Sunday, July 22, 2012

On Mass Murderers in America

The names James Holmes, Eric Klebold, and Charles Whitman belong to mass murderers of innocents. There is also Seung-Hui Cho, a college student who killed 32 people at Virginia Tech. There are others. They are representative of a peculiar social pathology marked by social incompetence, withdrawal, and academic promise. They are victims of bullies who, after bearing numerous jeers and slights and humiliations, eventually overflow with rage. 

The news media cover these murders relentlessly. By making these murders a part of the national conversation, the media perform a social rite that allows Americans to communicate their shock and sympathy for the families of the victims. Briefly, the discussion will become a renewed debate regarding the ill effects of violent movies. Briefly, people will raise concerns about the easy availability of assault rifles in the United States and the outsized influence of the National Rifle Association on policy and politics. These discussions will fade from the public consciousness as they always do. The electronic versions of the newspaper articles will be saved, ready to be copied and pasted the next time a mass shooting or bomb attack occurs. 

Regarding the more fundamental question of whether American society contains a flaw of some kind that contributes to the creation of these emotionally crippled, violent creatures – that is a discussion that we might have entertained in the past, perhaps during the heyday of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society and the vogue for sociological explanation. But it is simply not true that -- as the sociologists once claimed -- crime and poverty fluctuate in perfect tandem, or that individual responsibility can be removed from social prediction. 

The idea of the criminal as a so-called “victim of society,” which had its moment in the 1960’s, has fallen into disfavor. By the 1980’s, Americans were militating in favor of a renewed focus on crime victims – a “victim’s rights” movement sprung up to correct a perceived imbalance of popular sympathies. Popular crime dramas began to depend rather heavily on the trope that the American legal system is virtually incapable of locking up people who deserve to be locked up. Of course, this fictional perspective entirely overlooks the fact that, when it comes to the proportion of residents that are incarcerated, America ranks first. America is home to 5% of the world's population but houses nearly a quarter of the world's prison population (source).

And Americans have become hardened by public tragedies. Nowadays, many of us will insist that these murderers bear the entire burden of blame themselves. 

The privatization of responsibility is, perhaps, a manifestation of a kind of “either-or” thinking. Either the mass murderer is entirely absolved by the assertion that he is a “victim of society,” or he is to be expelled – cast like Lucifer into the darkness, utterly disowned. This distils down to mere emotivism. Americans take pride in despising evil-doers; it is a chance to announce our own virtuous sympathy for the families of the victims, accentuated by condemnation of the transgressor. We retreat behind the walls of gated communities, we opt out. 

The question at hand is not whether this view of things is defensible; the question is whether this view of things is effective. A comparison may be made between Americans and the Japanese. The Japanese are just as likely as Americans to heap blame and disapproval upon criminals. However, as I have learned from reading T.R. Reid’s excellent book Confucius Lives Next Door, the Japanese differ from Americans in certain important respects. First, every Japanese child is taught to value chowa: that is, social harmony. As a result, Japanese are deeply apologetic if they arrive late to a meeting or a social engagement, if they disturb a neighbor by making too much noise, or inadvertently say something that causes offense. In contrast, Americans thrive on disharmony: We thrive on being noticed, standing out, making a statement. As I write, a very loud motorcycle hurtles past my home, and it doesn't sound like it slowed down at the stop sign.

Secondly, the Japanese have been taught to scrupulously avoid meiwaku: that is, something which brings shame or trouble upon the group to which one belongs. Japanese value their membership in certain groups: the family comes first, then the neighborhood, the city, and the country. Together, chowa and meiwaku help form a foundation on which civility and a sense of community are built. 

Von Stuck's prophetic painting, "The Wild Hunt"
The point is that the Japanese take responsibility for fostering social virtues just as they take responsibility for punishing wrongdoers. Whereas Americans have hopelessly entangled the discussion of teaching values in school with the discussion of religious freedom, the Japanese enjoy nearly universal agreement on social virtues that ought to be taught and upheld. These social virtues are independent of any particular religious faith. They do not conflict with any of the varied faiths practiced in that country, and are also compatible with a secular worldview. It is reasonable to suspect that the low crime rate in Japan has something to do with the fact that these core virtues are understood and shared and taught by everyone: parents, friends, teachers, employers, and members of the clergy. Everyone accepts the responsibility of correcting people who transgress against these values, and will speak out (however politely).

These social virtues are perhaps entirely alien and inassimilable to America’s defiantly individualistic ethos. But this wasn’t always the case. The Puritans who helped settle this country had strong communitarian beliefs, as did the Quakers, and the classical Republicans who founded this country. According to historian Gordon Wood (in The Creation of the American Republic), the views of the Founders are conveyed by the view that true liberty will exist when “every one must consult his neighbor’s happiness, as well as his own.”  

It would be trite and inaccurate to attribute the decline of public virtue to the increase in individualism per se. Instead, it is worth considering whether a fragmented, Balkanized state of affairs exists with respect to Americans’ perceptions of what it means to be an American. The overwhelming social tendency appears to be one of disintegration. We sort ourselves into communities that share our political views and socio-economic class, listen to news stations which confirm our biased perceptions. We blame the unemployed for being unemployed and foreclosed families for being forced out of their homes. We blame the immigrants. We blame Islamists. We blame members of the other political party. We blame the bankers, even as we continue doing business with the worst of them, and let their crimes go unpunished. We blame others for our own failure to experience a feeling of closeness with others, even as we continue to shrink from interaction with them -- fleeing to the suburbs, averting our gaze when we see someone who is troubled and in need of kindness. This blaming amounts to anger, and anger begets further anger. And anger is not a constructive means of participating in society, and from time to time, anger will be carried to its logical extreme in the form of violence.

And it is instructive to consider another place and another period in history during which this social disintegration occurred; namely, Weimar Germany. The government was divided and ineffective; the masses were motivated by a sense of grievance rather than common purpose. Nature abhors a vacuum, and soon, a leader came onto the scene prepared to provide what the people were unwilling to provide for themselves.  

1 comment:

  1. This is one of the more thoughtful and intelligent pieces I have read on this tragedy. Well said.