I do not know for sure why we are having so many school shootings or what to do about it.
But here’s what I think:
I think our society produces isolation and loneliness. I think that our society impresses on people that self-worth comes from effortless accomplishment, and I think most children know an absolute terror of failure from the time they are very small. I think a lot of middle-class and wealthy families in this country dispense love based exclusively on things like grades and violin recitals. I think that if a child’s skill lies outside the narrow and well-worn paths of college-worthy pursuits, that child may not be recognized as fully human by the adults in their life.
I think the reason for this fear is that most people are broke and parents don’t want their kids to be the have-nots. They want their kids to go to college, obtain a sensible STEM-esque degree, and make enough money that they don’t appear bankrupt. I think way too many Americans believe this is sufficient for a happy and functional life.
I think a lot of this unbearable and constant pressure is accompanied by platitudes about being special and being loved no matter what. This teaches kids that adults are liars and not to be trusted.
Combine these platitudes and you arrive at the actual truth: you are loved because/if you are special, and the only thing that makes you special is your [quantifiable, marketable] achievements. Any love beyond that is either a lie or charity that you don’t really deserve. You must either be perfect or depend upon the kindness of strangers. And most children learn quickly just how unkind strangers can be.
I think this pathological fear of failure renders children especially vulnerable to bullying. For the terrified, bullies aren’t simply being mean, they’re pulling back the curtains on their darkest secret: they are no good. The bully is just the messenger. The message itself comes from higher up.
One way to deal with being no good is to kill yourself, which three times as many children do now as they did the 1940s. Another way is to look around you and realize that no one is any good. We’re all lousy rotten imperfect piles of shit. By these impossible standards, we all deserve to die.
The children that don’t shoot children grow up into adults–you and me–with our anxiety medications and our I-can’t-do-this mornings and our impostor syndrome.* We have a deep, almost-subconscious knowledge that if anyone else knew our true state they would surely hate us as much as we would hate ourselves if we dwelt on it for any length of time. We are, therefore, truly close to no one. We put up fronts on social media and in real life. We are afraid to be alone, afraid to examine ourselves, knowing the poison we’ll find–the damning imperfections, the eternal scrolling list of failures. We are isolated and we are lonely.
Maybe this isn’t you. I think it’s a lot of people.
What Do We Do?
I don’t think anything fixes this quickly. I don’t think laws fix this at all. We need to change culturally.
Capitalism and mixed economies have done wonders for eliminating famine and providing us with unprecedented amounts of material wealth. This is a good thing.
Our system as it stands today incentivizes material wealth at the expense of all other things. This is not a good thing.
The creation of material wealth is good but it is not the only good. We are social, emotional, and spiritual creatures as well. We need to feed this side of ourselves as well as our physical selves. Yet our society either denies these needs completely or exploits them to sell more material goods.
Look at these weak, silly physical bodies of ours. No sharp teeth, weak nails, precariously balanced on two feet. Soft, hairless skin. Without other people we are helpless. Through cooperation, our species took over the fucking planet to the point where we now have to work hard not to kill all the lions and tigers that would gulp down an individual person without a second thought.
We came into this world requiring cooperation with other people to survive. Because of this, we have not just the ability but the need to form human attachments. We band together to protect each other because it’s in our best interest rationally but also because we love each other. That emotion acts as a short-hand that reminds us not to back down in terror when monsters threaten the safety of the whole.
This is hard-wired. We are social creatures, we work together for a greater purpose, we want and need connection to others in order to feel safe. And though we have, through cooperation, achieved levels of technology that might allow a single human being to survive alone in a hostile world, the emotional and social needs that enabled the cooperation required to get to this point still exist. We still need purpose. We still need human connections.
Human beings–can’t live without them, and living with them is so hard. For millennia, political thinkers have wrestled with the problem of forging functional and/or equitable relationships within and between large groups. Philosophers and priests have developed guidelines for human behavior intended to create healthy, happy, connected human beings. Thousands of years of effort from cultures worldwide and we’re still not there yet. Humans are such a beautiful mystery, such a subtle problem, we could work at it for another four millennia and probably still have room for improvement.
Here’s a T-shirt:
What do we do about school shootings? Here’s a starting point:
Stop Talking Shit About the Liberal Arts.
Stop demeaning the study of philosophy, art, politics, music, etc. Currently, we view these subjects as sources of easy bullshit degrees for people who are are too stupid/impractical to get a STEM degree.
Setting my hurt feelings all the way aside for a second, the important fallout from this is that the best minds of my generation, and the generation before my generation, and probably the generation after my generation, are studying STEM. The people who want an easy degree, on the other hand, funnel into the liberal arts so they can party and still have something to put in the “education” portion of their resume.
Over time, this process degrades liberal arts further, widening the talent and motivation gap. It’s a vicious cycle–we decided liberal arts was useless and it lives up to the hype. Politics is a cesspool. Philosophy is a laughingstock. Art is pompous garbage.
I exaggerate, of course. Some of the motivated and serious-minded choose liberal arts because they believe that, with hard work and effort, we can make liberal arts scientific and worthy of admiration. The halls of liberal arts institutions across the nation ring with the tortured screams of subtle, unquantifiable subjects mercilessly crushed into quantitative molds. We reduce human behavior to survey questions–yes or no, how do you feel on a scale from 1-10? We ask people to arbitrarily affix numbers to feelings or thought processes, then use those numbers to produce graphs that prove that liberal arts is just as sciency as real science.**
Not all truths come in the form of numbers. I’m glad someone’s willing to study STEM, God knows I’m not, but we need both things. All the liberal arts in the world could never give me the computer I’m using to type this, but all the science in the world can’t prevent totalitarianism or show us a path to happiness or come up with a plan for a more equitable world.
This dystopia, where we have legitimately awesome pocket devices with voice recognition and an infinite supply of human knowledge that enable us to comfort ourselves after school shootings with graphs assuring us that everything is fine? This dystopia is brought to you by the worship of science and degradation of philosophy.
The more people we have working on problems like mass shootings and race relations and exploitation and happiness and purpose and political systems and morality, the better solutions we’re likely to get. We have a long way to go. We need to get to work.
I recognize that supporting the liberal arts is a pretty abstract and unsatisfying way to combat school shootings. Allow me to suggest a more direct answer to this problem:
Thoughts and Prayers
Your thoughts and prayers can’t bring back a single life or feed a single person. Your thoughts and prayers are a waste of time. Or so we are told with relentless and hostile regularity.
I am an atheist. I believe we go into the ground when we die, I believe this life is it, I don’t believe in the supernatural at all.
I also believe in the power of prayer.***
When you pray for someone, you are acknowledging what religious people might call the immortal soul and what I am going to call shared humanity: the spark of consciousness and self that unites us in our snowflake-uniqueness. You allow yourself to fill with empathy for their human experience, the struggle of living you both share in different forms. You acknowledge that we are not entirely the authors of their own fate: that luck plays a role, that we are working with incomplete information, that we are as imperfect as we are beautiful. We’re all doing our best, we all deserve safety and health and happiness and connection even if we don’t always get them.
There is no judgement in this kind of prayer. There is an acknowledge of shared fragility and shared hope. While you pray, you take on your subject’s burdens, hopes, and fears as your own. You acknowledge that your fellow human being deserves happiness and that their pain is real.
In today’s fucked world, this is a radical concept. Exhibit A: the entire Internet. Social media–one of the places where people most often interact with other people–flattens our fellow humans into avatars and vitriol. It’s so easy to forget that the person writing that post that makes you see red is actually a fully realized individual. It’s easy to dehumanize the enemy, to believe that to be wrong is to be incapable of rational thought and therefore not worth debating. Not worth considering. Infectious human waste.
Recall that we are talking about school shooters: individuals who believe that everyone they know, themselves included, would be better off dead. The randomness of shooting victims is very important to understanding what’s happening here. For the school shooter it would, most likely, be best if everyone could die. Short of the ability to murder everyone, randomly selected individuals will have to do, because there’s nothing about the nauseating little snowflake spark of the human soul worth saving. It doesn’t really matter who gets snuffed out because we all should. If only everyone could die, we could be rid of this plague forever.
Infectious human waste.
Prayer is powerful because it protects against forgetting shared humanity. Pray, and teach your kids to pray–whatever that turns out looking like or meaning for you. Choose any God, choose no God, there is no god, it doesn’t matter. Teach your kids that every person they have ever seen is a real human being with thoughts and feelings that feel just as real to that other as your feelings are to you. Even if they’re wrong, even if they’re dangerously wrong. Teach them this by example. Your platitudes are no good here.
This doesn’t mean you stop fighting. People react the way they do against thoughts and prayers because they feel like–and are often used as–a stand-in for action. Acknowledge the human even as you fight dangerous ideas and fight for a better world. Let that acknowledgement guide the way you fight and shape the better world you strive to create.
People talk about thoughts and prayers being easy. This is deeply false. Prayer is hard. It is so much harder than what we usually do.
Pray for your enemy, because they are human, even as you work against them because they are a threat. Protect yourself and your loved ones from alienation. Don’t stop fighting. It’s hard, hard to fight the kind of hate pictured above while simultaneously remembering that every single person in that picture has thoughts and feelings. People will hate you for remembering.
It still has to be done.
Maybe there’s a better answer. Something that fixes things more quickly, something that doesn’t depend on the cooperation of so many other people. I don’t know what that answer is.
I love you, fellow human. I hope we can have a better world someday.
** Quantitative social science does have its place–studying things that are quantifiable, like vote choice. Currently, however, quantitative studies are eating qualitative science alive. Back to Article
***Or thoughts, if you prefer. When you don’t believe in God, they turn out to be the same thing. Back to Article