Sunday, November 17, 2013

On Mass Killings: The Importance of "Cultural Ether"

NB -- this was originally published at Medium, where no one saw it (probably deservedly). Regardless, I'm republishing it here. 


BL MS Royal 19B XV, f. 37v.
(early 14th c.)
There’s a lot to like about Ari Schulman’s article in last week's The Wall Street Journal. The very best part is simply this:
“Underlying this grim national ritual, and the pronouncements from all quarters that mass shootings are ‘senseless,’ is the disturbing feeling that these acts are beyond our understanding.”
Schulman then goes on to explain why this itself doesn’t make sense. Psychologists and criminologists know plenty about why they happen, and the reasons are then enumerated (complete with bullet-pointed list). Don’t talk about the shooter. Don’t talk about his (almost always a him) motives. Don’t focus on the victims’ families. Prevent the next event by talking down the significance of this last one. Don’t feed the mental illness of the next mass killer by giving him something to aspire to.

But that list strikes me as problematic — problematic because its prescriptions move towards a trivialization of the event itself in the name of preventing future events. In other words, its prescriptions move the event towards that same “senslessness” that the author decries. Schulman tries to avoid this:
Rampage shootings are fed by many other sources that also must be addressed, of course… [But] these factors are more or less perennial problems of human life and cannot, alone, bear the blame for rampage shootings. In coverage of these events, the focus on insanity particularly risks playing into the need of potential future shooters to convince themselves that the world rejects them, rather than the other way around. The minority who really are psychotic, or just act impulsively, are even more likely to draw their ideas from the cultural ether.
He moves in a productive direction but then draws back, finding comfort in a move towards pathologization. Mass killers become semi-automatons, “activated” by their predecessors, all related, easily categorized. We scientize them.

But let’s double-back and continue on the path. Mental illness undoubtedly plays a role in almost all mass killings, but we can’t downplay that “cultural ether.” Action occurs at a moment of complex interaction between idea and reality, between rhetoric/ language and reception. Yes, we can and should attempt to understand the psychological profile of these shooters but we should also understand how cultural (humanistic) factors influence them.

And perhaps this is the way out, an addendum to Schulman’s article. Don’t focus on the killer, don’t focus on his propaganda, but read it/ watch it. Understand it. Deconstruct it. Find the cultural cues embedded within it and trace their roots. Maybe it’s religion (as here & here). Maybe it’s a our cultural valorization of violence as a problem-solving option. Schulman is right that, in and of themselves, these ideas percolating in the cultural ether are not dangerous. The vast, vast majority deal with those ideas daily without recourse to violence. The problem is that, once in a while, sometimes suddenly, they don’t anymore. Suddenly, that cultural ether coalesces, become the demons that whisper in someone’s ear. And we must interrogate those moments when the demons become manifest.

But that’s scary, so we tend to “rationalize.” The thing is, those cultural cues will always be different, and there will be times when dealing with mass killers when they will appear virtually ex nihilo and we’ll only be able to look back to figure out what happened and why. And that’s messy. It requires a lot of work on our part and can, at times, implicate us. And as scary as that is, it’s less frightening than falling back into “senslessness.” Those demons don’t lose their power when we ignore them, when we pretend they’re not there; they lose their power when we dispel them.

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