When we talk about violence, specifically gun violence in this country we hear a few very different takes depending on the location and the background of the shooter.
When the shooter is ideologically motivated and Muslim, we hear about terrorism first. We hear the panicked cries of mostly white conservatives and a few moderates and liberals about the cultural significance of Islam and its propensity for creating violent jihadists. Even though the insane, rational gymnastics of connecting violence and extremism, in these cases we still won’t talk about Guns, and there is little to no discussion about mental health.
When the attacker is White, and the ultimate ideological motivations are sussed out, we revert to the discussion about “mental health” and family and run away as far as we can from Guns and ideological motives. Somehow access to firearms, however they achieved them, is eliminated from the conversation and the ideological motivations all but erased by about day 2 or 3.
If the assailants are young black men and they are killing each other over gangs, drugs or other petty conflicts, it’s all about the culture. Single moms, video games, and music are the usual suspects; again, surprisingly the narrative no longer focuses on the availability of firearms, even illegal ones.
In my mind there are four primary causes of violence in general, particularly gun violence, and they cut across most cases regardless of whether they are in a school or out on the streets. Irrespective of where we come from or who we are there are a set of preestablished reactions to stressors that trigger us to want to hurt or kill. Those motivations go right to the heart of what we all share emotionally as human beings, and I believe that is one of the reasons we don’t talk about them.
1. Personal/Group Insult or Revenge – One of the most common reasons for violence and aggression of any kind is feeling violated in some way. Whether it is through direct insult or insulting one’s group, it is a defensive reaction to a breach of some social contract that causes most violence. I believe this tendency is built into us as we are social beings. Our hierarchical understanding of group and private structures create a means through which we have a built-in trigger, groups that tout exclusive membership use this instinct to manipulate people into reacting with violence when they otherwise would have just cooled over time.
2. Fear – Is it that pop-psychological to indicate fear as a primary motivation for violence or aggression. As well as being social we are also programmed to be wary of personal injury. This is an odd one because fear as a concept can be very nebulous or very specific. Fear that a bear is coming right at you is very different from fear of being attacked by a bear. The chemical reactions, the physical changes that result from the various states of fear are very distinct and can be manipulated by people and institutions that are more powerful and have some of their fears to contend with. I found this discussion of fear interesting as it almost serves as a surrogate for the triggers of violence.
3. Social Engineering – As social beings who have developed hierarchies to survive under specific circumstances we have also come to understand how reinforcement of those structures is required to keep the status quo. I’m not passing blanket judgment on this as dangerous by any means, some social structures have helped us advance to the point where we have created a better life for millions of people. Others, however, though seemingly good ideas at the time, often descend into disruptions that do damage to a great many people. It’s tough to say without the benefit of hindsight that some form of social engineering was good or bad especially if we learn from the results. In this case, violence based on established and enforced social norms.
4. External Perceived or Existential Threat – this is admittedly a kind of toss off. Its fear but not the tangible bear chasing you down type, it’s a minor madness in a way and it crosses the bridge to woo-ville in some cases, but either the feeling of something “not being quite right” or the manipulation of that feeling can drive people to violence, what distinguishes this factor as a trigger is its slippery nature. In a way its one of the most potent modern triggers because of the deluge of information we receive and have access to on a daily basis. So much information crosses our eyes and ears daily that it’s often really hard to distinguish between what is demonstrably real and what is pure hokum. Existential threats have us not believing our own eyes when we see a concrete example of the opposite of what we believe or are told to think. Cognitive dissonance is the state this puts us in and in and of itself is a kind of mass mental disorder that affects our macro brain. It is also one of the ways large groups and governments keep control of the status quo. In fact, it is the prefered method of tyrants, both big and small.
Lately, I’ve been thinking of everything in terms of an organism. From my limited understanding of the organization of life, it looks distinctly like from the tiniest cell to the largest societal collections the functions are similar but blown up accordingly. Using the example of the internet (again with a basic knowledge of biology) you can see how humans have organized themselves in the image of their biological networks. You can look at societal organizations similarly, but the internet is the clearest model of our mimicking the structure of our neural networks in our construction and organizations I can see. We build on what we know.
I look often at how these incidents of violence make perfect sense. Ideas are like mutated cells or gut influenced genes; they can grow and spread, are road tested by the environment and shaken out accordingly. You have to get non-judgemental when you think this way and see both the biological process and the spread of ideas the same way. Physiological changes, random occurrences of genes or the environment’s influence on them, have consequences. It is my feeling that biological evolution and the evolution of ideas may not only be linked but now be one in the same. We’ve reached a level of complexity in out inner and outer constructions to see where our intellectual developments have gotten almost as complicated as our biological ones.
When you look at movements, especially extreme movements, be they nationalistic, religious or racially based they broadly share the same development cycles and paths of growth. Some, like Islamic fundamentalism, are less exclusive biologically and more rooted in ideology. This is part of the reason Islam has snowballed so quickly. It is not as exclusive as some other movements, it requires no biological purity test, no cultural purity test, and no nationalistic paternity test, there is a small barrier of language, but learning a few prayers can solve that. Many other extreme movements are based on passing some racial or nationalistic purity test and have far fewer adherents as a result. At the risk of sounding like an Islamophobe, it is the perfect virus in that way.
Let me make something clear right now; I hate no person. I am opposed to certain ideologies because they make no rational sense to me beyond social grouping, but I don’t hate anyone who believes in them. I apply cancer or virus metaphor to almost all religions and any social group that forcibly bends its members to a particular kind of violence or extreme coersion.
When violence arises as a result of these affiliations, a large part of how you get perfectly rational and not insane people to enlist is through the use of the last cause of violence. In a sense, you are taking a little bit of the first three elements and mixing them to create a stew of cognitive dissonance. You create a world where, by some non-biological or vaguely biological association, you pit one association against another. The reasons could be cultural, circumstantial or just made up entirely but they don’t pass a rational examination.
What also doesn’t pass the rational examination is the ways we here in the US, separate these groups and their affiliates into little social boxes that have unequal weight on the actions of people who commit violent acts.
I’ll talk about how we treat different groups and ideologies differently in Wednesdays post.