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Male Emotions And Violence

Like everybody else, I am confused and upset about the crisis we are in. I offer these thoughts only as a way of provoking discussion. With the input of many, many people, maybe we can find a way out of the labyrinth. Provided everyone tries to speak truly what they think and feel. Not just trying to provoke, and not just trying to please.

How do most men deal with fear and other vulnerable emotions? How should they? First a story about myself, since I know some telling details about my own fear. Many years ago I was driving on the freeway to LA at about 70 mph. Traffic was heavy, cars all around me. A little Datsun in front of me was weaving in and out of lanes trying to break out of the pack. Then it changed lanes too fast, went into a spin, and stopped, facing me. I don’t have time to look to see if a car is passing me on my left, I whip my own car to the left, barely avoiding collision.

What did I feel at that moment? FEAR? No, none. What emotion, then? A hint: As I passed the stopped car, I screamed at the driver, YOU GODDAMMED FOOL! YOU NEARLY KILLED ME! Of course, my windows were closed, as were theirs’, so there was no chance they would hear me. But I couldn’t help myself.

I was angry and upset for another ten or fifteen minutes, then I gradually forgot about the incident. But I was bit tense all day long. After doing my business in LA, I returned home to Santa Barbara that evening. When I told my wife about the incident, all the color went out of her face. THEN, I felt fear. I shivered and perspired. It lasted only a few minutes, but I felt much better. I supposed that it dawned on me, EMOTIONALLY, from her reaction, that I could have been killed. I had avoided the appropriate thought and its accompanying emotion by masking them with RAGE.

Men all over the world have been socialized to be strong, brave and competent. In my case, and I think many others, that has meant being shamed into suppressing vulnerable emotions, especially fear, grief, and shame. Stating the matter simplistically, for brevity, most male adults are not conscious of these emotions. Therefore they don’t often shake with fear, sob and tear with grief, and hang their head in shame (and are humorless in a crisis) when these reactions are appropriate (for a fuller treatment of the issue of catharsis, see Scheff 1979).

Males are particularly socialized to cover over feelings of shame: the sense of being weak, powerless, helpless, impotent, or incompetent. Rather than experience these painful feelings, men usually go blank or get enraged. Hitler provides an example of the latter path. He experienced the defeat of Germany in 1918 as a humiliation, both for him personally and for Germany. His entire political career was built on the need to regain pride for himself and for his country, by transforming shame to rage and aggression (Scheff 1994, Chapter 5).

The need for Germany to restore its pride and to achieve prestige among nations was the most frequent note in all of Hitler’s speeches and writings. It was blended into all of this other themes. For example, the following passage from Mein Kampf combines the shame theme with another of his themes, the cooperation of all social classes in Germany against the external enemy:

There is ground for pride in our people only if we no longer need be ashamed of any class… Only when a nation is healthy in all its members, in body and soul, can every man’s joy in belonging to it rightfully be magnified to – national pride. (p. 427).

In his political campaigning in the twenties and early thirties, Hitler quick found that his audiences responded most strongly to the theme of changing German shame into pride by rageful aggression. “The abundant, almost unheard of expression of hate and rageful anger” fired [Hitler’s] successful orations (p. 313, Bromberg and Small 1983) “Hitler’s efforts to deny his shame… pervade much of what he said, wrote, and did” (p. 184).

I was told by an informant that the line from all of his speeches that most set his audiences aflame was the way he referred to the government of Germany that had preceded his. Instead of calling it by its right name, the Weimar Republic, he called it Zwanzig jahren von schmach und schande! (Twenty years of disgrace and shame.) German rage and aggression during the Nazi years were propelled by buried feelings of shame and disgrace.

Closer to home is the case of John Silber, president/dictator of Boston University, and a powerful conservative force in Massachusetts politics. His approach is a prime example of the politics of rage in the United States. As Milburn and Conrad (1996) suggest, it was an outburst of rage during a TV broadcast on the eve of the election that seemed to cost him the race when he ran for governor.

In another interview during his campaign for governor, Silber told a reporter that his sixth grade teacher laughed at him for wanting to be a veterinarian, since Silber had a withered arm. When the interviewer asked him how he felt about being laughed at in front of the whole class, Silber replied that he wasn’t humiliated, it made him stronger. This episode suggests that Silber’s rage as a person and as a politician might arise from the denial of shame.

My colleage, Mark Jurgensmeyer, told me “In doing my book on terrorism I was struck with how common [in his interviews with terrorists] the theme of humiliation was, and how the sense of loss of dignity, of selfhood was linked with violence. “A quest for pride,” a leader of the Hamas movement called it.”

Finally, the humiliation of Islam by the US is a frequent theme of Bin Laden. “So they come again to destroy what remains of [Iraq] and to humiliate their Muslim neighbors” For more than seven years the United States [has been] occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of its territories, Arabia, plundering its riches, overwhelming its rulers, humiliating its people….” (Lewis 1998). I have also seen excerpts from Ben Laden’s writing that refer directly to the need to remove the shame of Islam, but have as yet been unable to locate the source.

These examples, and many others, suggest that men usually deny shame, fear, and grief. Where do all these emotions go? They don’t disappear. They are still there, causing havoc. Emotions are to be felt, not acted on. As long as they are suppressed, we are tense and flustered. Most emphatically, suppressed emotions interfere with clear thinking. Ironically, in trying to control their emotions, most men wind up controlled by them.

Suppressed emotions take one of two paths, both disasters. The most dramatic is masking them with anger and aggression. The more frequent, probably, is to withdraw into silence and/or depression. I tried that path for a while after Sept. 11. Neither of these is a rational response to crisis. The rational response in the present case would be to apprehend the terrorists, who are criminals, and put them on trial. And even more difficult, to look into our own contributions to the conditions that produce terrorists.

Since Cain and Abel, so to speak, the human race has been involved in a cycle of violence: violence breeding violence, around and around. No matter how smart our bombs, our assault on Afgan cities will inevitably lead to the death of many more innocent civilians than terrorists. And its not just us and Afganistan. Look at what has been happening between the Israelis and the Palestinians, especially since Sharon took over. In N. Ireland there appears to be no reason whatsoever that the people can’t live together in peace, other than emotion.

Is there any way to control violence? My answer is yes, BUT its going to take a long time. It would involve changing the way we socialize our children, both men and women. Men are highly irrational and violent in crises, but women still accept and even encourage the practices that lead to their violence. Like mine, many mothers encourage their boys to be strong and silent, like their dads. Many women think they want that type of husband or partner, at least until they get one. Both men and women need to change, because it doesn’t work, not in crisis, and not in marriage. These men are not really strong, they are just human. Silent strength is a fraud, shame, and delusion.

In the meantime, as a first step, I presume to recommend an exercise for every violent person in the world, not just the terrorists and the leaders of US and England, but also those on either side who condone murder of innocent people.

When you get up in the morning, and before you get in bed at night, say these words to anyone who will listen, or out loud to yourself, if no one will.




This mantra will work for some of the people who chant it, and help them think more clearly, to the extent that it uncovers buried emotions. If one of these mantras pulls the trigger on your emotions, keep after it. You have a long ride ahead. But it will take many years, or maybe generations, for this kind of work to make inroads into the cycle of mindless violence. There are no miracles, except human ingenuity and resourcefulness. That’s what I think. What do you think?


[1] Based on a talk given at Grand Rounds, Cottage Hospital, Santa Barbara on Oct. 10, 2001.

Works Cited

Bromberg, N. and V. Small. 1983. Hitler’s Psychopathology. New York: International Universities Press.

Lewis, Bernard. 1998. License To Kill. (Islamic call to kill Jews and Americans) Foreign Affairs, Nov. p. 14(1)

Milburn, Michael, and Conrad, Sheree. 1996. The Politics of Denial. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Scheff, T. J. 1979. Catharsis in Healing, Ritual and Drama. Berkeley: U. of California Press. (iUniverse 2001).

__________ 1994. Bloody Revenge. Boulder, COL.: Westview. (iUniverse 2000)

Author: Thomas Scheff, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at University of California, Santa Barbara, finds retirement to be the first job he’s completely qualified for. His current projects include a paper on the ruling class emotions implied by Weber and Veblen, working class emotions in studies by Willis and by Sennett and Cobb, a book on popular love songs, and a novel. Compared to technical writing, the latter is a vacation.

Published in9/11 and Everyday LifeIssues
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