Not too long ago, some moron who had no idea of relationship management shot several people in a school in Essex Junction, Vermont. As this was essentially right in my backyard, I got to hear people’s reactions first hand. Most people seemed shocked that such violence could happen in such a small community, as though bullets are just flying everywhere in elementary schools in Boston or New York. The reaction that really stands out to me is the notion that we’ve lost our way as a country, and that we need to go back to the values of the old days when this type of thing didn’t happen.
Now, shootings of any sort are particularly bad. I think it’s a little worse when someone opens fire in a school. But to say that the recent rash of violence in schools represents some sort of fundamental change in our societal values is pretty reductive thinking, in my opinion. Violence has always been an inherent part of our society. The means of that violence has changed, but it was always there.
Let’s go back to the old days, shall we? Only a generation or two ago, we were in the good ol’ duck and cover days. You know, when schoolchildren had to practice hiding under their desks in case the Russians started launching nukes. People didn’t have to worry about some crazy teen attacking his classmates. Instead, we got to focus all of our worry on the possibility that nuclear war might break out at any moment and annihilate society as we know it.
Going back a little further, we can take a look at some of the inherent values that older societies had. Values that included things like burning crosses on people’s lawns and lynching folks whose skin was a little too dark for our liking. Hey, in the movie Birth of a Nation—now considered a classic, the Ku Klux Klan were essentially superheroes.
Maybe I’m overreacting, or maybe I’m just observant of some people’s behavior. We always tend to remember the good old days with a great deal of nostalgia, and talk about how important those old values were. Of course, we conveniently forget the values that were obviously messed up. We ignore that husbands used to be able to beat their wives, that children could be worked to death in factories, or that gays and blacks essentially walked around with big old bulls-eyes on their backs. Society isn’t just a group of different values that can be filtered out and picked through like mixed nuts; our values come as a group. Some of the more negative ones can be filtered out; that’s societal evolution. But to assume that things were automatically better in the old days ignores the reasons why our values have evolved from those days.
Let’s throw out a hypothetical situation here. Let’s say someone on the streets of Chicago kills half a dozen prostitutes over the course of several months. Police have no leads as to his identity, but he regularly sends them e-mails about his exploits and brags about his crime on the Internet. A lot of people would insist that this is a sign of how bad things have gotten today, ignoring the fact that the same thing happened in 19th century London with the legendary Jack the Ripper (well, except for the Internet part—he used letters). Just because we don’t want to remember bad things happening in our youth doesn’t mean they didn’t happen.
By now, I’ll hope that I’ve made my point that our modern day society is not the only completely screwed up society out there, and I’ll try to hammer home the overall theme of this rant. Anytime something bad happens, we immediately look for something to blame, be it the upbringing of children, violent video games, cartoons, or anything else that comes to mind. The more intangible it is, the better; that way we can complain about how much better things used to be without actually doing anything. Blaming a concept is reductive thinking, and will never solve the problem.No one—and I mean no one—does something so stupid and irrational as shooting someone just just because he’s feeling angry or because he doesn’t respect an authority figure.
Do you want to prevent stuff like this from happening? Then stop hiding behind slogans and catch phrases. Get away from the idea that violence will just disappear if we ban violent media or spank our kids or read them the Ten Commandments every night. Start relating to people. Actually pay attention to what they’re doing, and how you can help improve both society and yourself. And don’t do it in the idiotic frame of Bill O’Reilly/Michael Moore/Rush Limbaugh and proselytize and protest about everything. Pay attention to the world around you, learn about the past and the present, and actually sympathize with people. It won’t magically stop bad things from happening, but it will help give you an understanding of why they happen.