Thoughts on School Shootings

Gun violence is a thing. It seems like, in some respects, it is a bigger thing these days than it used to be. It certainly seems like, in terms of school shootings and mass shootings, it is a far bigger thing than it was, say 30 years ago.

In this post, I want to examine some ideas about gun violence in schools (focusing primarily on mass shootings in schools, such as the Parkland incident), and perhaps gun violence in general. These are some preliminary sketches of ideas, and I do not claim to have a solution. Think of it as thinking out loud in written form. As I am a fan of thinking in terms of systems, and across disciplines, these sketches tend to do a lot of that, at the cost of ignoring the particularities of specific shootings. In my next post, I hope to consider the validity of a few of the more popular proposals for dealing with this issue.

The first thing that comes to mind is Gun Crazy – a 1950 film noir, directed by Joseph H. Lewis. The story begins with the lead character as a child, who steals a revolver, and brings it to school. The teacher takes the gun away – not because a student brought a gun to class, but because his showing it off is disruptive – and he can get the gun back at the end of the day.

The reason Gun Crazy comes to mind is because it portrays a very interesting point of American history and our relationship to firearms. The gun has been something of a staple of American culture, and understandably so. The rugged living conditions, especially of the American West, have historically required the presence and effective use of firearms for survival. Leaving aside the moral question of settlers and natives, the gun was a fairly common household tool. No one was taken aback at the idea of the child having, and being capable of using firearms in Gun Crazy, any more than they were shocked at the same idea in Old Yeller (1957). These were not the parts of the story that required a suspension of disbelief by the audience.

This indicates several important things. First, the presence and use of firearms is a fairly normal historical aspect of American culture. Second, the access to firearms was a fairly common thing for children. Finally, the data and our reaction to contemporary gun violence against (and by) children, is a strong indicator that this sort of violence is not a historical norm. We could, of course, go digging through data, but for the present sketch-purposes, it is enough to note that the nation was shocked to the core by the 1999 Columbine massacre.

Second, it occurs to me that guns are neither necessary nor a causal factor for mass violence – strictly speaking. It’s not like history is not stacked to the rafters with corpses of non-gun-related violence. It takes more work, and generally requires more group coordination – making the lone-wolf scenarios rarer – but Rwanda played out primarily with machetes. Of course, the ability to kill with minimum effort, at a distance, at high speed makes such acts significantly easier; but it is not a necessary condition. Besides the historical US lack of such violence in the presence of guns, there are also several other states where guns are plentiful, but violence is lacking. Switzerland is one example.

These three ideas, together give us something like:

  1. Presence and access to firearms is an American historical norm
  2. School and mass shootings are not an American historical norm
  3. Presence and access to firearms is not causally related to violence
  4. Absence and inaccessibility to firearms is not sufficient for violence prevention
  5. The school and mass shootings are a (fairly) new phenomena in America

Here, I need to backtrack a bit. In my own philosophical studies (which focus on ethics and meta-ethics), I have devised a bit of a system of visual representation of the relation of ethics to societies (figure below). I, of course, think this is a very good system, and one that has all sorts of functionalities lacking in other systems – but then again, this was the purpose of designing it, and I am a bit partial to it. In any case, the system consists of four parts: 1) the ground itself, which represents the kinds of core values we hold. These are adhered to as a matter of faith – i.e. we believe that rape is wrong, and don’t need to prove it. 2) The “forest” of development of these core values by extrapolation, implications, interpretation, and history. These represent the growth of the core ideas, their interactions, and are the “living” form of values a society relies on.  3) Derived-value ethical notions, represented as pillars. These are the ethical ideas of the core values, but in a form that has been socially and culturally navigated and negotiated to be the social norm, in light of our particular contexts. 4) Finally, there is the social structures standing atop the pillars, representing the society as it is.

As a society, we develop this model based on mutually agreed core values and their implications, which are then negotiated into practice by specific efforts, in response to context. The result is the state of society which sits atop the ethical sub-structure.

Now, I imagine that, regardless of the state of a society, its values, its negotiated ethical norms, the idea of the representation looks the same. The ground may look different, the forest may look different, location and thickness of pillars may be different, and the social structures may be different – all depending on the society, time-period, etc. However, the idea is always the same. In this way, we’re always looking at the same kind of a thing – a set of blueprints – but the particular lines on that blueprint are the difference between a DIY tool shed and the Burj Khalifa.

For example, the structure of American ethical and social system was such that, for a long while, slavery was supported on the basis of some set of underlying values (namely Aristotelian natural slavery). The general shape of that ethical and social system remained (in terms of blueprints), but slavery – as a social institution – lost the underlying support and collapsed. The fact that this collapse required a war is of no consequence. The war was the result of a change in the system, such that slavery was no longer supported – literally. The reasons for why it became unsupported are irrelevant here. What matters is that the blueprints were altered, so that the slavery wing of the American “building” could no longer stand, and thus was demolished as slavery was abolished.

Back to the film noir and American history; if the historical norm has been the presence of guns, but absence of violence (as mass shootings in schools), then the ethical and social structures in question were such that they negated the use of such violence as a social tool. They prevented this use of violence so well, that school shootings – or stabbings for that matter – were essentially unheard of. Then, time passed, and the same society ended up with the ethical and social structure which no longer prevents this violence – as evidenced by its presence. The question becomes: “what changed with our society?” Some load-bearing wall has been removed, or a new wing added, which creates the kinds of conditions in which the ethical and social situation is such that it no longer functions in preventing these kinds of violence.

It seems rather pedantic to say that we do not approve of such violence. In a sense, we clearly do not – no one is marching in the streets for the right to commit mass shootings in schools. On the other hand, the idea of belonging to this society no longer fulfills the function of preventing such actions on a common-enough scale. While we may not have actively chosen the affirm the violence, something about our collective ideology has changed in a way that it no longer prevents such behavior (similarly, we do not approve of obesity, yet the rates of obesity keep rising). What is that “something” that now allows for violence, is the question. However, this question may be a bit too complex for me – or rather, its complexity exceeds my current problem-solving abilities. Maybe there is someone (or a group of someones) who can detail the answer, but I cannot. What I can do, is examine the kind of change that could have occurred, and possibly provide an insight into which areas of inquiry may or may not be fruitful.

The top level of the structure – the society as it is – seems mostly irrelevant to the question of change. In a way, that level of the system is simply a reflection of the underlying ideas, put into practice. I think we’ll be safe if we ignore it for the time being.

If we think about the earlier social structure, what we have is core values, which have been navigated in a way that – given the particular context of operation – prevented school shootings. That would mean that either our negotiated social values have changed, or our core social values have changed, or both. It is possible for the values to have stayed the same, but the context to have changed drastically enough, so that the old solutions no longer fulfill their intended function. While I think this would fall under the negotiated values, because the negotiation is always in light of the context of operations, let’s treat it as an independent 3rd factor of this equation – just to make things a bit clearer.

 

So, what could have gone wrong in America?

One possibility is that something about our core or extrapolated values (the ground itself or the outgrowth) has changed. Some event, or series of events, have eroded our groundwork of values. As a visual representation, you can think of an earthquake, or water wearing away the structural foundations -until a sinkhole opens up and swallows up a part of a building – or you can think of it as a tree or branch withering away. Traditionally, it would seem that violence was kept in check with the idea that there is something about humans that makes the resort to murderous direct violence not OK. Obviously, this also depended a bit on whom we qualified as human – and whether they were as human as we are (thus the idea of dehumanizing the other in war). However, humans in general were considered the kinds of things that one spoke to first – and used violence later. This seems to be a kind of recognition of the human intellectual capacity, and the idea that people have the ability to make choices, while animals simply do. The story of Cain and Abel is monstrous partially for this reason; Cain does not attempt to speak with a fellow human being and work out the issue he has, he just murders him.

The problem, then, would be that the way we conceive of humans, on a broad enough social level, has changed over time, and we no longer hold that same idea that recognizes humanity and intellect as a reason to refrain from violence. While we have traditionally had an “other” that we have dehumanized, that “other” was generally excluded from general social participation with the rest of society. That is, we didn’t dehumanize ourselves. This distinction of “us” and “them” seems to have been based on the group homogeneity, and a “clear” way to distinguish “our” tribe from “theirs.”  While some cases of this distinction can be based on objective differences in core values and key socially negotiated values, most times, these differences are generally arbitrary (e.g. the “racial” causes of the Rwandan genocide). The issue at hand is the fact that, from a “tribal” perspective, we have shifted from violence as a tool we may only legitimately direct towards the “other” (usually in a ritualized manner of war), to tribal in-fighting. To put it a different way, as a society, we seem to have something of an autoimmune problem, where the society has turned on itself.[1]

Another possibility is that, in the developing context of America, the way we have negotiated conflict resolution has changed. Here, the idea of violence as a tool of conflict resolution has gained disproportionate validity and prominence. In this case, the relation of “respect for humanity” and “getting things your way” values has come out of joint, and the value of our own preference now disproportionately outweighs the basic value of humanity. Given the “zero-tolerance” policies towards violence in schools, we might be led to think that this option is unlikely. However, two issues point to this being a serious possibility. First, a number of the zero-tolerance policies arose in response to increased violence (meaning that the violence came first). Second, the otherwise peaceful activities, like marches and protests have been taking on an increasingly violent tone recently (more on that below). Thus, despite the sort of social veneer we attempt to apply, the underlying causes of those policies and the practical behavior of increasing segments of the population belie the idea of a peaceful society.

Another possibility, in terms of core, extrapolated, and negotiated values, is the role of individuals in society. What does it mean to be a man, woman, etc. in America (or a human being in the 21st century world)? Traditional societies tended to have a clear answer, and thus integrated their members well. This process of integration gave people a sense of purpose, in addition to instilling a shared sense of social values. Today, or really since the 1800s, the idea of purpose and meaning has been deteriorating. There is no longer a clear sense of right and wrong – at least not in the traditional sense of shared social values. We also don’t have much left in terms of archetypal purpose – the kind that said that men are the protectors of women, women are the social organizational force of society, etc. The specifics of these roles are irrelevant; their presence as a socially grounded and grounding principle is the important factor in ordering a society. The consequences here cross far into psychology, though given that much of psychology was developed by philosophy, we can look at some meanings of this development.

As existential authors have argued, without a sense of meaning, human beings become unmoored from society, and are left adrift in the world. There is no guidance available, and without values no option is better than another. There is a reduced or removed sense of responsibility – because there is nothing you’re “supposed” to be, or not be – nothing you’re “supposed” to do, or not do. The lack of responsibility, especially when coupled with a life that is difficult and full of suffering (aka “being alive in the world”), produces a sense of resentment against the reality of being – a deep-seeded hatred of the world whose malevolence (which is everywhere) cannot be justified in a meaningless world. This, as Dr. Jordan Peterson so often points out, creates homicidal and genocidal individuals. A society which has become unmoored from purpose and values is the driving force for creating such individuals, and actually sets the ground for these kinds of self-destructive ideas to play out.

There’s also the very real possibility that the problem is some combination of all of the above, in addition to other factors. In terms of the groundwork, it seems fairly clear that the American groundwork of values is in a state of flux. Since the 1960s, we’ve been navigating the social problems of America in an increasingly hostile – or perhaps polarized – way. Over the past 20 years or so, the rate of value change has increased exponentially. As an example, the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy was on the cutting edge of liberal politics at its implementation – but today would be considered to be wildly regressive, by the same people.

It also seems fairly clear that the use of violence, and more importantly highly disruptive behavior devolving into violence, is on the rise. The “occupy” movement (a mere decade ago), was generally peaceful – today, we have highly charged and often violent protests on every issue. Doxxing was a fringe activity, used truly for fringe actors. But today, people who peacefully protest, or give testimony for city planning panels, get doxxed. The right and the left are at absolute odds, with no more middle ground left. That means that the social values have come out of sync and we’re no longer capable of integrating individuals, because there is no whole into which we are integrating them into. The process of integration is now integration into an ideological tribe locked in mortal combat with the other 50% of the population. There can be no compromise, because the “other” is always a moral monster.[2] Thus, present attempts at integration also become an exercise in social polarization and destruction of shared values.

The shifting meaning of social roles, and the lack of meaning, is playing a part in the kinds of value shifting that’s playing out with the multiplication of rights, of the kinds of activities that accompany the pursuit of those rights, and the willingness to break the system.

It seems that, in the breakdown of values, we have incentivized something that functions as a violent opposition to the social system. Or perhaps, we have disincentivized in-system adherence by devaluing the system as a whole, while physical violence, mob mentality, and screaming hordes gains increasing prominence. We see this playing out as professors get sacked for free speech and even for expressing scientifically vetted, in-field expert ideas. We see this when free speech is stifled, when “victim” claims are taken as proof – without proof – and lives are ruined as a consequence. The result is the idea that values that had been socially affirmed by the society at large – such as presumption of innocence and due process – can be usurped by the feelings of this individual or that, and can be bypassed by emotional mob appeals that turn to screaming mobs and violent opposition.

If the system and its values are no longer valued by the society, if it can be bypassed, if there are no consequences to acting out of accordance with them, if the underlying values are in a constant state of flux and no longer stable, what’s the incentive for individuals to stay within the lines? If, on top of that, the world is failing to deliver on our hopes and dreams, what’s the incentive for staying in the world – and what’s the incentive for respecting the world itself? If my personal values outweigh the social ones, the society must be bent to my desires – or broken.

The messages left by numerous school shooters are explicit in the attitude and structure of this homicidal pathology. The increase of school shootings is an indicator of such a pathology on the rise. Our social unwillingness to confront the question head-on, and the moral cowardice that pretends to care while calling for superficial “fixes” in a politically savvy way, indicates that the problem is not the “mental illness” of a few “bad apples.” The problem has become systemic.

 

So, where does that leave us?

in the next post(s), I will entertain a few ideas in some detail. However, the general form of solution seems to require that we address two issues. First is the underlying source of the homicidal/genocidal pathology. We must identify how the historical approach has prevented this kind of violence; what social values and contextual issues have led to the social transformation, such that the use of this level of pathological violence has somehow become acceptable – in that, the social integration into the social value system no longer curbs such behaviors. And we must find a way of correcting the social value discrepancy, by reintegrating the general population into a coherently value-laden society. This, of course, means that we need to develop a coherent value-system that will serve to address this issue. Additionally, this system will need to reflect the particular context of America, and can’t just be adopted from a state whose entire social context is radically different.

The issue with this direction is that each of these steps is complex, and requires a lot of study, not to mention extremely long implementation time – likely requiring generations of work for the final implementation. The time frame for this solution is long, because the kinds of changes necessary to make a meaningful effect is measured in generations. It’s not about changing one thing, it’s about changing everything. The things that seem to have gone wrong went wrong a while back – ranging from 50-140 years. It took generations for the changes in social values to play out – and the reversals are likely to take just as long.  During this period, the shootings are likely to continue, meaning that this can’t be the only solution. Thus, if we’re serious about addressing the problem, we need additional solution-types, likely to provide some relief in the short-term. This is the second issue.

The second issue is the reduction of such violence through creating meaningful hurdles to committing mass shootings. The first time I heard the explanation for those funny little “suicide prevention” fences on pedestrian bridges (roughly 10 feet of easily scalable wire), I thought it was the dumbest Idea I had ever heard. I mean, all they seem to do is create an additional 10-foot jump platform – right? Turns out, I was greatly wrong. Apparently, most suicides are an impulsive act of “convenience.” Thus, adding a hurdle – say, the need to climb a railing and a fence – will deter a lot of people.

Now, obviously, mass shootings seem to be premeditated acts, which means that a simple hurdle will not work as well as it did for suicides. However, it seems likely to do something in terms of preventing some of the people from going through with it. So, the question becomes, what hurdles can we use, and which ones are most likely to have the best result? This, rather clearly, is a question for experts, with a lot of psychological, political, and legal expertise. Hurdle measures come in one of two forms: stop-gap measures, intended to be used for a period of time until the more comprehensive work is carried out, and then removed; or long-term measures, that remain useful even when the more comprehensive work is done. Due to the fear of the “ratchet effect” it may be beneficial for any hurdle ideas to be primarily aimed at the long-term measures, so as to make the most meaningful contributions.

 

It seems to me that the real takeaway from this sketch is that we may have been approaching the issue of mass shootings (and specifically school shootings) from a wrong angle, and thus have failed to diagnose the problem. Clearly, a misdiagnosed disease is unlikely to lead to functional treatment, and thus the need to get the diagnosis right. If I’m correct in the diagnosis, and I think I am, the problem is one of missing social values, and thus the inability to create a way of integrating the population into a kind of society where these acts of violence are just not the kind of thing we do. Unless that problem is fixed, no amount of gun control or increased security seems likely to be effective in the long-term. On the other hand, the ease of access to firearms enables the kinds of large-scale carnage that may be reducible. Unless we also apply some version of the “hurdle” approach, the social-values part will have a much harder time taking effect, and we’re likely to be in for continued massacres for the foreseeable future.

The solution, whatever it is, needs to be a balanced approach of long-term and short-term approaches. Our attitude needs to be one of coherent cooperation in resolving the problem, not partisan bickering. No one approach is likely to fix everything; no approach is without its drawbacks; no approach is without possible loopholes. That said, complaining about the imperfect nature of solutions to complex problems, and rejecting them for their theoretical imperfections, seems like a losing proposition. I’m not sure which approach will change the situation for the better – but I am absolutely certain that without changing our current attitudes, the situation will not change. Thus, the only thing we can do is look for the most likely solution-type, then dedicate ourselves to realizing it. We are able to monitor our progress, and adjust the approach as necessary, and so a solution that is not solving anything can always be adjusted or scrapped.

Two decades of increasing school shooting incidents are a decent indicator that something has gone wrong. Failure to address the root causes of the issue, or addressing them in a superficial way, will allow the trend to keep going strong, and for the causes of the problem to fester and grow. The solutions proposed by the two political sides fail to engage with the root of the problem and promise no meaningful change to the unfortunate status quo. This much is clear from 20 years of “solutions” that have failed to solve anything. Simply clamoring for “something” to be done is a useless tactic – since, without a proper diagnosis, any solution can just as well exacerbate the problem.

If we can let go of the ideological party-lines, and seriously look at the problem and the context, we may be able to both diagnose the problem, and commit to a meaningful set of long-term and short-term solutions. Some of these solutions may not be the kinds of things we hope for, or may be downright distasteful. Then again, so is chemotherapy – but we’re willing to not just put up with it, but willingly pay through the nose for it – because the side-effects of the medicine are better than the disease.

 

 

[1] This analogy does not presuppose that the “other” is an “invader” or “parasite” – simply that the systems that normally serve to protect the body (i.e. social values) have not only failed at that task, they seem to actively attack the very system they’re meant to protect.

[2] It may be worth noting that this “other” is traditionally seen as satanic (resulting from the Manichean moral attitudes inherited by the West) – the destructive force seeking “our” destruction. Thus, it is hardly surprising that the “other” is always painted in terms which make any meaningful compromise impossible.

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