I've been watching the reactions to the Sandy Hook massacre, and finding them distressing. Not as distressing as the massacre itself, which was simply sad-- but there's nothing I can do for its victims, beyond send thoughts and warm wishes to the survivors. (And appreciative texts to the teachers I know.) Which I do.
But the reactions-- well, there have been some I've found helpful and enlightening. echoboots has a comprehensive, thoughtful, and very readable three-part series on "Unpacking Mental Health and the Sandy Hook Tragedy." nightengalesknd has a thoughtful post about how people are talking about the tragedy and autism. Both of them make the excellent point that I wish I saw more places: it's more complicated than that.
I guess what really got me was the First Parish Unitarian Universalist service on Sunday. They're a place I usually go and find wisdom, companionship, inspiration. So I was disappointed that they just didn't have much useful to say about it. We mourned together, which was a relief after a few days of me going, "oh, godsdammit, not again."
But then there was a somewhat incoherent attempt to link it to the issues of poverty (okay, I sympathize that my minister had clearly worked very hard on a sermon about classism in UU, and didn't want to completely scrap it, or maybe didn't have time to completely rewrite it, but), and there were a few mentions of the need for better gun control, and better mental health care, and a call for less "glorifying of violence" in our culture through such media as action movies and first-person shooter video games. But these are not the answers I wanted.
All those answers-- the problem is too many guns, the problem is crazy people who aren't taken care of, the problem is glorifying violence-- have two problems. The first problem is that they all create an Other whose fault this is. It's the fault of the NRA and the "gun nuts," who should all be legislated into submission. It's the fault of crazy people, who should all be locked up (or, if you're feeling kindly, taken care of). It's the fault of Hollywood and video game manufacturers, who should-- well, the sorts of people who say this don't generally hold with censorship, but they will definitely write strongly worded letters to the creators of such media, and tell them to stop doing what they do best and do something nicer instead. All of these make the problem someone else's fault (and not even Adam Lanza's, because he's dead, and there's nothing else we can do to him to stop him from doing it again), and so all of them mean that the solution is for someone else to stop doing what they're doing-- by choice or by someone forcing them to. And since odds are reasonably good that those Others will have a different explanation for why things like this happen, that gets ugly and contentious and non-productive and exploitative, fast.
But the counterproductiveness of these arguments isn't the main problem with them. The more important problem is the second one: that all these answers assume that violence itself is an aberration, that no sane and reasonable person could or would commit it. And yes, this particular massacre was a particularly bad idea, and it's hard to see what it accomplished that achieved any of Adam's goals. But we act as if violence, even horrific violence, can never be a rational act, chosen by a sane person.
Which is belied by, well, all of human history. A culture that "glorifies violence"? Seriously? Even if we leave aside war (which is a big thing to leave aside), the culture I live in is one in which the average individual commits far less violence than the average individual across the vast majority of human history. How many of the people reading this will kill a chicken for dinner today? Leaving aside those of you who are vegetarians, even the meat-eaters (for the most part) don't kill your own food, and would feel a bit squeamish about looking down at a feathery, clucking live creature and slitting its throat. Even those of you who hunt usually do it only a few times a year. That act of violence-- that weapon, that blood, that fear and pain-- was a normal part of the routine for the vast majority of our ancestors even a hundred years ago. And sure, animals are not the same as humans, but there are aspects of violence that are the same no matter who you're doing it to. I don't think it's a coincidence that public executions used to be a form of entertainment, and torture of animals an enjoyable pastime, at a time when people casually killed for meat, beat their children, starved in the streets, and so forth. Our blood-sports now are much less bloody-- people may die in NASCAR, but it's not like we go and watch people slam their cars into the walls as the main goal of the exercise. People may beat each other up in boxing or wrestling matches, but they come back for another fight the next day, they're not disemboweled like gladiators. People may die horribly in movies and video-games, but any middle-schooler can tell you exactly how they made those special effects. As individuals, as a culture, we just have much less taste for real blood than we used to.
But at the same time, our weapons are much, much more effective. Adam Lanza's death toll would have been much smaller with a broadsword, or an atlatl. We have flying death robots that can rain destruction on our enemies from hundreds or thousands of miles away. It is easier to kill than it has ever been before.*
So, we have a culture full of people who don't live with violence on a daily basis (the way that people used to, and do elsewhere in the world, or even in some parts of our cities)-- but with access to terrible weapons. We don't understand violence. It's scary, it's Other, it's foreign, it's somebody else's fault, and somebody else's problem.
And as long as that's true for us, we're going to keep being shocked, over and over, by school shootings like this one.
Now, I'm not calling for more violence. I like the ways that our culture differs from other cultures in history. I like the way that people almost never strike me in anger, that I almost never strike others in self-defense. (Or vice-versa.) But I would like for people to stop thinking of violence as foreign, and unthinkable. It's not true that everyone has the potential for violence-- but the majority of us do.
And it does have uses. Violence is the final means that anger has to do its work. And we need anger. Anger and love are the two forces that inspire and power us to change the world around us, and one is not automatically better than the other. They're two different tools, two different power sources, and they work better or worse for different jobs. I am glad that I have anger to help me hold my boundaries, keep other people from crossing them. I hope I would use violence to stop someone who was trying to physically hurt me. That's what violence is for.
But like anger, violence can be double-edged. We need to understand it, and use it thoughtfully and carefully. We need to know how to combine anger-- and violence-- with planning, empathy, awareness of consequences. That's not something our culture is good at teaching us.
So when I look at Adam Lanza-- well, I never met him, I don't really know what he was like. But my guess is that he was a person who did not know how to use love and anger to change the world around him in the ways he wanted it to change. For whatever reasons, he had not learned how his anger and his love could be most effective. I suspect he was pretty miserable, and I suspect he felt pretty helpless, a lot of the time.
So... I would like us to stop looking at this and saying, "this is too complicated to understand." I would like us to stop saying, "Adam Lanza acted in ways that are unthinkable, that are inexplicable, that must be the fault of gun-owners or being crazy or watching too much violence on TV."
Because the thing is: you are angry, about something. You live near a school. You could get a gun, or a bunch of guns.
What I want you to think about is: why don't you? What is the reason that you don't act on violence? What gets in the way of you shooting up a school?
Because that's what we need to encourage in our culture, if we want to keep tragedies like this from happening again. That's what we need to teach our children. Whatever it is that keeps you from punching out the person who took your seat on the subway, or assassinating the political candidate you don't like, or kicking your puppy-- that's what we need to encourage. We need to figure out, and then work to change, whatever shouts down the voice that tells me not to cut off that other car in traffic. What tells me to ignore that voice, or that it's not important? And on the other hand, what tells me that it is important? What can I do to reinforce that force that keeps me from stabbing people with a butcher knife when they hurt my feelings? What do I do to keep my violence in check, to pull it out only when it's appropriate-- and how can I help other people do the same thing?
I don't know exactly what answers we'll find. But I would like us to ask the questions. Because the more we make things like this about other people, not about ourselves, the longer we'll go on, bewildered and upset and horrified, as more children die.
*It's also important to mention the profound economic violence we support, or the violence that we pay for, but never see and seldom hear about. We pay for slavery, exploitation, and massacres whenever we buy things from gasoline to t-shirts to diamonds-- but we personally do almost none of the beating, killing, burning, and other atrocities. We live in a culture founded upon violence which, if we don't make an effort to learn about, we'll never know is happening.
I've thought about that, because I've worked with people who think much more casually about violence than I do, and tried to understand how our perspectives differed and whether I might (or should) use my perspective to help alter theirs. And I've not really come up with anything more coherent than, "Well, you just don't," or "Other people matter." Which doesn't give me much to use to connect with someone who doesn't already share that feeling.
If you have clearer answers to those questions, I'd be interested in hearing them.
Well... okay, why don't I get some guns and go shoot up a school? In no particular order:
1) It would be dishonorable to kill unarmed people.
2) I would feel really bad about how sad and scared they were. (Some part of me might enjoy having the power to make them feel that sad and scared, but I think that would be overwhelmed by how distressed I'd feel at their distress.)
3) I'd get in a lot of trouble.
And the one that I think people don't think of as obvious, but is really important:
4) There's nothing I stand to gain by doing so. Everything that I really want, I can get through other means (or I'm convinced I can't actually get no matter what I do).
I feel like 4 may be at the heart of this. Yeah, empathy is important. Yeah, consequences for actions are important. But I think the key may be that people will not commit violence like this if they know how to get what they want by other means. And that's not as simple as just "help people find other ways of getting money besides robbing people." Things people get out of violence include: feeling powerful, feeling in control, making somebody else feel scared so they don't have to, expressing their anger, demonstrating how terrible they think they are so that somebody will actually understand them, and other such intangibles. Violence can be quite effective for dealing with those feelings in the short term, but in the long term, it's inefficient... if you commit violence to feel in control, you have to keep doing it, or you lose that control again. That's hardly restful.
So... yeah. I think the key to stopping violence, like the key to stopping most problematic behaviors, is to figure out what the person is trying to achieve with it, and see whether there are less costly ways of achieving the same thing.
To the degree that we are successful, a life of peace is an achievement for which we can be justifiably proud. It's taken generations of trial and error so far, and sometimes very terrible mistakes, and a couple very uncomfortable concessions about what it means to be a person, but we're becoming more skillful at building a world where violence is rarely thought of as a solution (and actually is a solution even more rarely than that). I think there are a few really, really important pillars holding up that achievement:
1)Participation in a preposterously wealthy economy. Most of the people I know produce REALLY AMAZING THINGS. Like ENTERTAINMENT or ROBOT ARMS or MENTAL HEALTH. And lots of times, they give me these amazing things. Even the ones that aren't producing amazing things have a pretty good chance of producing them at some point in the future. So violence against others is a tool that takes away all my amazing-things-from-the-future.
2)Fiction. If I had to add up all the hours in my life that I spent taking the perspective of people who have different values and different perspectives and different lives (and often different universes with different laws of nature), then that would be... a very large number. And it's important to remember that this huge body of possible worlds is one of the achievements of our society. The novel itself is, what, three hundred and a half? And every last one of them helped give me the reflex of imagining what it would be like to be a victim of sex trafficking, or a Palestinian hiding from drones, or even a cow on a dairy farm.
3)The overwhelming and near-certain threat of retaliation. Holy crap the leviathan. Our leviathan has nukes, y'all. I repeat: it can kill people so fast that they leave their shadow behind, smeared on the wall behind them where they used to stand. So it's really scary to do bad things. But it's also more nuanced than that. Because when somebody does something grossly unjust to me, I can breathe through my frustration because I KNOW that I live in a fairly just society, where stuff like stealing and threats of violence are not tolerated. I can relax and be confident that there is a giant machine out there that makes life miserable for thieves and abusers, and so I DON'T HAVE TO. There's no sense that violence must be met with violence; peace is just the more sensible option.
I'm not half so confident about the giant machine, having seen firsthand how it threatens some people with violence all the time, people who have done nothing to earn that threat. (I.e. it's a massively racist system, and punishment through prisons is horrendously unjust; furthermore, its violence tends to beget more violence.) Which also makes me wonder how you do anything to convince the leviathan to do other stuff.
That aside, I agree about (1) and (2). As for gaudior's (4), oh that's right, you're a therapist. Very well put.
The reason that we don't decide to shoot up a school -- that was an unexpectedly good question. When did I decide not to do that? Never can I remember wanting to hurt an innocent living creature. Granted, I was a creepy kid with violent fantasies, and a lot of other kids did not fall in the "innocent" category to me. But I never had an impulse to hurt a blameless child or an animal.* Why? My parents and family showed me love, kindness and empathy every single day of my life, and that primed the circuits, the inborn capacities for altruism and empathy that create a functioning human being. What are we to do about people whose inborn capacities are damaged or destroyed, or were never there?
I read a story about a white? woman who wanted to follow a Native American path. Her guide told her to go on a vision quest with nothing, no food, etc, and survive, and find some form of Truth. She was a staunch vegetarian. Not being from those parts, the only food she recognized as such was a rabbit. For days, she agonized whether its life was as important as her own. Finally, she violently kills the beautiful velvet-eyed bunny, realizing in that instant that she can't transcend the food chain or sit apart from nature, red in tooth and claw. I think of this story when I think of how our culture views violence. If you are a good person, you avoid it at all costs, but long ago, it was part of how we sustained ourselves and our families, daily or near daily. Has there been a plastic-wrapped disconnect from ritual which would help us deal with each other? If people today had to kill for their own meat, wpuld they be less likely to glamorize violence?