Young boy aloneWhen we talk about men and violence, we often talk about large issues such as gun violence and violence against women. But we also need to focus on the ways our everyday behaviors and words model and encourage violent behaviors, according to a panel of speakers at a Saturday morning APHA Annual Meeting event.

At the “Men and Violence” workshop, sponsored by APHA’s Men’s Health Caucus, about 30 attendees joined the discussion with four presenters. A handful of San Diego area residents also attended — in fact, it was the first time a Men’s Health Caucus session extended an invite to the local community.

“As we know, there is all too much violence today,” said presenter Dan Duquette, department chair and professor of health education and promotion at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. “It permeates everything. …We must have conversations that are civil and connected to solutions. In addition, as APHA is grounded in science, so too must these conversations.”

To start the dialogue, we must first define the terms, said James Leone, professor of health at Bridgewater State University in Bridgewater, Mass. Leone said he recently gave a presentation and included in his introduction: “I’m a cisgender man.” Attendees looked confused, and Leone realized they didn’t know what he was talking about. It was another reminder that public health professionals can’t have meaningful conversations with the public if we don’t have a shared understanding of language and words.

“Semantics and the rhetoric that surrounds the semantics are critically important,” he told attendees.

When talking about men and violence, conversations need to focus on the normalization of violence, aggressiveness and toughness that starts in childhood.

“If we normalize it when you’re 8, it’s going to manifest into something on a grander scale when you’re 18 or 30 or 88,” said Michael Rovito, assistant professor in the Department of Health Sciences at the University of Central Florida.

“Be tough.”

“Suck it up.”

“Get up. You’re not hurt.”

Many boys in the U.S. hear these phrases starting when they’re toddlers — from parents, grandparents, coaches, teachers. Cartoons aimed at boys often focus on aggressive characters of cowboys and pirates. Boys are taught not to cry or show emotions, bottling up their feelings as a child and as an adult. Boys are taught to “hit hard” in sports like football and hockey. But they don’t often know how to turn off that violence when they leave the field or rink, Leone told workshop attendees.

“It becomes second nature to act aggressively … and it gets worse as you get older,” Rovito said. “I don’t think we should be so surprised to see our society like this. We’re creating this. When these [mass] shootings happen, it’s like, ‘what do you expect?’ We’re normalizing [violence], maybe in unknown ways.”

On top of it all, there’s typically no support group or easily available therapy to help men deal with aggressive tendencies or feelings leading up to violence. There’s no “Alcoholics Anonymous” for men and violence. Instead, some men unfortunately resort to self-harm or crime. Mass shooters are actually the outliers, Leone said.

Furthermore, the incarceration system often exacerbates the problem, neglecting to examine the roots causes of violence. “It doesn’t look at what got you there, other than the last act,” Leone said. “It doesn’t look at the whole social history of the person that we could get from social work records, from public health individuals. That’s one of the failures of the American incarceration system, which is we’re negating the whole history of the individual.”

Public health professionals should seek out partners who can collaborate on these issues in their own disciplines, said Albert Pless Jr., program manager of the Men’s Health League at the Cambridge Public Health Department in Cambridge, Mass. Individually, people, especially men, need to examine their positions as role models, how they act and talk. And they may need to change before they can role model appropriate and healthier behaviors for younger men and boys.

Workshop attendees also discussed the coarsening of American society, pointing to the toxicity of social media and the current political climate. Are we going backward, with toxic masculinity getting worse? Leone cautioned public health workers to focus on the data and not the “feeling” that society is becoming more aggressive.

Indeed, Rovito said having civil arguments with people who think differently from you is important. “If we do that, we’re going to lead by example, and our kids are going to see that.

“This whole bifurcating in society — how is that going for us right now?” Rovito asked attendees. “Not so well. The more irritated we get, the more divisive we get, the more divided we get, the more coarse we get. It’s not going to lead to anywhere good. …We all have the sense that this is not good for us, but we still conduct behaviors that contribute to this. We’re smarter than this.”