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  • Writer's pictureBrendan Szendrő

Confronting the Culture of Violence

It’s time to think differently about mass shootings.

These events aren’t random. Mass shootings, and public violence in general, are political. They’re about social capital and the loss of group identity. They’re about introducing the “real” state of individualized, Hobbesian nature into the “imaginary” realm of group affiliation. They’re carried out by people who feel dislocated by the pace of change. The psychology that goes into mass public violence is the same psychology that fuels populism, religious fundamentalism and every other form of radical anti-individualism. There’s a lot of issues that go into these events, but most of the ones people talk about are more symptomatic than anything else. The two biggest things, to me, are that we have a lot of people who feel dislocated, and we have a culture that’s fixated on violence. More than the ease at which people can get guns, what strikes me is that Americans have an obsession with guns, and an obsession with use of force as a solution to our problems. This is why we militarize our police. This is why our answer to every international disturbance is to bomb the shit out of it.

So, if you have a large mass of people who feel estranged from civic life, their immediate answer, through our cultural lens, is to use violence in public fashion. Our discourse is about humiliation. Our political movements are all about the expulsion of people who don’t belong. America’s fascination with individualism has bred a counter-movement that hates the individual and wants it destroyed. Gun enthusiasts fetishize their items and explicitly link them to notions of interpersonal violence. They feel a need to not only attack and discredit, but outright harass anyone who might disagree with them, even if those people happen to be children, or survivors of these incidents.

I’m not anti-gun. I’ve been trying to train myself to shoot and I’d like to purchase a firearm in the near future. At the very least, I’d like to get to the point where I can hold a gun without shaking and sweating profusely, thinking to myself that I’m going to fuck up and shoot somebody by accident. One step at a time. I don’t have an issue with guns. I do, however, have an issue with the gun cult that’s built up in this country, built around a narrative that your worth and strength is defined by your ability to harm others. I have a problem with the people who are so radically, blindly pro-gun that they’ll relentlessly attack anyone who appears to disagree with them. I have a problem with people who will lie and twist facts in order to push an agenda that much polling would suggest is wholly unpopular and bolstered largely by a disinformation campaign.

Less than 15 percent of the entire country sides with the GOP (or the NRA for that matter) on gun control issues, but they don’t know it - polls find that respondents tend to claim to side with Democrats or Republicans in equal measure, but when asked about specific legislation, more than 85 percent support gun control policies. In order to keep their agenda alive, the pro-gun factions have resorted to outright propaganda and falsity. Much of that involves fear-mongering towards rural Americans, who tend to rely on firearms for a number of purposes urban Americans do not. Many in rural America fear that their lack of resources will cause them to conform to a cosmopolitan way of life diametrically opposed to theirs, and the pro-gun groups prey on those fears to convince them that any gun control, no matter how small or how unanimously agreed upon, represents an attempt to change their culture.

My problem with the gun cult is really my problem with every closed-off, exclusive group. The obsession with guns in this country has led to the creation of a small, highly organized community that views the rest of American citizens as threats. This contingent owns a disproportionate amount of firearms and controls the narrative, extending their influence to a broader rural population. Factions like these constitute a critical problem with our present culture, and they’re not the only ones. When the pace of change is too fast, groups split apart. People feel isolated. When they feel isolated, they gravitate towards whatever groups they can find. Traditionally, religious organizations have often stepped in to fill this gap, providing social safety nets. With religious attendance declining, however, many of these organizations have become primarily offensive rather than defensive in nature, defined by their hatred of non-believers as opposed to positive affiliation.

In other words, fundamentalist groups recruit from these same people. So do populists. So do polemicists with close-knit followings, figureheads associated with the alt-right that don’t need mentions here. When none of these group structures are available, dislocated people turn to lone-wolf violence. The problem is, so far, the only alternatives we’ve offered are basically fascist in nature, groups that demand attacks on non-members.

Basically, when people feel isolated, they’ll find God or Fascism - or shoot up a school. We need to do a better job of taking care of people who slip through the cracks. The problem with the gun cult is that it catches those people and repurposes them into a hive mind that encourages the spread of these feelings of social isolation. There are certain standards of decency that, when crossed, can cause the collapse of public discourse. The various cult groups that have cropped up over the past few years have crossed those lines over and over again. These include the gun cult, the alt-right clusters, the populists - they tend to prey on vulnerable people and deliberately twist truth - like, in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting, harassing young survivors voicing their opinions, or lying to make mainstream news outlets look bad.

These groups are both a cause and a symptom, as are the acts of public violence that appear unconnected. All of these factors represent the large swaths of people in the country who feel isolated. If we don’t start looking out for those people, we have to face the reality that our country is no longer a cohesive whole. Discounting all of these phenomena as the product of raw “evil” might be tempting, especially with the general aura of frustration, but it doesn’t solve anything. Yes, people do incredible evil, and yes, there are people who slip so deep into violent mindsets that they cannot be helped. Early intervention can help that. Nobody chooses to be evil. It’s a process, not a personality.

Empathy is our strongest asset.

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