Failing Social Stories

In the days since Cho Seung-Hui’s rampage at Virginia Tech, gallons of ink have been spilled trying to figure out how it could have been prevented. I’ve seen articles arguing for more gun control, less gun control, stricter immigration laws, harsher penalties for inappropriate behavior, and more. The only thing these ‘solutions’ have in common is that they treat the symptoms and not the cause.

Of course, there have been plenty of articles written about the cause as well. Depending on the news sources you read, Cho was under the influence of drugs, a diseased mind, a mental illness, rock and roll, and video games. I think the answer is a little broader. Cho was simply under the influence of society. In particular, Cho was under the influence of the Columbine school murderers, whom he called “martyrs.”

Cho was a person trying to send a message. Not only did he kill indiscriminately (a sure-fire way to get mentioned on the news), he mailed a manifesto to NBC and sent a tape in to American Idol. The wording is a little different, but the content is basically the same as that found after Columbine: I was mistreated and an outsider and this is my revenge. But how is it society’s fault that three kids felt pushed to kill?

One of the tenets of Existentialism is that when you perform some action, you implicitly create a moral judgment that it is a good one. It may not be true morally, but it is true socially. Society is formed by people telling each other stories about what is and isn’t appropriate behavior. When Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed those people at Columbine, they popularized a story about what you should do when you’re ostracized and taunted. They didn’t create it, but the media frenzy gave it power by bringing it to people all over the country. But maybe that’s a little too philosophical. In the real world, how likely is it that people would be influenced by such a self-destructive story?

In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell uses a suicide epidemic in Micronesia to investigate why teens in America smoke despite understanding (even overstating!) the risks. Between the 1960s and the 1980s, Micronesia went from having a miniscule suicide rate to a per capita suicide rate seven times that of the US. Gladwell describes the victims as “almost always male. He is in his late teens, unmarried, and living at home… The suicide notes tend to express not depression but a kind of wounded pride and self-pity, a protest against mistreatment.” The parallels to the current school shootings are obvious.

David Phillips, a sociologist at UC San Diego, talks about the power these acts have later in the same book. “[The act] gives other people, particularly those vulnerable to suggestion because of immaturity or mental illness, permission to engage in a deviant act as well.” Gladwell gives the example of how the suicide of a rich, popular teen on a Micronesian island over relationship problems became such a shorthand that later suicide notes no longer had to even reference the situation. One said only, “Best wishes to M. and C. [two girlfriends]. It’s been nice to be with both of you.” If suicide can be made into a social pattern, so can murder-suicide.

Following this to its conclusion, I think we’ll see more and more school shootings as that story becomes more and more ingrained in our culture. Enacting any of the ‘solutions’ mentioned earlier will only change some of the details, not the overall plot. To keep this sort of thing from happening again we, as a society, need to create a more compelling story for kids in that position. Unfortunately, that’s no easy task, so expect to see trivial changes made instead.

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7 Responses to Failing Social Stories

  1. TheGnat says:

    I think there’s a far bigger problem that these kind of rampages make very obvious. While I agree that kids in these situations need to hear about healthy solutions to their problems, I think that’s still solving a symptom. The rampages are the final stage in a very sad and completely avoidable “disease”. From what I’ve read about both Columbine and now this, the problem lies just as much with the people around these killers. There is a lack of sincere human kindness in American society, a lack of the very friendliness Americans advertise to the world as one of their better traits.

    All the articles I’ve read have talked about how Cho was a loner, how he might have been autistic since he avoided talking and was “cold” as a child, and how these were signs of what was to come. None of them lay anything against all the people who say that they or their friends picked on him. The articles I read about the killers in both these massacres indicate that these were kids who were mistreated their entire lives, to whom no one seems to have attempted to make a real connection. That doesn’t justify what they did, but I think it explains both cases a great deal better. They feel that they have spent their lives in fear, anger and pain and the world around them has taught them that the only way to be heard is to respond in kind.

    When you mistreat an animal for years on end, eventually it turns vicious. I don’t think people are that much different from animals in that regard. And you know what? When the ASPCA finds an animal that has to be put down because of that, they try to find the person who made the animal end up like that and punish them for it. What do we do when a person is made vicious?

    In this case, I suspect that after all the talk is done, if anything changes at all, it’ll be gun laws or immigration laws, and neither of them for the better from my perspective as a legal resident alien. The lesson we really should be taking by now is that maybe, just maybe, we ought to be a little nicer to the people around us, to try to connect with them as one human to another. I’m not saying we need to be friends with everyone we meet, but we ought to be giving them a chance, even if they aren’t giving us one.

  2. Mary says:

    I’m intrigued by this comment. As I understand it, several people did try to draw Mr. Cho into conversation, but were generally rebuffed. In fact, he was generally the one perceived as mean.

    From what I read, he was teased in middle school, not so much in high school (a common situation among people I know, including me.) My husband and I have a consensus tht there are probably only about 5 people in every middle school that actually had a good time there. In retrospect as an adult, I realized that I probably dished out a little meanness as well as having to take it myself. That doesn’t make it OK, it’s just that a lot of people suffer in this way but don’t go off the deep end as adults.

    What I’m really curious about is the comment “a lack of sincere human kindness” and I don’t mean that in a defensive way. It’s just that I’ve heard this expressed before, and while a few people are kind of mean, I generally perceive people as kind, or at least well-meaning. ..at least, once they reach mid to late adolescence or early adulthood.

    I guess I want to know from your perspective what qualifies as “sincere human kindness.” I know the way I’m writing that it does sound defensive, but that’s not my intent. My husband often uses the phrase “message perceived is message received” and I want to know how someone with a different perspective perceives sincere human kindness (or a lack thereof).

  3. Will says:

    I think you agree with me more than you think, Gnat. You wrote that “the world around them has taught them that the only way to be heard is to respond in kind,” which is pretty much exactly what I was trying to point out.

    As Mary says, lots of people get teased. What causes some of them to react so violently? I’d argue that it’s very much a social thing (see the murder suicide at NASA today for further indication that it’s a prevalent meme).

    A lot of it is self-identification. There’s a great scene in Meet the Robinsons where the villain is speaking over video from his past. He’s walking through school and kids say, “Hey, [villain], nice binder” and “You want to come over to my place?” The voiceover is, simply, “They all hated me.”

    When you’re teased, you can take on the role of a martyr or a hero or, in the case at hand, a tool of vengeance.

  4. poetloverrebelspy says:

    There was just an interesting show about this on This American Life:
    http://www.thislife.org/Radio_Episode.aspx?sched=1177

  5. TheGnat says:

    I’m not saying that there isn’t a social aspect, Will. Only that any sociological theory tends to take humanity out of the equation, and this particular theory doesn’t explain the origin of the meme. I can’t say the “Meet the Robinsons” quote is at all accurate. In this particular case, I haven’t heard of a single person who would describe themselves as a friend of Cho’s, or made the attempt. Telling someone to get help is a fear response, not a love response. I don’t know if there’s a point of no return for people like there is for animals. But if there is, then any explosion would happen long after the point had been passed, waiting for just the right trigger.

    And I’m not talking about just ordinary teasing, but something that is almost systematic. Most people who get teased and bullied in middle school also have a few friends they can turn to. But what happens when no one will befriend an object of derision?

    Mary: The simplest example of the lack of sincere human kindness I can think of comes from my own experience as a transfer student in college. I joined a class a week late. Arriving to class early, I greeted the few people there warmly, and most of them didn’t even *look* at me. I certainly didn’t get a reply. If it had been a morning class, I would have shrugged it off as grogginess. But this is an afternoon class, and it was a nice day on top of that. I have noticed that Americans seem to act “friendly” in the sense that there are rules of politeness, and no one wants to think that someone’s suicide or rampage was *their* fault. But people simply smiling and saying hello back just because? In an entire semester, I have managed to find one person like that. And despite how my demeanor might seem on the Buffet, I’m a generally warm person who’s facial expressions tend to all result in a smile. And I couldn’t make a connection with anyone, even though we had things in common, even though I treated everyone with respect, even though I almost always go beyond what civility requires. How much harder would it be to make a connection with another person if I *wasn’t* naturally inclined to be personable?

    In the U.S., when someone asks “how are you?”, they want to hear “good” or “fine”. The question is polite, and a real answer isn’t expected or welcome. I think it would be better if the question stopped being polite and started being real. We might ask it less, but we’d mean it more. That’s the sort of thing that defines the difference between sincere and insincere human kindness.

  6. poetloverrebelspy says:

    I’ve read that the question, “How are you?” in American English is actually asking, “How are we?” as in, how is our relationship. There was a great website that decoded that and other common phrases, such as, “Call me sometime ” and “We should get together soon,” which mean something like, “I’m really busy right now.” A cursory google brings up primarily myspace pages of people using these phrases. They are so common that it’s not far-fetched for the literal meaning to be removed from the actual, a semiotics of interaction.

  7. Will says:

    Gnat: I find it odd that you think the social theory takes humanity out of the equation (which I don’t really undertstand, since humanity is what social theory is all about) when you explicitly refer to Cho as an animal who’s been pushed too far.

    My point is that Cho wasn’t an animal, so he had more choices than just lashing out when pushed too far. Part of his impetus to choose the particular action he did was society’s view of what actions are appropriate in the given circumstance.

    One way to help is to make sure that the circumstance never happens again. I just don’t find that likely. Bullying and ostracism will always be a problem, although they can be mitigated somewhat. The other avenue to explore is what options we give people who are put in those situations. To me, that’s a more promising direction to explore.

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