whereas boys attribute unexpected failure to outside influences, specifically an unfair/bad teacher. These findings are based on white children.  African American students are more likely to consistently attribute failure and success to their teachers, ability, environment, and luck (all sources outside their control).

The point is people attribute things based on how they're socialized.  White (cis)men/boys think that success is all them, while failure is attributed to the fault of some Other. Think about that for a moment and then start to apply that theory to the culture at large. Then go a step further and think about how this relates to the recent (and past) mass shootings and terrorist/hate crime attacks on non-christian religious centers. 

For generations white cis men have been the powerful in the US (and most other places too).  And this was a power that gave them dominion over others.  This becomes even more true when you add class privilege, straight privilege, and able bodied privilege to the mix.  It wasn't just that white men were more likely to be hired and paid better than women and people of color, these white men expected (and largely got) complete obedience and control over women and people of color.  This was true during legal slavery and the husband/father ownership of a woman and her property and up through the start of the civil rights movement in the 60s and 70s.  Furthermore white men have long demonstrated this power and dominance with legal, or at least culturally allowed, violence*.

With the work and effort of civil rights workers some of this male privilege and power is no more.  And since this loss a group of Americans (neo-cons/the GOP) have been building up the halcyon days of the pre-civil rights 1950s.  A Golden Era has been created in the "American" conscious (and by that I mean white, straight, Christian male conscious) of a time when men were men, with a sweet wife in a cookie cutter house, good jobs, and the only immigrants/people of color in sight were in service jobs and poorer than you. They had access to every space, public and private, that they would want to go. This unearned privilege and power, conferred with the luck of being born a white male, didn't start to crumble until the civil rights movement. And so -
"the responsible party for their struggles, their disaffection, their undefined but keenly-felt fury, isthose people, not the Grand Old Party who promised them something better in exchange for their votes."
And look at what the mainstream culture has struggled with in the last 40 years. Wages stagnate in the 1970s, blue collar jobs dry up as factories start to move over-seas, there's inflation, and income inequality starts to rise. As white males have lost their power and dominance (but not their privilege) over women and people of color they've also lost their job and financial security.  All while being directly told by one political party that this loss is the fault of feminists, immigrants, and "welfare queens". 

So take this Attribution tendency to blame the external Other for unexpected loss or lack of success.  Combine it with the history of white male power and dominance and their relationship with violence.  Then add in the loss of some power and dominance that white males hold over women and people of color. And finally add in the growing economic inequality.  Blend it, shake well and examine. In the last 50 years, for reasons both economic (wealthy exploited) and just (civil rights movement) white males have increasingly lost their position, power, and dominance in society.  White men are inclined to blame such unexpected loss on unfair/bad Others.  This inclination has been further increased by political language that often includes violent rhetoric about "Taking Back America".   The relationship between white men and mass violence starts to unfold. 

But in case the connection isn't clear enough, let's take a moment to examine the facts of mass shootings:  
Mass shootings in the US began in the late 1960s and increased in number in the late 1980s.  Of these shooters, only three were people of color.  In fact, as Augusta Christensen writes -
"American mass murders in particular seem to be the territory of white men. The Encyclopedia of Murder and Violent Crime writes that, “Compared with assailants who kill but one victim, mass murderers are overwhelmingly likely to be male, [and] are far more likely to be white'"
Likewise examine the areas many of the shooters chose: schools, places of work, restaurants.  All areas where the white male was legally dominant only decades ago. In fact, it's only in the last 60 years that many colleges went co-ed and schools desegregated.  It's similar in the workplace, where white males were in charge and women and people of color were rarely seen and you certainly weren't likely to get fired for stalking or harassing a woman.  Restaurants, movie theaters, and other public venues also have their history of segregation and "belonging" to men. As Hugo Schwyzer (a very problematic "feminist") says -
"Perhaps the greatest asset that unearned privilege conveys is the sense that public spaces "belong" to you. If you are — like James Holmes last week, or Charles Whitman, who killed 16 people on the University of Texas, Austin campus in 1966 — an American-born, college-educated white man from a prosperous family, you don't have a sense that any place worth being is off-limits to the likes of you. White men from upper middle-class backgrounds expect to be both welcomed and heard wherever they go. When that sense of entitlement gets frustrated, as it can for a host of complex psychological reasons, it is those same hyper-privileged men who are the most likely to react with violent, rage-filled indignation. For white male murderers from "nice" families, the fact that they chose public spaces like schools, university campuses, or movie theaters as their targets suggests that they saw these places as legitimately theirs."
Now there are three types of mass shootings that can be differentiated both by the type of target and the intended effect of the shooting. There are the shooters who react to an immediate thwarting and take revenge on those "responsible" for example the disgruntled employees in the postal shootings.  

Then there's those responding to a more general thwarting of their unearned power, whose targets might be related to the thwarting but the motivation goes beyond revenge on the victims themselves to society as a whole. The recent Aurora theater shootings and Columbine are examples. 
Robert Ebert explains the intended effect of such shooters -  
"When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids around the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking." 

To make it more clear "I'll get the attention, the focus of society that I've deserved.  Violence will get my place back." 

Finally there's the third type of mass shooting. In this, like the second type, the shooters are reacting to a general thwarting of their dominance, and there is also an intended effect on society, but the victims are deliberate targets (though often unknown to the shooter).  Specifically these types of mass violence also qualify as hate crimes or terrorism. It's about the individual reclaiming their unearned white male power and supremacy, but it's also about asserting the supremacy of all people like them (white men), over the Other.  And in these cases the victims are definitely the unprivileged Other. The Montreal Massacre and the recent Sikh Temple shooting are examples of this type of mass shooting. 

Now all mass shootings are planned, at the very least the shooters need to gather their guns and ammo.  None of these people "just snapped."  The shootings took, at the very least, days to plan.  Some of these people spent months, if not years stock-piling weapons, training themselves, and planning the specifics of their acts of mass violence.  And in the case of the third type of shooting, where the violence is associated with hate crimes and terrorism, there sometimes are systems and groups of people of aiding and abetting these mass murderers. Wade Michael Page, the Sikh Temple shooter, was a Neo-Nazi and ex-military, and FBI reports show there might be (are) many other white males like him.

"Neo-Nazis were also pioneering a strategy they called “ghost skins,” which are attempts by right-wing extremists to keep quiet about their hateful views so as to blend into society and covertly advance their causes. “One white supremacist group has reportedly encouraged ghost skins to seek positions in law enforcement for the capability of alerting skinhead crews of pending investigative action against them,” says the report... Prospective ghost skins are encouraged to join the military and receive training that can be passed on to other Nazis...With chilling prescience, a 2007 report argued that the threat posed from white supremacists came less from organized groups than from “individuals acting alone upon the messages of hate espoused by these groups.” According to Jeffrey T. Richelson, a senior fellow at the NSA, who edited the document collection, “From what we know about this Wisconsin shooter, this potentially fits exactly into the documents analyses.” The shooting was not very different from what was generally predicted in the FBI materials" 
These mass murders aren't crazed lone gunmen, who are just outliers. That can't be the case when the majority of mass murders are white men.  If it were any other demographic we would be examining the commonalities between these mass murders.  As Chauncey DeVega says - 
"In America, folks often ask, "what the hell is wrong with black people?" In the aftermath of the Colorado Movie Massacre, Columbine, and many other incidents, we need to ask, "what the hell is wrong with young white men?"
These mass murdering white men are part, though granted the extreme part, of a culture that grants white males unearned power, power over Others.  They are part of a culture where white men are losing some of that dominance.  They are part of a culture where white male dominance and power has long been demonstrated and upheld through violence.  They are part of a culture where one political party promises them they deserved that unearned privilege (and the other doesn't do much to fight the privilege).  And they are part of a culture where white men attribute unexpected loss or failure on the Other. 

White male privilege creates a culturally supported expectation of power and dominance that, when thwarted, can result in a violent reclamation of that privilege, power, and dominance.  This is only exacerbated by conservative dog whistles. These mass shootings and domestic terrorist attacks are only increasing in popularity. Our society (mainstream society) is fostering this white male privilege and mass violence.  In some cases we are even training them and painting the target symbols for them.  Each individual murderer is responsible for his own actions, but this is a societal problem.  And it won't halt until we address the cause. 

Lynching and Race Riots-

   Legalized spousal rape and domestic violence -


  1. Hi, The only thing I feel the need to comment is the term used "White" for refer to European population people. It is a slavery era terminology which was set alongside "N" word used to represent Africans. I don't think europeans are any less COLORED than other races. Yes, Northern Europeans are far less miscegenated with Arabs or other invading population therefore they more lighter but NOT "White" in the purest form of color. If you are of inferior color, call anyone "White" which means rest of them becomes automatically inferior including the yourself. Thanks.

  2. This isn't an art class where we'll discuss the differences in color gradation and whether peach, sand dune, eggshell, ivory,or alabaster is the most accurate description of color.

    I'll also just quote some people at OWS GA I was at:
    Hipster white dude: "There is no black or white, we're all people of color."
    Black women raising questions of diversity in representation :"No, I'm black."

    As long as society discriminates based on color we will continue to name the racism as it is.

    ps. what was that about "inferior color"


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