Crime, Psychology, recent

The Deadly Boredom of ‘A Meaningless Life’

Remember when the scariest kid in your neighborhood was the football jock who terrorized the high school with his minions in tow, and got bailed out by his rich parents when he went too far? Or it was the gothic malcontent with the switchblade and the swagger. Either way, what made these high-status alphas so terrifying was that they came at you in numbers. They travelled in packs. This has been our narrative, in the stories we tell—from Henry Bowers in Stephen King’s It, to Biff Tannen in Back to the Future, to Billy Hargrove in Stranger Things, central-casting bullies attracted followers. They belonged.

As any grade eight schoolgirl who’s been bullied off Instagram can attest, this stereotype still holds. But when it comes to the most dangerous and sociopathic actors, the opposite is true. All three of the young mass shooters who terrorized the United States in recent nationally reported scenes of carnage—Connor Betts in Dayton, Ohio; Patrick Crusius in El Paso, Texas; and Santino William Legan in Gilroy, California—acted alone. The old image of the bully as locker-room alpha or goth leader now seems passé. Often, it is the kid who used to be the fictional protagonist, the social outcast, the member of the Losers Club from It, whose face now appears on our screens with a nightmarish empty stare.

These recent shooters fit a similar profile. They were outsiders, all seemingly socially awkward, who became emboldened through fringe online communities that act as mutual-support societies for violent malcontents. This phenomenon is fuelled by hate, guns, mental illness and ideological extremism. But there is another factor at play here, too. Before a youth makes the decision to murder, before the gun is stashed in his backpack, before his state of mental health is so deteriorated that he commits the unthinkable, what has happened to him? It’s important to remember that these murders are also, in most cases, suicides.

In his 2008 article School Shooting as a Culturally Enforced Way of Expressing Suicidal Hostile Intentions, psychiatrist Antonio Preti summarized existing research on school shootings to the effect that “suicidal intent was found in most cases for which there was detailed information on the assailants.” The research also indicated that “among students, homicide perpetrators were more than twice as likely as their victims to have been bullied by their peers, and also were described as loners and poorly integrated into school activities…In most of the ascertained cases, perpetrators prepared a well-organized plan, and often communicated details about it to acquaintances or friends, who failed to report threats because they did not consider them serious or were embarrassed or ignorant of where to go for help. The most antisocial peers sometimes approved the plan, sharing the same anger against the stated target of violence.”

Preti’s article predated the rise of some of the most notorious web sites—including 8chan, which was shut down this week after several mass shootings were linked to its users. But the nihilistic phenomenon these killers represent predates modern social-media culture. Indeed, it predates digital communication, and even broadcast media more generally.

Durkheim, shortly before his death in 1917.

In 1897, French sociologist Émile Durkheim noted that suicides overall were increasing in society. But there were differences among the affected populations, he noticed. Men were more likely than women to commit suicide—though the chances decreased if the man was married and had children. Durkheim observed that social groups that were more religious exhibited lower suicide rates. (Catholics were less likely to commit suicide than Protestants, for instance.) Durkheim also noted that many people who killed themselves were young, and that the prevalence of such suicides was linked to their level of social integration: When a person felt little sense of connection or belonging, he could be led to question the value of his existence and end his life.

Durkheim labelled this form of suicide as “anomic” (others being “egoistic,” “altruistic” and “fatalistic”). Durkheim believed that these feelings of anomie assert themselves with special force at moments when society is undergoing social, political or economic upheaval—especially if such upheavals result in immediate and severe changes to everyday life.

Durkheim came from a long line of devout Jews. His father, grandfather and great grandfather had all been rabbis. And so even though he chose to pursue an academic career, his experiences taught him to respect the mental and psychological support that religious communities supplied to their members, as well as the role that ritual plays in the regulation of social behavior. In the absence of such regulation, he believed, individuals and even whole societies were at risk of falling into a state of anomie, whereby common values and meanings fall by the wayside. The resulting void doesn’t provide people with a sense of freedom, but rather rootlessness and despair.

Durkheim’s thesis has largely stood the test of time, though other scholars have reformulated it for modern audiences. In his 1955 book The Sane Society, for instance, Erich Fromm wrote that, “in the nineteenth century, the problem was that God is dead. In the twentieth century, the problem is that man is dead.” He described the twentieth century as a period of “schizoid-self alienation,” and worried that men would destroy “their world and themselves because they cannot stand any longer the boredom of a meaningless life.”

In her 2004 book Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings, Katherine Newman described findings gleaned from over 100 interviews in Arkansas and Kentucky. The male adolescent shooters at the center of her study, she concluded, “shared a belief that demonstrating strength by planned attacks on their respective institutions with (too) easily available guns would somehow mitigate their unbearable feelings of inadequacy as males and bring longed-for respect from peers.” Ten years later, in a 2014 article titled The Socioemotional Foundations of Suicide: A Microsociological View of Durkheim’s Suicide, sociologists Seth Abrutyn and Anna Mueller set out to update Durkheim’s theory about how social integration and moral regulation affect suicidality. “The greater degree to which individuals feel they have failed to meet expectations and others fail to ‘reintegrate’ them, the greater the feelings of shame and, therefore, anomie,” they concluded. “The risk of suicidal thoughts, attempts, and completions, in addition to violent aggression toward specific or random others, is a positive function of the intensity, persistence, and pervasiveness of identity, role, or status-based shame and anomie.”

Writing in the 1890s, Durkheim was highly conscious of all the ways that industrial capitalism corroded traditional forms of social regulation in society, often at the expense of religious—and even governmental—authorities. (“Depuis un siècle, en effet, le progrès économique a principalement consisté à affranchir les relations industrielles de toute réglementation. Jusqu’à des temps récents, tout un système de pouvoirs moraux avait pour fonction de les discipliner…En effet, la religion a perdu la plus grande partie de son Empire. Le pouvoir gouvernemental, au lieu d’être le régulateur de la vie économique, en est devenu l’instrument et le serviteur.”) But if he were to visit us in 2019, Durkheim would be surprised at the extent to which once-dominant ideas with no connection to economics have been marginalized as regressive and hateful—such as nationalism, patriotism and even masculinity.

This is one reason why so many people now feel unmoored. As Canadian science fiction writer Donald Kingsbury eloquently put it in his novel Courtship Rite, “Tradition is a set of solutions for which we have forgotten the problems. Throw away the solution and you get the problem back.” Faith in god, country and manhood might be seen as regressive by modern lights. But insofar as they were holding back male anomie, we perhaps neglected to consider what damage would be done if we discredited those ideas before finding replacements.

In the history of our species, there has never been (to the knowledge of modern scholars) a human society that did not express belief in some sort of supernatural force—which suggests that we are programmed by a need to believe in something bigger than ourselves. Sociologist Max Weber warned in 1919 that “science deals with facts. It can’t tell us what to do or what’s important.” This is to say that while the scientific revolution did a good job of helping us explain and harness the natural world, it did nothing to fill the god-shaped hole that Blaise Pascal identified in the 17th-century: “What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”

If we are to resign ourselves to the fact that “God himself” isn’t going to intercede any time soon, then we are left with the ordinary tools of policy, such as Robert Putnam outlined in his famous 2000 book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of the American Community, in which he pointed to the value of “the connections among individuals’ social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them.” These connections could be strengthened, Putnam argued, through improved civics education, more extra-curricular activities for youth, smaller schools, family-oriented workplaces, a more enlightened approach to urbanism, technology that reinforces rather than replaces face-to-face interaction, as well as a decentralization of political power. These recommendations were written 19 years ago, before Facebook, Twitter or 4chan existed. It would be interesting to know how he would revise his recommendations now that we have a better appreciation for the massive effects of digital culture on our social dynamics.

In a 2017 article I wrote, titled Towards a Theory of Virtual Sentiments, I argued that real-time empathy generation often requires some degree of eye contact—which is hard to generate through online interaction. Moreover, it is shockingly easy to get worked up into a rage when you are interacting with an online avatar of a person you have never met. Simply put, the more we physically see each other, the less likely we are to be awful to each other. As Louis CK said in an interview about youth and technology, “They don’t look at people when they talk to them and they don’t build empathy. You know, kids are mean, and it’s cause they’re trying it out. They look at a kid and they go, ‘You’re fat,’ and then they see the kid’s face scrunch up and they go, ‘Oh, that doesn’t feel good to make a person do that.’ But when they write ‘You’re fat’ [online] then they just go, ‘Mmm, that was fun, I like that.’” Even putting aside the extreme cases of forums that cater to homicidal shooters, I remain unconvinced that any community that exists primarily in online form can be a force for long-term good. Perhaps more time offline is a good start for anyone seeking to enhance “the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness.”

Do we need a new nationalism? A new religion? What common human project can we collectively embrace that gives a sense of mission to everyone, regardless of skin color, religion, economic class or ideology? It would be presumptuous for me to suggest I have the answers. All I know is that men who see human life as meaningless are symptoms of a larger sense of anomie that, in less dramatic and destructive form, increasingly grips us all.

 

Terry Newman is currently an MA student in the Sociology Department at Concordia University in Montreal. Her SSHRC-funded research is on the candidate controversies that took place during the 2015 Canadian federal election. She is also a Teaching Assistant in Concordia’s Engineering Department. She tweets from @tlnewmanmtl. She is the author of the Quillette article Through the Looking Glass at Concordia University.

Featured image: Isolation, 2010, Nacholabs. 

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. I think in the past, most of these guys would have just committed suicide. Now they see mass shootings as an alternative way to go out. I imagine that the more of these shootings that occur and the more they are publicized, the more suicidal young men will see it as a viable option for them. I think the ever-accelerating rate at which mass shootings have been occurring since Columbine fits this model fairly well. I’m not sure what, if anything, can be done about it, but I think any measures taken that reduce the male suicide rate would also probably reduce the frequency of mass shootings.

  2. I agree. I have seen a number of articles on the media’s influence on mass murderers. They put these people’s photos, names, and sometimes even publish their manifestos. For an angry suicidal male, this has become an acceptable way to express themselves. Now everyone can feel their anger and pain. The media is totally irresponsible for discussing the motivations of these evil people.

  3. Labelling them ‘evil’ suggests that the point of the article was entirely opaque to you.

  4. This is a good conversation starter, but it leaves out key factors which feed into the shootings.

    The biggest issue is that by its own definition the essay is ignoring religious- or purpose-driven- based mass murders. Mass murderers don’t always act alone nor are they always loners. To use an obvious example, those driven by a version of Islam are the opposite of the sketch above: they are very religious, deeply involved on their community, and acting in accordance with their own meaning of life. They are rewarded by their community and valued for it. They might kill themselves in order to achieve their goals (eg suicide bombers) but they do it not because they want to end their lives per se, but because they believe fervently in a heaven that rewards them for this act.

    Then there’s racist and religion-based murders, based on the target, Jews and Blacks and gays being the most common targets here. This is also based on purpose for mass murderer, eg for Jews, people who hate Jews as part of their ideology or religion and want them dead. They are fulfilling a mission as they see it.

    Another type of mass murderer is driven by a perversion of ideology – eg, “I hate women and will target them.” (This is a very common form of serial murderers, which is not different in results to the above, only that the murders are staggered as opposed to all at once.) We are even beginning to see an increase in political murders, eg the targeting of politicians at their baseball games.

    The final mass murders the author ignores are gang-driven murders, which everyone ignores on both sides of the spectrum because no one cares about Black and Brown people killing other Black and Brown people. Anyway, these are also purpose-driven and non-suicidal in its aims.

    My point is that by restricting himself to a subset of mass murderers and a subset of shooters, the author enables himself to propose a limited thesis that, while it has truth in it - surely purposeless lives are harmful on many levels and may well feed into dysfunctional quasi-suicides by a small group of men in particular - it misses the forest for the trees, or at least it describes some trees and misses most of them.

    The mass shootings have multiple causes. A twisted form of heroism through sacrifice is one of them, for some men in need of an identity.

    But there are other forms of shootings and mass murderers that have to do with men finding meaning and purpose–the opposite problem as laid out here. It’s only that their meaning and purpose is blood-drenched. But it is their meaning.

    Failing to see that condemns us to not understanding the essential issues. For instance, if we insist that the extremist Muslim who murders for Allah and for the approval of his cohort–if we insist that he’s ‘really’ just a disaffected youth and his religion has nothing to do with it, we ignore the reality that to him, his religion and beliefs are deeply meaningful and he truly believes in God and purpose. The solution is not to toss at him a “new religion”.

    And that takes me to my deeper point–the author proposes a ‘new religion or nationalism’ that “collectively embraces everyone.” That is a meaningless statement, not presumptuous. There is no meaning or purpose that “collectively embraces everyone,” unless we are talking about a very autocratic religion and a very repressive state.

    There is nothing wrong with many of the ‘old’ religions or nationalism. That is the biggest issue as I can see. The author seems to presume that the ‘old’ ones are defunct and we must invent new ones out of air, but that isn’t possible and is exactly precisely why so many young people feel rudderless. They have no religion or higher purpose and are told instead that people are sinful and racist and irredeemable, and must “stand aside” or 'stay in their lane, ’ or any other version of “Shut up and disappear.” White men especially are pieces of garbage, responsible for all the world’s ails. Since upper class white men are totally fine and still in power, the punishment lands on the shoulders of middle and lower class men, who are informed they are deplorable and need to shut up. They take to opioids now, many of them. Then you wonder why these very same people have no sense of purpose and a subset turns to suicidal violence. The solution is not a ‘new’ religion. The solution is to stop the madness of dividing people into teams, to stop scapegoating white men particularly lower classes, to stress the importance of customs people have found deeply meaningful for millennia (men’s and women’s purposes in life, children, redemption, striving toward goodness, doing good, helping and protecting others), to stop using social media as a way to manipulate people into these warring hopeless factions where violence is encouraged because the other ‘team’ is not human. And so on. What i"m trying to say is we have the tools we need right now. No need to invent anything new.

  5. We have a culture that promotes taking and demanding over giving and doing.
    We have a government that uses violence to react to its problems (rarely solving them of course), be it foreigners, immigrants, gangs, the mentally ill. We are a punishment culture that delights in violent entertainment.
    We’ve elevated feelings over reason. It’s not what you intend that matters, but how someone receives it, as if anybody is able to know other people’s minds and rejecting the one mind they do know.
    Intersectionality breeds division, separation, factionalism, isolation, hatred/disgust for others.
    Masculinity is toxic.
    Childhood antsy pants need pharmaceuticals to “correct.”
    White means supremacy and being out of touch due to privilege.

  6. We shouldn’t take at face value that the ideology these people claim to hold is what motivates them. Many of these people change ideologies wildly, and could have believed the exact opposite of whatever is in their manifesto six months before they went on a spree. Their understanding and commitment to these things is often very shallow. I get the impression that they are excuses and not causes.

    This is even true of most “Islamic” terrorism, which I guess people have a harder time processing because its foreign. Many of your Islamic terrorists are second generation immigrant losers who lead very non-Islamic almost western lives, convert to Islam six months before their killing spree, realize they are still going to be losers if they follow Islam, and then go on their rampage. Are we to assume that divorced alcoholics who practice Islam for six months are motivated by Islamic religious conviction just because its in their little manifesto or they scream it while the bullets are flying? I don’t buy it.

  7. “And we don’t need the self-delusion of religion and its insistence on literal belief in an imaginary realm of gods and magic.”

    What if the God-shaped hole is God-shaped for a reason tho? No argument that most of religion has become encrusted with all sorts of nonsense, but what if there is an essential reality underlying it? I have never found convincing the materialist’s explanation of how evolution produced such an obviously unhelpful idea as God. It seems to me that universality of this notion, and it’s ‘obvious’ silliness would indicate that it must come from somewhere. Throw in the quantum mechanics Observer, and a few other unexplained phenomena, like life, and it seems to me that that religion might not be a self-delusion after all.

  8. “Transhumanism” is already the official cult of Silicon Valley, Klaus. It’s concerned with overcoming the human condition itself via technology. Man becomes God.

    Of course, Silicon Valley also employs the ideology to sell their products. The internet is already driving most of us out of our minds; but just try to criticize the rapid implementation of new and “disruptive” technologies and see where that gets you! You’ll be called a Luddite by angry nerds faithfully awaiting the technological rapture.

  9. “Remember when the scariest kid in your neighborhood was the football jock who terrorized the high school with his minions in tow, and got bailed out by his rich parents when he went too far?”

    No, because this is a fiction perpetrated by awkward drama kids who went on to Hollywood. Don’t believe me, just delve back into your memory and try to come up with actual examples that aren’t from movies and TV. You feeling left out doesn’t count.

    EDIT: I don’t mean to be inflammatory, but this is one of my pet peeves, and I feel it flies in the face of Quillette heterodoxy. It’s the sort of cliche premise that goes unquestioned because it is never challenged. There is nothing paradoxical about lone shooters being unpopular. Roving bands of jock bullies makes for good afterschool specials to make awkward kids feel better and as a convenient juxtaposition for this article, but it doesn’t represent reality.

  10. Thinking out loud for a bit…

    It seems many of these young men have had on-and-off-again relationships with psychosomatic drugs. There is a mountain of evidence showing that irregular use of these drugs can cause spikes in homicidal and suicidal ideation. For a range of reasons - from lack of good health care coverage, to social stigma, to unwanted side-effects - many people cycle on and off of these drugs and do serious harm to their mental well-being. Big Pharma pays millions of dollars annually to keep these lawsuits out of the papers. Their justification is that their drugs are used and appreciated by so many people, it’d be a shame to let a few homicidal killers ruin it for everybody else (same argument the NRA uses).

    Further, many American boys have been on behavior and mood altering drugs for as long as they can remember, since kindergarten in many cases. They don’t even have a benchmark for who they really are as a human being. The only self they’ve ever known has been chemically altered. Big Pharma can’t even tell you how to wean yourself off of the drugs they sell you. We were so busy eating pills and they were so busy selling them, nobody every stopped to ask exactly how we’re supposed to get back to normal. It was always assumed we’d eat them forever. If you want to cycle off of a mood altering drug you’ll probably have to find an internet support group to help you because your psychiatrist won’t have any reliable literature to give you.

    In their time of existential crisis young American men been given nothing to believe in. Morals are socially constructed fairy tales. Emotions are empty, meaningless, and easily altered by medication. Time, chance, and natural selection are the fingers of an absent uncaring reality. Facts and science are solid objects we can all agree upon, but without a benevolent worldview to process them they become the very stones that dash our brains out.

    When I encounter young men that bash the religion of their fathers, I confront them with a bit of advice that is inspired by Chesterton’s Fence. I tell them, “Before you cut down your old fruit tree and throw it in the fire, make sure your new fruit tree can sustain you.”

    If god is dead, we can create our own meaning! We can be god! But what happens when we wake up one morning and realize that being a god is pretty hard work, and most people - all the people sitting around you in that shopping mall - really suck at being their own god and creating their own meaning. In fact, some of them are so intimidated by their own deification they’ve resorted to god-only-knows-what to get them through the day.

    I think the reason Christianity has been such fruitful soul for the West is because it codified “faith, hope and love - but the greatest of these is love.” It’s never perfect, but it’s better than materialism. American young men don’t need more gun control, a new religion, or less violent video games. They need what the trinity of science, money, and government can never give them: faith, hope and love - but the greatest of these is love.

  11. There’s a lot to unpack here because it’s a loaded topic for me personally.

    Highly intelligent, sensitive high achiever- I had a massive bully problem. I also lived in a very progressive era at the start of mainstreaming. These are my observations:

    1. Facts are not taught. Right-think is taught.
    2. It is not considered bullying by those in authority at many educational institutions if it is to encourage “right-think”
    3. A pre-occupation with fairness and privilege further encourages to turning a blind eye to the “disadvantaged” abusing the “advantaged”- it is seen increasingly as “fair” because the advantaged will have success later
    4. Escalation is encouraged, but not its logical conclusion. Relentless activism combined with the above leads to encouragement of escalation.

    Point 4 can be observed in social discourse with the younger generations- they mistake the recoiling associated with escalation for having found a “win.”

    This might also be where my personal credibility tanks with quillette.

    I was bullied. My bullies fit into the following categories:

    1. Mentally challenged but not so far that they could not be mainstreamed; or learning disabled
    2. Anger issues- frequently, abusive home life
    3. Poor

    These were my conditions:

    1. Blue collar mill town
    2. Very high IQ
    3. Happily married parents
    4. Out in the country
    5. Mainstreamed. My parents were concerned I have access to normal socialization.

    At age 7, I was told by the school counselor that she would not intervene when I was bullied, because

    a) As a high performer, I would always be seen as a target
    b) Due to a, I made these boys feel bad, and it was not their fault they felt bad and were acting out (By implication, it was my fault).
    c) That they needed to feel superior to me now because later I would leave them in the dust

    I was also told I would not receive a number of academic trophies I earned due to their needing the support, etc- basically, variations on “you will get yours later and take abuse now.” For roughly half of my teachers, my failures were held up to the class as examples of “See? Even makes mistakes”. A largely overlapping set, from a Venn diagram perspective, told me I was no longer welcome to speak in class. I essentially was told I owed them whatever they wanted from me and I should expect nothing, because of some undefined magic that was going to make my life easier than theirs- or as a friend once put it, my intelligence meant I was to be their slave and not a fully realized human being of my own.

    This is context: I observed escalation behavior in bullies. Wet willies on the bus would escalate to pushing when surrounded by 2 or 3 buddies. Shoving, if there was not a clear authority figure nearby, would become more and more aggressive as a form of performance status symbol (One guy would push, a second would push harder, etc.). Possibly it would escalate to punching. Quite early, I made the mistake of allowing it to escalate quite far before stopping it. That hurt, and not again.

    EDIT: Removed personal item

    The pattern I repeatedly observed was tacit encouragement by administrative staff of bullying behavior due to concerns with their feelings- I was apparently considered a sacrifice or something that couldn’t suffer trauma or be abused- and lack of concern for their escalating patterns. I actually spent a month and a half unable to choke down any solid food due to acid damage from the constant alertness I practiced.

    I also later spent a fair period of my life working with children. The rise of social media has done nothing but amplify the bullying cycle into a 24/7 affair that cannot be escaped for today’s children.

    What do we know about these shooters?

    1. Male
    2. Commonly white
    3. Anger issues. Many come from abusive homes.
    4. They were typically bullied

    What can we infer?

    1. If only men voted, America would be solidly Republican still
    2. Teenagers are frequently more liberal than older people due to various reasons, but significantly emotion-based reasoning
      Conclusion) Odds are good that they at a young age are consequently libertarian or conservative in their thinking- at least, less emotive
      Conclusion) Let’s be blunt: They were probably told again and again that their words and ideas were inherently violent, their maleness was inherently violent, their questioning the lived experiences of “oppressed” groups- meaning not real oppressed groups, but those who spout the right line- was violent.

    They escalated to real violence and clocked out.

    The combination of 1-3 would indicate that not just social isolation, but being penalized for not toeing the normal progressive education rhetoric would be common. They would also be subject to escalating standards of abuse that was encouraged because of their wrong-think.

    The disgusting thing with many younger progressives is that they mistake violating social norms as winning. You play slapjack, they punch and think they’re so clever because people don’t want to engage with them, even doing things like putting on rings so their punches hurt more. ie, “You don’t engage with them, you shame them into silence!”

    You let them slap first and deliberately break their hand as a salutatory lesson, they scream it’s unfair cheating- because it’s further than they are willing to go, but their willingness to go a little further than most isn’t abuse (all those bone chips and bruises they’ve handed out), it’s because they themselves are so goddamned awesome and they are so very clever for having seen that by going a little further, people would win (not realizing that it’s an agreed upon boundary, not a damned bit of ignorance). I despise such people. They are cowards who think themselves brave and clever.

  12. It’s interesting that in fact-checking the role of fatherlessness in mass-shooting, that all of the news sources detailing the role it plays are Right-leaning, whilst only Snopes seems to have made an effort to dispute the claim. But if you drill down into the figures the fact remains that around 90% of mass shooters came from father deprived homes, just as 90% of ISIS recruits. This ties in with Dr Raj Chetty’s data-driven work on social mobility, in that he demonstrates that fathers are critical in helping kids to gain the internal mechanisms necessary to rise from the bottom 20% of society to the top 20%, although it would appear that fathers are more important at a community level, with a child born to a single parent family in a neighbourhood with a high percentage of fathers more likely to succeed than a child from a two parent family in a neighbourhood with a lower proportion of fathers.

    But why should fathers be so important? Well, we know that fathers can withhold activities like rough-play if the kids don’t follow the rules, and are far more likely to enforce the terms of a contract with a child without negotiating, ‘you don’t get your ice cream, until you eat all your peas’. This encourages empathy because, whilst maternal nurturing might help a child feel loved, it doesn’t require them to understand and think of others, in the same way that paternal love does. But whilst this might account for an indeterminate shift from self-involved narcissism to empathy, I don’t really think it is the root cause of mass shootings.

    Before the big reveal, it’s important to note that I am not a psychologist, so take my observation with a tonne of salt- but it’s my theory that it’s the vital role that fathers play in teaching the difference between assertiveness and aggression, by example, that is so important in steering boys away from destructive behaviour. The key is the ability to successfully integrate into a peer group. Because, the world over boys test each other with banter, that mechanism of well-meaning insults that persists throughout adult life. It’s a means of establishing pecking order that probably has some of its roots in biology. It’s usually not meant hurtfully, but it can be hurtful. It’s a test, meant to see whether you are worthwhile and can take it, whether you take yourself too seriously and, most importantly, whether you can be trusted. Crucially, if you cannot play, you cannot participate.

    And this is where the boy who has had no father to teach him stoicism, a thick skin and to take teasing with good-humour, fails. Because he is automatically predisposed to see that vital process to see where he fits (or not at all), as aggression or plain meanness, rather than as the assertive pre-emptive dominance play that it is. In JoeClave’s earlier comment, he hit the nail on the head:

    “Remember when the scariest kid in your neighborhood was the football jock who terrorized the high school with his minions in tow, and got bailed out by his rich parents when he went too far?”

    No, because this is a fiction perpetrated by awkward drama kids who went on to Hollywood. Don’t believe me, just delve back into your memory and try to come up with actual examples that aren’t from movies and TV. You feeling left out doesn’t count.

    Because what is really happening, when a group of males is joking and hurling put downs? Well, first they are demonstrating their power, establishing their relatively high place in the school pecking order, for the benefit of the girls- but they are also looking to recruit- as soon as you can demonstrate that you can take a joke and perhaps dish one out, you’re in.

    Unfortunately, this is also what leads to the social ostracism that appears so endemic amongst mass shooters. It’s why they so often commit so wholeheartedly to malignant ideologies, whether the white supremacy of the El Paso shooter, the extreme Islam of the ISIS recruit or the Left-wing histrionics of the Dayton shooter (although in this last instance their appear to have been twin obsessions at work). The common thread is that they so desperately want to belong, and if they can’t find a peer-group, then this necessarily steers them towards ideologies that are more a means than an end. No matter how vicious or cruel the ideology embraced, it fulfils it’s purpose for the individual, both in terms of providing a grand narrative that masks the nihilistic self-loathing that underpins their motivation, and providing a sense of belonging (albeit temporarily) to groups that any sane, well-adjusted human being would instinctively revile.

    Note: This comment is strongly influenced by the pivotal work of Dr Warren Farrell in understanding the role fathers play for boys (and girls), with his work ‘The Boy Crisis’.

  13. Not just money, but time as well. Your parents probably spent much of their time prepping food, washing dishes, canning veggies, tending the yard and fixing the automobile with inefficient (by today’s standards) tools, mending socks, walking down to Grandma’s house to check on her, driving to the grocery store, volunteering for the local church or charity, etc. And your parents went to bed at night feeling tired and useful.

    Technology has eradicated most of these activities, which means we now enjoy clean dishes, veggies, socks without holes, and news that Grandma is still alive and kicking with very little time invested. Now we “veg” all evening and go to bed feeling jittery and useless. Turns out, all those activities were making us stronger and more human. In some cases (not all) technology has made us weaker and disconnected from our own humanity.

    I’m reminded of an unverified tidbit of science trivia I came across. Scientist couldn’t figure out why certain trees they were growing in their biodome would collapse under their own weight. Turned out it was the lack of wind that was the key. Certain trees required the stress brought by wind to grow boughs strong enough to support themselves.

    I’d be willing to bet that many of these shooters lead boring lives of low expectation. More than disposable funds, I bet they have tons of disposable time, with very little of the stress that comes with responsibility. Stress that, as it turns out, is what we need to keep from collapsing on ourselves.

  14. NateD, very well said, thanks for that. I absolutely agree that there’s a crisis of meaning (as Ben Shaprio wrote in his most recent book) in our society today that is at the root of many of these problems. Some are saying the root problem is mental health, and I think they’re partly right, but that still doesn’t answer the question of WHY people are experiencing mental health issues. We need to drill down even further to find the cause of the mental health problems, and I think you’ve touched on it - a certain amount of struggle is necessary for a living thing to grow up strong.

    We recognize the need to go to the gym and exercise to keep our bodies in good physical shape, and what is exercise? Physical stress. We recognize the need for lifelong education to keep our mind in good mental shape, and what is education but stressing our minds to grow and develop. Maybe what we’re missing is a regular social/emotional exercise regimen to keep our social/emotional side slightly stressed, and ultimately well-tuned.

  15. The irony is that instinct behind “all must have prizes” was trying to fix a problem it actually made worse. Go back to thirty years, and those who were not academic were often undervalued in the context of school. But the fix for that was stop writing people off at a young age and also to expand the quality and scope of vocational eduction. It was also a mistake to think that the admittedly poor experience people who were not academic had at school was the only factor in determining life satisfaction or self worth.

    There were in those days many avenues for a person to build self respect through participation in their community. The functioning or value of many of these has now been undermined. In some cases, that’s probably a good thing. But it was not good to do away with these things without trying to replace them with other things which served the same purpose without the archaic restrictions on personal liberty.

    We need to rebuild community.

    On a lighter note, if you don’t have young kids, you may have missed this. It’s a song called Participation Award from a kid’s TV show called Bizaardvark. It’s quite funny and it should give you hope that even popular culture and kids themselves are starting to see through the all-must-have-prizes ethos you describe:

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