Change in attitudes necessary to lowering violence

By Hannah Sparks


Violence is endemic in the United States, and the status quo approach we take to it has to change.
Though overall trends show that assaults in America have decreased since they peaked in the 1970s, acts of mass violence are increasing, according to a Washington Post blog post, “Why are mass shootings becoming more common?”

Since 1982, there have been at least 62 mass shootings in the United States, 24 of them in the last seven years according to a survey done by Mother Jones. In most of those cases, the killers obtained their guns legally.
The seemingly random, unexplainable nature of these acts makes them more frightening than, say, frequent muggings in a sketchy part of town. Even the most careful and pacific of Americans cannot avoid the impact of mass shootings, the gun control debate or exorbitant U.S. military spending.

The stories we hear on the news are merely the symptoms of the underlying American “mythology,” beginning with the Revolution, the Second Amendment and continuing through to superpower status and military might in the 20th century.

For better or worse, violence, in its various forms, has gotten the United States where it is today.

Individuals may twist that logic, thinking that they can use violence to gain fame or power in their own way. The way that the media and people in everyday conversation discuss violence today ignores this underlying structure, which needs to be reconsidered and rebuilt before real change can happen.

We’re so desensitized to violence that we don’t even realize that our general views of it are a little strange. From visceral depictions of brutal deaths in shows like “Game of Thrones,” to gory movies like those of the “Saw” franchise gratuitous violence is commonplace in nearly every form of entertainment.

Intimate sex scenes, however, which represent healthier and more normal aspects of human life still shock viewers and garner NC-17 ratings. Controversy behind 2010’s “Blue Valentine” centered on exactly this issue.
Why are we, as a nation, so addicted to violence?

The United States is not only the most armed country in the world with 88 guns for every 100 citizens, but its gun-related homicide rate is 10 times higher than that of other NATO member states, according to PolitiFact.

We might be comparatively more gun-happy than our peers, but we clearly don’t live in a warzone. The United States’ military budget, however, may make you think otherwise. It is the highest budget in the world,  exceeding that of the next 13 countries combined, according to data compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

The unflattering stereotype of Americans as cowboys who think they can shoot their way out of any situation didn’t just come out of the blue.

While I think gun control is incredibly important and agree with proposed measures to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, there are underlying problems that drive people to pick up those weapons and use them to massacre crowds of innocent people.

The fact that such massacres are becoming more and more frequent means that we seriously need to figure out what motivates them.

However, even behavioral scientists cannot put their finger on what drives people to go on murderous rampages.
Researchers have used overly-simplistic explanations to blame the increase in violence on everything from growing economic inequality to mental health issues to violent video games. Others have pointed to the frustrations felt by young men – who are by and large the killers in these massacres – in a changing world which seems to offer fewer options or privileges than it used to.

According to a Salon article, “Why psychiatrists can’t predict mass murderers,” , after unexpected, traumatic events people attempt, by exerting an “effort after meaning,” to understand what happened. The problem here is that trying to find an explanation is often futile due to the various biases of the human mind.

The article’s author, Richard J. McNally, a faculty member of Harvard’s Department of Psychology, points out hindsight bias as one of these inevitable predispositions. Looking back at a traumatic event like a mass shooting, as the facts unfold, people create a narrative that makes it appear that someone could have anticipated and somehow prevented the act.

While being able to prevent future acts of violence is the whole goal, even if researchers were able to successfully pinpoint the “warning signs” of potential mass violence, what exactly they could do with that knowledge is another question entirely.

Making that knowledge practical and effective is difficult, McNally says, because “although mass murderers often do exhibit bizarre behavior, most people who exhibit bizarre behavior do not commit mass murder.”
So it seems that in addition to changing cultural desensitization to and acceptance of violence, behavioral scientists and psychologists also need to take a new approach to how they study these acts of mass violence in an attempt to find the solution they seek. It is likely that both of these changes need to occur before any progress is made or new knowledge obtained.

Hannah Sparks is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected]