"In West Texas we're known for being strong," said Odessa Mayor David Turner after the September 1st shooting rampage that left seven people dead and twenty-five injured (including a seventeen-month old toddler of whom the mother said, "toddlers are funny because they can get shot but still want to run around and play," [USA Today] a sentence that should not have to be said by anyone ever).
Let's sit with that for a while: "we're known for being strong."
The question is, then: what does it mean to be strong?
Merriam-Webster defines "strong" as: adj. 1. having or marked by great physical power, 2. having moral or intellectual power, 3-12. colors, wind, smells, blah, blah, blah, 13. not easily upset or nauseated.
And there's the rub. We, as a culture, skipped from definition one (which is pretty self-explanatory) to definition thirteen without any heed to definition two: having moral or intellectual power, and it's that thirteenth definition that bothers me, as that's the one that seems to be the root cause of much male–driven strength–talk; i.e. "the strong silent type," "don't be weak," "suck it up, don't cry, be strong."
What makes a man (or woman, or person, or child) strong in our toxically masculine culture then? In my experience, socially speaking, strength is more commonly defined as hurling back an insult when one has been insulted, refusing to back down when confronted by an aggressor regardless of the circumstances, taking what one wants without thought to how it may affect others, aggressively defending the belief that one is right in all contexts and interactions without heeding any evidence to the contrary, or, if those options are unavailable: silently brooding and denying the existence of any "weak" emotions whatsoever (such as fear, sadness, compassion, being wrong, or empathy), allowing only anger to manifest openly. It's not being easily upset or nauseated, right? That sounds like a big, strong man to me.
But we missed the point. That second definition is where we tripped, fell over, rolled down a hill, and smashed our collective American head into the boulder that is definition thirteen.
Strong: adj. 2. having moral or intellectual power.
Moral power is not "I'm right and you're wrong." Moral power is actively engaging in a dialogue with someone with whom you disagree and finding the win-win solution to the problems we collectively face through compromise and empathy for the greater good, rather than focusing solely on your own personal gain. Intellectual power isn't "you're dumb so screw you." It's thinking outside the box, collaborating, and working together to achieve those win-win solutions.
It is not time for us to be "not easily upset or nauseated." It's not time for us to be "strong and silent." It's not time for us to "nut up or shut up" (Zombieland, 2009). It's time for us to be furious and outspoken and loud and distraught and upset and disgusted and, yes, nauseated at the Second Amendment camp and the NRA and our federal and state legislators who are completely "not upset or nauseated" at the gun violence tearing our communities apart. Their concern is not the safety of their constituents; their concern is maintaining their political power, wealth, and influence, and protecting a Constitutional amendment that was enacting shortly after the Revolutionary War (a full-blown domestic conflict with a foreign power, let us remember, which is a vastly different situation than, as the gun rights defense often goes, a bad guy with a gun who needs a good guy with a gun to stop him) and at a time when guns could carry one (I'm'a shout that real quick: ONE) round per firearm and were a pain in the ass to reload (peep that scene in "The Last of the Mohicans" (1992) when the protagonists are trying to keep the path clear for a messenger to get through the enemy line).
Sandy Hook Elementary School: 26 dead (20 of them children).
Harvest Music Festival: 58 dead, 422 wounded.
Summer 2019: Gilroy, El Paso, Dayton, Odessa; 44 dead, 88 wounded.
That list goes on and on and on and doesn't include all the accidental shootings in people's homes, the gang murders, the domestic violence, or the suicides that could all be prevented by removing the one and only common denominator: open access to all firearms.
Now I'm not saying, "ban all guns." And I'm not saying that better mental health services wouldn't make a difference (they would). But there is one – and only one – common denominator in all of these mass shootings.
With all that in mind, if you can look at the faces of the children murdered at Sandy Hook, the toddler playing while the shrapnel wounds in her face slowly heal, and the weeping friends and family members of those who have been senselessly gunned down and say, "I'm not upset or nauseated about gun violence," then yeah, bro, congratulations. You big and strong.
We desperately need to be upset and nauseated. We desperately need to exercise authentic moral and intellectual power. We desperately need to find a win-win and we needed to do it decades ago.
The Internet changed how intellectual property rights work. Streaming services are still changing how our cinematic awards are judged. Neil Gaiman's "The Sandman: Dream Country" changed how the Pulitzer Prize is awarded. Things change.
Guns have evolved so dramatically over the last two centuries give or take that they are nearly unrecognizable from where they started (those 10th or 11th century Chinese hand cannons were a remarkable innovation to be sure), yet some of us hold so strongly (see what I did there?) to the laws of the past that we are unable to move forward as a society at the same pace as our technology.
So let's redefine strength as the moral and intellectual powerhouse it ought to be. Let's cry openly, let's express all of our feelings, let's use our words, and let's find the win-win on this head-bashing-into-a-brick-wall argument over gun control. Or are we too strong for that?
P.S. Here's a tangible way you can help right now: https://everytown.org/donation-information-actblue/