So, we are pretending that the attack is motivated by mental illness again

In a moment of social déjà vu, we hear again about a man in a southern movie theater attacking other moviegoers in midst of a rather feminist film’s screening. Unlike two weeks ago in Louisiana, the attack in Tennessee is non-fatal to its victims and the attacker is killed by responding police who confuse his airsoft gun for a real firearm. Police release the attacker’s face and name to the media. And all too immediately, media outlets such as The Tennessean let us know that Vincente Montano was “homeless, and his mother said he had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. The woman told police Montano has other health issues and a hard time taking care of himself.” Mental and physical illness is immediately disclosed. While The Tennessean report is careful to avoid laying blame on mental health, they do not provide for much in regards to questioning motives.

While the details of this latest attack are new and strange raising questions about Montano’s methods, the real familiarity of this report is this “history of mental illness” narrative. Following our mass shootings in America perpetrated most often by white males, our media focus looks for motives. However instead of investigating the underlying social problems that incite such atrocious acts we hope instead to look to identifying easier, sensationalist motives. We propagate fear of mental illness quite a bit. Instead of racism, mainstream media talked about Roof’s supposed mental illness. Instead of misogyny, we talked about Houser’s mental illness. Stigmatizing mental illness is America’s knee-jerk reaction to men’s violent acts.

Mental illness alone is not a motive for murder or willfully harming others. This cannot be stressed enough. Even when faced with overwhelming contradictory evidence, the “fact” of mental illness crystalizes and takes hold in our cultural imaginations and paranoia. Meanwhile, it is more likely for the mentally ill to suffer violence than to commit violence. However if we were to pretend that the “history of mental illness” narrative were true, does it do us any good as a society? Do the mentally ill benefit from the attention, even if it is negative? Can American society prevent such attacks by being vigilant about mental illness? The answer to each of these is a bitter and resounding no.

If we were to pretend that mental illness alone is the motivating factor in mass violence, these attacks could act as an impetus to finally overhaul and reform mental health care in this country. We’ve heard this one before. Following the Sandy Hook shooting, there were plenty of “what ifs” asked regarding Adam Lanza’s “history of mental illness”, trying to see if there could have been a point of intervention that would have saved lives besides infringing upon the right to bear arms. These questions of intervention bring in problems of privacy and autonomy that ask for an open record of mental health, much more invasive than any attempt on the second amendment could ever be. Yet the attitude of those who pin mass violence upon mental illness use it as a justification to limit the freedoms of the mentally ill. Western civilization, as Michel Foucault suggests, uses the diagnosis of mental illness as a tool for power keeping those who suffer from it at the margins of society, othered and kept at a distance.

Yet, even if we were to put in the effort to diagnose and intervene with “at risk” populations, many of those who are professionally diagnosed with mental illness pose no apparent risk, or at least haven’t acted on it. Philosopher Jennifer Radden identifies that women are more likely to be diagnosed with depression or other mental illnesses (which alone raises the foiling question, “where are our women mass-shooters?”), while men who suffer often undiagnosed depression are more likely to mask their condition only to lash out in anti-social behavior. I take this to indicate that the problem is mental illness itself, but mental illness’ interaction with our social gender roles. In a society in which men are supposed to be stoic, mental illness ought to be buried more deeply. Taking our problem to be mental illness, we have shifted away into a problem with masculinity itself instead.

Mental illness is a community of strangers. It affects people across all ages, classes, races, and genders. Yet mental illness is only worsened through alienation and separation. If we want to mitigate mental illness and prevent individuals from reaching violent breaking points, then we need to focus on improving other social problems as well. Mental illness has been shown to be significantly worsened among those below the poverty line or racially discriminated.The problem is not mental illness; mental illness and mass-violence instead appear more likely as symptoms of larger problems that the United States would prefer to ignore, only furthering our chances of tragedy.

We may never know truly what Montano’s motives in the Antioch Theater were, but thanks to the reports of his “history of mental illness” we will never shake off the stigmatizing speculation. People are continually dying from mass-violence in this country, and yet all of our speculation on mental illness as its motivation has only further alienated those who suffer from mental illness. Those with mental illness are assumed not to be contributing members of society, but a constant danger. We are not the only nation to have mentally ill citizens, yet the only one to have such large scale violent attacks “without warning”. We need to look further than the easy to stigmatize “history of mental illness” when we investigate mass-violence.


Why do people assume that I am a woman? – An interesting phenomena of being Pseudonymous

Last night, a friend and I went to see Professor Myisha Cherry (@myishacherry) give a brilliant talk entitled “Acting ‘Mean’: Queering Hegemonic Masculinity through a Cultivation of Human Virtues” for the Brooklyn Public Library’s Brooklyn Public Philosophers series. Professor Cherry and I have followed each other on twitter for years now without ever meeting and have had an extensive history of discussing things back and forth through @-replies. I was excited to finally meet her in person and hear her work more directly and told her ahead of time that I would be there.

The room in the library where these talks are held, I found that there was no cell reception. After my friend and I found our seats, I quite shamefully stepped out to send a couple tweets.

In this time, Professor Cherry spotted and introduced herself to my friend, a woman, apparently thinking that she was me. After the talk, My friend and I came up to her to congratulate her and so that I could introduce myself. She and Professor Cherry picked up a conversation for a while while I stood off to the side, awkwardly. My friend then introduced me and I told Professor Cherry that I was Cranky.

Professor Cherry then took a step back in shock. Doubling back, she said “I always thought that you were a woman.” She did not know why she had always thought that, but had nevertheless. Given that her talk itself was about masculinity and its cultural perceptions, this made for a very interesting discussion that I want to now open up to a larger audience.

She’s not alone in this assumption. Over the years that I have maintained a psuedonymous account, first as @crankystudent and now as @crankyethicist, I have had several people who readily/openly assumed that I am a woman.

This has come from a handful of interactions. I have been called ‘sister’ by several feminists, or in several cases as well, I’ve introduced myself to people and have had a weird reaction from them in which they have disclosed that they also thought I was a woman. A handful have apologized for the misattribution, which assumes that I am offended by people thinking that I am a woman. I am not. Given the traditional views of masculinity, I am far from offended that people do not readily assume that I am male. I’m thankfully privileged enough to be comfortable with who I am despite cultural hegemonic demands on what can pass for masculine. I actively try to not be hostile, domineering in conversations, cruel, or patronizing, all of which seem to be “masculine” traits.

The belief that I am a woman through the lens of my pseudonymous twitter account is interesting. This is by no means a universal belief, a handful have guessed correctly that I am male, but those who have thought that I am a woman seem deeply-entrenched in that assumption. That is, deeply-entrenched enough to comment on it when I reveal myself as a male.

But what is it that makes people assume that I am a woman? What is it about the Cranky persona that brings up this confusion again and again? What does this say about masculinity?

I have a handful of theories, but I would love to hear from others as well.

In the beginning of actively using the @crankystudent handle, I developed it as a gender-neutral parody account of being a graduate student in philosophy. My initial thought behind this was that I didn’t want to exclude anyone outright. There are enough white males in philosophy. I did my best to cover my tracks and avoided gendered language or much in the way of autobiographical information. Over time, I lost interest in being a parody account and instead focused on developing my own voice as a thinker. My alter-ego absorbed me, as many do. I became a parody of myself alone. I remain pseudonymous, but have often introduced myself as myself either in person or online to those who I have had some extended interaction with and have deemed I can trust.

As time and my degree progressed, I started to fill in some personal information here and there, including that I live in New York City and that I am married. For a long time, I referred to the Iron Frau as simply ‘significant other’ which I then dropped to ‘spouse’ to shave off some characters for tweets. The intentional use of vaguely-nongendered language to describe my wife seems to be part of the source of some confusion/obfuscation, on top of my previous holding out on my own cismale-gendered existence.

When the Iron Frau then created her own pseudonymous twitter account to complement my own, I dropped any worries of gender ambiguity. However, it seems that those who followed me during my parody days still readily assume that I am female.

My hypothesis:

I do not actively tweet while identifying myself as a male, nor do I try to stoop myself into hypermasculine fights online. I try to stay out of pissing matches as much as I can. I am not ashamed of my nonconformity with culturally-heteronormative ‘masculine’ traits. I often tweet on feminist issues and retweet many women who write on feminist issues. I do not actively posture masculinity because I have nothing to prove to anyone on that front online.

Additionally, I tweet extensively on emotions and feelings. I often talk about struggling with depression and an anxiety disorder. The cultural ideal of masculinity is that males must suppress their feelings. I instead write extensively on the importance of emotions as motivating factors. This undercuts a position of masculinity.

It would appear, then, that the absence of masculine-posturing is culturally-perceived as feminine. Masculinity is such an insecure position of hegemonic domination that any refrain from proving one’s ‘manhood’ in a pseudonymous position suggests some form of negation of that manhood. I didn’t maintain gender-neutrality in being anonymous; people still use a placeholder-pronoun and form an idea of who I am from my tweets. My online persona fills out a person in the minds of others. There is something about the persona that drives people away from thinking that I am a male. It seems that my saying nothing about my gender has made it hard to believe that Cranky could be male.

The western societal view of masculinity is that it must constantly prove its worth as being masculine through stoic yet aggressive posturing. If one does not posture/disclose masculinity, one is perceived as feminine. My reluctance to engage in gender performativity leads to confusion over my identity from others.

This is at least my theory, and I do want to hear from others on this.