I know why he did it


Michael N. Nagler - Guest Columnist



Although I have been studying nonviolence – and therefore indirectly violence – for many years, what I want to share with you about this latest gun tragedy is just plain common sense. And not to keep you in suspense, here’s my answer: this man slaughtered his fellow human beings because he lives in a culture that extols violence.

A culture that degrades the human image – those two go together. How do I know?

Because I live in the same culture; and so do you. And that uncomfortable fact is actually going to put us on the road to a solution.

Neither this nor any shooting, indeed any particular outbreak of violence, can be traced to one particular TV show or video game or “action” film, of course, any more than any particular hurricane can be traced to global warming; but in both cases, it doesn’t matter.

What matters is that we have a preventable problem – not easily preventable, but preventable – and if we want these agonizing, disfiguring attacks to stop we really have to address it.

We are, and have been for decades, to quote a colleague of mine, “increasing violence by every means possible” – particularly, though not only, through our powerful mass media. The science on this is overwhelming, but that precious insight sits idle in libraries and professors’ bookshelves; neither policymakers nor the general public – nor, needless to say, the programmers of the media themselves, have felt the need to pay the slightest attention. They ignored the research so thoroughly that somewhere around the 1980s most of my colleagues working in the field simply gave up and stopped publishing. Sound familiar? Just as with the overwhelming evidence that human activity is causing climate change; we don’t like the overwhelming evidence that violent images (and, we might add, guns themselves) promote violent action, so we look away.

But we can’t look away any more.

As Americans, we are twenty times more likely than the citizens of other developed nations to die by gunshot. We can no longer look away from all this and consider ourselves a civilized nation.

So I urgently recommend is when the media are throwing a barrage of details at us – how many rifles, how much ammunition, what about his girlfriend – and claim they are looking in vain for a “motive” that we back up a moment and reframe the question.

The question is, not why this particular person did this particular crime in this particular way, but what is causing the epidemic of violence?

This reframing is a huge relief, because being buried in the details has two serious disadvantages: often the question can’t be answered, as in the present case, and more to the point even if it can the information is useless.

There’s nothing we can do about his girlfriend or his gambling, or the fact that shooter X had just been fired or was in a depression.

There is everything we can do, with enough time and determination, about the underlying cause of all shootings, which is the culture of violence that has become so much the ‘woodwork’ of our ‘entertainment,’ our unconsciously selected and slantingly presented ‘news,’ and yes, our foreign policy, our mass incarceration, our gross inequality and the disintegration of civil discourse.

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Michael N. Nagler

Guest Columnist