schools on fire

[estimated reading time 27 minutes]

given recent events, it would be negligent if i didn’t talk about gun violence. but i am beyond tired of this becoming a political topic and i think if we’re going to talk about it we have to talk about it in a far more causal way and stop simplifying what is inherently an extremely complex issue. if you think the solution to gun violence is simply to reduce the number of guns in homes, you are either brutally naive or trying to score cheap political points. if you believe the solution is to strengthen family bonds and return to the nuclear-family mindset of the 50s, not only are you part of a much larger problem, you’re missing the historical fact that only a small portion of families even in that early-cold-war period actually functioned that way and it was mostly the richer segments of society that even had the potential to do it. no, this is not a simple or straightforward issue. but if you’re seeking simplicity this probably isn’t the blog you’d be reading in the first place.

first, let’s look at the problem with statistics to give us a sense of the scope of the issue. we are told [more than twenty-thousand people were killed with guns in america] in 2020. but that’s not the real story. that’s how many people were killed with guns used for purposes that weren’t accepted by the government. when we expand the net to include government-approved uses of weapons, especially those outside the country, this number explodes (irony?) and we suddenly have to be aware that, for example, nearly two-hundred-thousand people have been killed in the violence in afghanistan (don’t believe me? [this is ap’s count and it’s a soft underestimate] if ever i saw one). i can hear what you’re thinking, though. that’s a war. and these are schools. our schools aren’t at war. oh, really? perhaps someone should tell the country that cause i don’t think everyone got the memo. yes, that’s flippant. no, i don’t care. i don’t think it’s disrespectful at all, in case you’re curious. is an american child’s life worth more than an afghan’s? what about a teacher in brooklyn or oakland compared to one in kabul or jalalabad? no, i didn’t think so. yes, afghanistan is a warzone. but so is our entire world. you can’t have a war somewhere and it not spill over. the problem with statistics? what’s a gun death and what’s a military exercise? what’s suicide and what’s societally-motivated self-loathing resulting in premature self-sacrifice that’s closer to group-perpetrated murder rather than actual individuation resulting in free-choice?

let’s look at a few of the problems, then, individually and see where they may have come from. this is an exploration rather than anything approximating explanation or lecture. but i hope it will be useful to piece together the disparate strands of the issue. i want to look at ten interlinked issues, where they originate, how they apply to modern society and potential solutions, though none are easy and most are unpopular.

there’s one i’m only going to mention in passing, though. i am a die-hard, hardcore communist. i believe in enforced-equality and that the largest problem with modern society is democracy and individual-leadership. i believe in collective governance and the absence of luxury — to each as they need, from each as they can yet no more than comfort, never abundance. this places me so far out on the left-wing the bird can’t get off the ground and marx and lenin start to look center-right. this is not a political issue. the solution is not to introduce more laws about registering weapons or repeal the second amendment. while i believe both would be good steps in the right direction, neither would actually solve the far deeper problems and they are no more than performance for a political audience to look like progress is being made, masking a far larger issue in society.

so if we’re going to entertain those as part of the solution, we need to construct a much larger narrative and have a significantly more comprehensive plan to combat gun violence that doesn’t just rely on better regulation and law-enforcement combined with a reduction in personal rights — that alone will simply lead to a polarization where there are fewer low-casualty acts perpetrated by non-radicalized individuals and an explosion of extreme high-casualty outbreaks of violence perpetrated by radicals. this might make us feel better as liberals, a term i am very cautious to use about myself as it groups me with many people who believe things i am desperately opposed to — like the creation of wealth, generalized freedom of choice, fundamental democracy and economic trade or the value of property, it won’t actually stop young people dying with bullet-holes in their tortured bodies. it will just shift the distribution and that’s a political exercise, not a rational one.

here are ten factors contributing to gun violence in our western society. they are not fundamentally american in their application and much of this problem doesn’t stop at the border — just as large a societal problem exists in canada, the united kingdom and western-europe as in the fifty states of the union. it doesn’t necessarily play out in the same way but lighting gas on fire leads to explosions regardless of where they happen and solutions must be holistic, global, not simply introspective. american culture may appear mammoth and self-contained but it is far more porous and international than many people prefer to pretend — find me an american teen who doesn’t know about k-pop, manga, bollywood and debates about slave labor in asian factories and i’ll show you a desperately-neglected child, though i doubt even most of those are unaware of these extracultural examples. we live our days connected to the internet and drink memes with our morning coffee. if we think isolationism is possible, regardless of its advisability, we aren’t just living in a time hoping the fifties can be recreated — we’re living pretending they’re still here. remember, you’re reading an article on the internet. in case you forgot for a second. i’ll divide these in three groups — education, culture/media and government. you may not agree with this division. i don’t really care but you’re probably used to that if you regularly read my articles. tell this story in your own way — i may even read it. this is mine.

  1. education
    1. lack of respect for education
    2. teachers as babysitters rather than educators
    3. sexualization and promotion of hormonal action
  2. culture/media
    1. condoning of violence
    2. payback culture
    3. justification of anger and rage
    4. broadcast/interactive violence
  3. government
    1. availability of weapons
    2. police as a fundamental problem
    3. politicization of/belief in individual and personal freedom

i’m actually going to begin with the third group, government, because i think it’s the one most-dominant in the discussion and the least-important when we look at it in detail and impact.


western government is fundamentally democratic — you may argue about how closely this mirrors your ideal concept of democracy but the basic truth is that what we are talking about is a government based on popular opinion, the voice of the majority. at least, the voice of the loud. and that’s democracy in a nutshell — mob rule, in other words. the american government has a loose hold on public safety and action and some administrations try to have more while others relax this grip but the truth of the matter is the government, other than its taxation, has little impact on daily life except in extreme circumstances (government health policy during a global pandemic, for example, or wars that drag thousands of young people into service and sacrifice them for no reason other than greed mingled with national-exceptionalism, which is, in practice, what all war really comes down to). most daily american life, though, doesn’t have much input from the government. how has your life changed since the outgoing clown (the orange-haired one) was replaced by the seemingly-so-different incoming buffoon (the white-haired one)? if you think about it, i suspect the difference, if there’s any at all, is imminently minuscule.

1. availability of weapons

there is a lot of guns in america. a million civilian families own at least one firearm (registered so this is an underestimate by definition and that doesn’t even count the historical weapons) and another million military families certainly have at least one. so that’s, given average family sizes of about three, six million people with guns. oh. wait a second. that’s not a very large number compared to a population of approaching three-and-a-half-hundred-million. that’s actually only about two or three percent of the country. i’ll leave you a moment to let that sink in. no, not everyone in america has a gun. if you do, not only are you in the minority, you’re in such a small minority it doesn’t even function as a nickel against the dollar of the whole country. think guns are a fundamental part of every family’s life in the modern united states? think again.

ok, maybe the numbers are off. this could go a completely different direction. the congressional research service says there are actually three-hundred-million guns in america. so about one each. which is the truth? it’s very, very difficult to say but this illustrates an incredibly large portion of the problem as far as finding a government solution to the problem of gun violence. we are overwhelmed and paralyzed by the sheer lack of information about the situation.

if someone tells you “most of the guns are…” or makes a statement like “people who own guns are…” or “the kind of people who like shooting…”, they’re wrong. why? because we don’t know. i don’t know. you don’t know. the government doesn’t know. we have absolutely no solid information we can use to make policy decisions because that information has simply never been gathered in a systematic way. when america was a loose aggregation of towns scattered across the country with no way to communicate quickly and populations were still low, this was a completely understandable way to deal with the continental sprawl. people governed themselves and local sheriffs and judges handled things at a local level. with an interconnected nation at every level, this informational black-hole speaks volumes about the nature of the problem — it’s become so politically-toxic to even explore it, it can’t possibly be solved this way. i’ll put it another way — if the solution is even loosely-based on the idea of regulating who has access to guns, we need to know exactly where the guns are all the time. we have demonstrated a generalized lack of interest or willingness to be aware of this basic knowledge. without it, it doesn’t matter who’s in the white-house or controls congress. nothing rational can be done to control guns unless we know who has them.

so either there are so few weapons out there availability isn’t even part of the issue (which is exactly what most conservative governments want to argue, though i’m sure it’s not actually true) or there are so many guns out there no regulation program, even after ascertaining who actually has them, could possibly control their spread. yes, we should have every gun registered. actually, i think all electronics should be registered, too, to ensure people are responsible for their online actions and hate speech. think this is an invasion of your rights?

it’s not. i’m not saying you don’t have a right to have it. just that it’s important the government keeps track not just of the fact you have a gun but which gun is yours — if you shoot someone with it, you should be punished. i mean, unless you’re not just pro-gun but pro-murder. and i don’t think there are many people out there who think that’s ok. everyone gets very aggressive about this topic but i want you to think about something very simple. when you bought your first car, you had to get a license and register your car with the government, right? think we shouldn’t have to register our cars because that’s an imposition on our freedom? probably not.

you’re likely totally ok with the dmv existing and keeping track of who’s on the road. they’re not telling you you can’t have a car. just that you can only have a car if they know about it. it’s not control, just oversight. and you live with it every day — we register our cars, our connectivity to the power and water grids, our bank accounts. it’s information. i’m ok with registering my phone to get internet access. why wouldn’t i be ok with someone also knowing i have a firearm? it’s not fundamentally different.

where did all the guns come from? well, there are many theories and they remain just that — street gangs import weapons, government surplus overflows into the general public, fear increases as public order degrades and people go looking for guns wherever they can get them and recreational users acquire them for hunting or even protection when camping. why all the guns are out there might be an interesting cultural study for someone in academia — actually, it’s a fascinating one, following the trend from wild-west gun culture to modern suburban handgun ownership — but it’s not really relevant to the problem. there have like been literal hundreds of millions of guns out there for decades and stopping them at the border or wondering how they all got into people’s hands is like asking why all our cars have round tires made of rubber — sure the answer is important but it’s not going to change anything.

so those who are talking about reducing availability as a way to combat the problem of gun violence, especially gun violence in schools, are living in a fantasy-world. there are enough guns already on the streets for everyone to have one of their own. there’s nothing the government or local groups can do to change that basic fact. sure, tighter controls on imports are generally wise. but they’re not even a fraction of the solution to this problem — they might help with other things but not this.

2. police as a fundamental problem

the police are an arcane institution. there may have been a time when the police as a general concept were useful in american history. actually, i’m pretty-sure there was. but it was more than a hundred years ago. in the days of the free-and-wild-west, individual local police officers (ok, sheriffs and their tiny bands of surrogates) kept order in disparate towns, often with the application of brutal and sudden retributive violence. in a time before miranda (if you don’t know, look it up but you probably know), the police weren’t just those who enforced the law. in every practical sense, they were the embodiment of law and justice. this wasn’t necessarily good but it was true.

with the expansion of the legal system and the adoption of generalized notions of presumption of innocence, the police as final arbitrators of the law, while never theoretically true, became functionally false, too. the police retained their original aesthetic of rough, brutal justice but covered it with a thin veneer of courthouse respectability. the problem is policing only really worked when it was down-and-dirty justice. a lot of innocent people were hurt. the impact on society, though, was a generalized tendency for crime to be kept to a minimum out of awareness of limitless retributive justice. the police still act as if they have the ultimate power of life and death — and in many cases they do — just ask george floyd. but in most situations they simply have the power to set in motion ridiculous, slow legal processes that are mired in government bureaucracy — criminals go free while the at-least-partially-innocent are tortured by a broken system.

there was a time when there was a fundamental belief in the inherent goodness of the police, faith in justice and a hope that good would triumph over evil even on the streets of notoriously-wild cities. where this silly fantasy originated or how it finally fell apart is anyone’s guess. but it’s no longer there. today’s youth fundamentally disrespects and hates the police — with good reason. it’s no longer functionally useful in modern america. if a young person discovers a problem, they have no faith the police can solve it. if a teen becomes aware someone has a gun at school, they don’t trust the government-appointed authorities to deal with the issue. this is a huge problem. if you remember what it was like to be a teen, i suspect “confusion” is a word that resonates in your mind. if you don’t know where to turn to find solutions to such huge problems as knowing someone in your class has a weapon, how can you possibly hope to do anything other than be terrified?

as with many things on the governmental stage, this doesn’t have a simple or straightforward solution. actually, it has only one solution but its solution causes myriad other problems whose solutions need to be in place before the first one is solved. by “solution” to this, i mean the elimination of the police across america. this is something whose time has come and is long overdue. the problem is that keeping the peace in cities without police is still an issue and criminals will exist regardless of whether there are law-enforcement officers of any sort to deal with them. replacing the police with a more integrated surveillance system of hands-off monitoring of behavior and a more transparent justice system where advocacy is replaced by truth-seeking and punishment is largely shifted to rehabilitation is a massive project — and the current national administration has realistically washed its hands of it. this isn’t a problem with a possible solution any time in the near future — perhaps it will be explored by the next president but i wouldn’t hold my breath and this one isn’t going to touch it with a pole of any length.

3. politicization of/belief in individual and personal freedom

the other area of governmental ineptitude that contribues to the problem is the fact that everything — especially discussions of individual and personal freedom — has become political. a century or two ago, there was a fundamental understanding of the difference between “freedom from” and “freedom to” and the concept of personal responsibility wasn’t confusing in the least to most citizens, american or otherwise. you knew you had a responsibility to be a good person or bad things would happen around you and you’d probably get hurt in the end. you knew you wanted to be free from persecution or attack but that freedom to act however you wanted was simply impossible and impractical.

this is no more the case. most americans believe in limitless freedom — freedom to choose every aspect of their lives, however inconsequential. and those choices always have impacts on those around them and the world at large. they are certainly aware of them. but there has been a general cultural shift from “i want to be free to do the things that make life better” to “i have a right to act however i want regardless of its impact on others” — to put it a better way, this is the notion of “i’ll do what i want and you can fuck off and die”. i don’t think that’s fundamentally american — taking responsibility for the greater, general good of the surrounding community is exactly the kind of thinking that made the settler movement so powerful and successful — loving our neighbors was the whole basis of the western expansion and the rise of the nation. but this has been cast aside in favor of extremist freedom politics.

i want a gun so i’ll have a gun. i want to be unhealthy so it doesn’t matter if you get sick because of me. i’ll drive however i want to and if you get run over, tough shit. i’ll play my music at midnight and if you’re trying to sleep invest in some earplugs. this isn’t how i was taught to behave as a child. but it’s how modern america acts. so how can you turn and say to a teen “no, you can’t have a gun” when their argument is “i want one” and that’s the argument that’s seen as valid in every other segment of daily life? well, you can’t. “no, guns are different” will be seen as completely illogical. if you want to be able to put sensible limits on the freedom of someone’s desires being fulfilled, there must be a general cultural acceptance of the notion that freedom only goes as far as is practical and sensible, not that freedom is only limited by how big we can think or how violent we’re prepared to be to fight for “rights”.

is there a solution to this? absolutely. the solution is education. but we have to want it. and are you prepared to give up limitless freedom and live in a more practical, sensible framework where you can do most of the things you want as long as they’re not bad for the general public? or will you fight for your right to party at 2am regardless of what your neighbors think?


of course, this brings us to education and that’s been a nasty battle in the west for centuries. mostly a battle between those who think knowledge and understanding are good and those who think education is just a synonym for snobbery and class division.

lack of respect for education

when you were six, did you look up to your teachers? if you’re in my generation, i suspect the answer might be a hesitant yes. i expect your grandparents had far more respect for theirs. but in the age of bart simpson as cultural icon, the teachers are now the enemies of fun trying to keep us from causing trouble and avoiding homework. learning? meh.

this is, of course, a much larger argument about the function of school in society — i believe it is fundamental that we spend our entire lives learning and school as a functional institution, while at some point ending its fulltime care of us as adolescents, must remain a pillar of our lives where we return continuously until we die or we lose our drive to understand the world around us, the most human of traits. but this is about gun violence and the problem at hand is that schools are no longer seen as sanctuaries of learning. they’re the sets of reality-television-meets-irl-drama and the fights of the street spill into the classroom and out to the playground.

there was a time — and i promise you this wasn’t very long ago — when the most important daily fact in a young person’s life was studying and doing well in school. perhaps this was merged with excelling in sports or playing an instrument but as those things were so tightly-linked to the education system — who was responsible for maintaining the little-league fields and coaching high-school football, right — there was no obvious delineation. school was such a huge part of a young person’s identity. they had, for lack of a better word, pride in their school. they wanted to be part of an educational community that was respected. they thought of it as something like an extended family — other students might not have been friends but they weren’t irrelevant. the rise of late-twentieth-century culture shattered this framework. small schools gave way to industrialized education models and individual differences broke student bodies apart in ways nobody imagined possible. students no longer identified with their classmates and teachers were suddenly the enemies forcing them to do the things they didn’t want to do.

of course, this is tightly-linked to the personal freedom issue we already discussed. a hundred years ago “you have to learn your times tables” or “memorize this poem” wasn’t met with “why” or “i don’t want to” because those things didn’t matter. you did what the teacher told you or suffered the consequences. and parents and grandparents were always on the teachers’ sides, screaming at their children if they didn’t get their homework finished on time or made a mess in the playground rather than complaining to the school about how unfairly their kids have been treated. yes, this swept myriad real problems under the social rug of complacency and youth-gaslighting. but the general result was that educational institutions were given a high level of respect in the community and students took pride in their schools and educations. everyone dreamed of doing well and going on to college, even if most never achieved it or even had the financial potential to pay for it (a whole other issue). the dream was to be educated because education was the path to success and the only guarantee against poverty and failure.

what happened? well, it wasn’t true. the most highly-educated are rarely the rich or successful. i have more degrees than i often admit and my financial status isn’t exactly glowing. most people i know in academia have never felt anything close to financial security or flexibility. and the people with the vast majority of the money in our culture are often completely uneducated. success and education were never really linked except in theory and dreams. but, while it was once assumed to be the case, it’s certainly obvious now the link simply doesn’t exist and any latent respect for the institution of the “school” has been flushed so far down the toilet it’s never coming back.

what does that really mean? well, how often do you ever hear of a shooting in a church? while church-attendance is at an all-time low in most of the west and (thankfully) statements of irrational belief in mythology have finally dropped, though to nowhere near the zero modern life should guarantee, there is a cultural and societal respect for the institution of the church that means it is taboo to go to church and shoot people. school, however? that’s fair game. whether this is lack of respect or an offshoot of grand-theft-auto desensitization and mental-conditioning is a whole other question. but i suspect it is at least partly because school is no longer a place people feel should be safe — or a place they respect. while it’s a stretch to say you’ll never commit murder in a location you respect, it takes a special kind of evil to do it and i don’t think most of the confused young people bringing guns to schools would do it if they had a fundamental respect for education. maybe i’m wrong. but i don’t think so.

teachers as babysitters rather than educators

this leads to a secondary problem — educators no longer being able to educate. yes, in some schools teaching is a large portion of the daily task of teachers. but having been a teacher for many years i can assure you it’s not all we do. actually, the teaching often becomes a rather painfully-small portion of our daily lives. but teachers teach students, right? that’s what everyone thinks. and it is definitely the biggest part of the job description but, practically-speaking, we are expected to do many other tasks.

discipline and organization are an increasingly-large portion of our tasks. this used to be referred to as “classroom-management”, a vague term for “controlling the behavioral problems of students in the classroom”. but it has spread far from the original notion of keeping students from walking around in the middle of a class or making sure everyone gets a turn to answer questions.

what it’s really become is that outside social problems are increasingly present in the classroom. general conflict between students — whether personal problems, social media debates, bullying, gang violence, drug-related issues, emotional difficulties, relationship problems, mental-health disturbances or anything else — or even within the students are now well and truly on the radar of every teacher. if you don’t have to deal with tears, screaming, yelling and often physical violence as a typical part of your day, you’re probably not a public-school teacher in the year twenty-twenty-one.

we are now glorified babysitters who just happen to also be responsible for education and that’s often such a small portion of what actually gets done in the day it starts to feel like we’re nine-parts sheriff, one-part sensei. this is realistically a secondary component of the issue we just discussed, the lack of respect for either education or the institution where that takes place but it’s more fundamental than that. it screams from a place of negligence in society.

why are teachers having to take on all those other roles? because there’s nobody else to do them and students are desperately demanding them. there are more mental health problems than ever in our society. more conflicts. more violence. and where are students supposed to turn for help if not to their teachers and schools? the classroom has taken on all the functionality of a confessional, therapist’s office and safe-room in addition to its educational purpose. is this a result of the death of the family unit? perhaps in part. but i suspect it’s the result of a far larger social trend — the tendency to be individually-segregated. there was a time when people got together as part of a segment of their communities — perhaps this was an extended-family group, perhaps neighborhood kids playing in forts in the woods, perhaps cousins and aunts and uncles, perhaps all the teens hanging out together. young people were part not just of a single segment of society but of various interlinked and meshed groups. it’s not the case anymore. kids and teens now spend so much time alone, surrounded by nothing more than technology and interacting only through the mitigating influence of chat and social media they’re disconnected from any local aspect of society. they don’t know the people on their block. and they probably haven’t had conversations with their extended family in months. they don’t hang out in the woods or build skate ramps and treehouses.

is that the only way to grow up as a child? of course not. but segregation of individuals disconnects them from any potential larger support network those groups once provided and the educational system is not equipped to handle those extra needs — it was already undersupported when all it had to do was teach students to read, write and think (which has always been optional, despite what people might tell you about the past, reading and writing really taking up all the time available and thinking being left aside for a time that never came).

this one actually does have a more concrete solution, though whether anyone is prepared to enact it is a whole separate question — young people need to be provided more opportunities to connect to family, community and culture surrounding them. they need to get away from being separated from society and participating only in technologically-driven groups and identify with those frameworks around them that either still exist or could be resurrected to support them. this mitigates the need for educators to be therapists and babysitters and heads off many problems that lead to conflict and violence. will you tell your teacher the kid at the end of the hall has a gun? probably not. will you tell your aunt? far more likely. will you tell your friend a few years older while you’re skateboarding? exceptionally likely and they might be able to help you do something about it. isolation isn’t always a bad thing and technology use in young people has many incredible positive impacts. this, however, is one we need to address and, if we don’t, it’s going to come back not just to bite us in the ass but to keep shooting us there.

sexualization and promotion of hormonal action

teens are bundles of raging hormones. yes. it’s true. i was one once (though it’s getting harder and harder to remember, i must admit, more than half my life ago the last time my age started with a one) as were you. but there is now a self-indulgent freedom that comes with that knowledge that’s overwhelmed any sense of proportion or limits on freedom of action.

we live in a highly-sexualized culture. yes, sex has been a real part of cultural life for centuries — i mean, it’s even talked about in the gita, the bible and the qur’an. but in the last seventy years or so it has exploded (yes, yes, i noticed that, too) into the cultural sphere in ways it never had the power to before. advertising, games, broadcast media, interactive chat is all so focused on relationships and sexuality that a young person would be easily-forgiven for thinking there was nothing else of significance in life other than a desperate search for orgasm and physical pleasure.

we spoke already of the tendency to conflate freedom and a notion of “i want to so i’ll do it” or “i want it so i’ll take it”. this is the same fundamental concept at work here but it’s driven by chemicals and hormones and it’s far harder to fight. we can call this “performative moodiness 3.0” — i know, a little unwieldy but i’m open to better suggestions. what it comes down to is a connection between immediate desire and immediate action.

a young person feels a desire for something and they have spent their lives being able to act on those fluctuating desires and momentary changes in mood, indulging them. where once we were told “no, you can’t have an ice cream before dinner”, such things are long in the past and youth are now responsible for myriad decisions with few consequences. if you get used to making decisions simply based on what feels good at the time, as more and more extreme reactions (often hormonal and sexual ones) come up, there is less and less resistance to them or any idea there should be a desire or effort to resist them. want sex? nobody says no. have as much as you like. suddenly feel angry about something? scream about it. write horrible things online. do it now. who’s going to stop you?

this has two realistic disastrous effects in the greater cultural world — rape culture and momentary violence. we are often told that rape culture is the result of hypersexualization and lack of self-control and that’s absolutely true. we are told it’s the result of misogyny. also fundamentally true (especially a misogyny that isn’t just perpetrated by men against women but women against each other and even their own selves). but the main underlying tendency when it comes to the prevalence of sexual violence is that people are less and less willing to control their desires. want sex? there was a time when this was mitigated by cultural taboos, religious teachings and a presupposition of good behavior. now in a sexual free-for-all culture is permissive to the point that sexual desires are seen as things to be immediately rewarded. want to fuck someone? go to a club, pick someone up, do a little pole-dancing (with your own personal pole) and forget about it. sex was once the domain of the emotional bond. no, it wasn’t perfect. but it was expected sexuality was part of relationship culture. now it’s an immediate desire followed by immediate satiation.

you might not think that’s a huge problem. but even if it wasn’t (it is) it would be very bad training for people who are, hormonally and experientially, poorly-equipped to self-censure and exhibit self-control. i’m sure you remember the wild thoughts you had as a teen. what if you’d acted on them all without having time to think or someone to talk you out of them? today’s young people often don’t have any sense of proportionality or consequences mitigating those crazy impulses. every impulse is accepted and acted on in the moment. what if the impulse is to do something like take a gun and shoot someone? well, i think the results speak for themselves.

i won’t pretend to be even remotely qualified to talk about how to solve this problem. i can express where it’s come from but to try to convince people to shift away from a society of momentary self-pleasuring to one where self-control and rational behavior and expected? i’m not sure there’s hope. but we certainly need to talk about it.


the third aspect of this might be the most significant but it’s the one that the least needs to be said about in terms of exploring the problem. it’s likely where most of the solutions lie, though. our culture and media are incredibly violent. no, that isn’t solely responsible for training young people to commit horrible acts in their communities. but it’s definitely part of it. how large a part? i think it’s a huge part of it. why? because my doctoral research in educational behavioral conditioning tells me. and because i know how easy it is to train myself to think in a certain way — often simply by accidental exposure to an idea. think you don’t have any preconditioned biases? i promise you’re wrong. is violence wrong? i think we can all agree it is. but i bet you’re thinking there are exceptions. and those multiply and become self-justification. let’s take a quick look at how this cultural conditioning links to the problem of violence. this isn’t just gun violence but much of it is. and i don’t think most people really see it as separate — just an extreme version. a child willing to punch someone else for saying something nasty is really only a step or two away in behavioral conditioning from taking out a gun and shooting them in the face. if we can eliminate the punching, we can prevent the shooting. if we allow the punching, the potential of using a weapon to solve that conflict is multiplied. if we allow conflict to be acceptable in our culture, there’s no surprise when those conflicts become armed.

condoning of violence

is it ever ok to hit someone?

i’ll leave that there for you to think about for a few minutes. we live in a culture where the government tells us it is often ok to fight as long as it’s against those who want something else — or who want to stop us from having something we desire. we call this the military. that completely aside, we live in a culture where if you say something nasty about my mother, you won’t be surprised if i lean back and punch you in the face. hard. you’ll feel like you deserved it.

i’ll get into that retributive concept in a minute but let’s talk about the violence itself rather than the justification for it before we dive deeper.

violence is a habit.

repeat that a few times to yourself and let it sink in. if you hit someone today, you’ll be far more likely to hit them tomorrow. if you shoot at someone today and it’s your first time, you’ll probably feel like absolute shit by the time the evening comes and the high of excitement wears off. but tomorrow you’ll find it much easier. talk to anyone who’s served in the military. ask what the hardest part of combat is — you’ll get two answers. one is usually the sheer unmitigated boredom of it. the other is the first encounter with the enemy. it’s terrifying. it’s shocking. and the next time is easier. over time, we become desensitized to it. the violence is no longer abhorrent or even unexpected.

whether we think of that violence as media-provided, game-enacted or even just the violence of words and thoughts we see online, it has a lasting impact on the young mind. it actually has a lasting impact on any mind. but especially the young mind. a child who grows up surrounded by violent words and actions is far more likely to engage in them. this isn’t a theory. it’s easy to see all around us every day. violence breeds violence — that’s another way to say the same thing. we practice our actions and they are repeated.

but we don’t limit ourselves to those actions. practicing it on screen then acting it in real life is an easy leap to make but it’s not the only one. parents screaming at home doesn’t just lead to teens screaming at school. escalation is inevitable. once you let aggression and violence take charge, blood flows, things get heated, violence erupts from places it didn’t even appear to have a foothold even minutes earlier.

i won’t beat this drum any more except to leave you with a simple thought. if you think aggression, conflict and violence are ok, you might be able to see the limits of those things in your life. i assure you others don’t have the same, if any, limits. condone violence once and it will multiply. how do we fix this? we have to say violence is always wrong. what’s often dismissed as innocent playground roughhousing is really a precursor to schools full of guns. there’s a direct-path line. it’s just the first, often-ignored warning sign. we can do better than that, can’t we?

payback culture

this is, of course, just an extension of the previous problem but it’s important enough, though not needing vast explanation, to take a moment of your thought for its role.

is it ok to scream at your neighbor? well, no. of course it’s not. what if they screamed at you? then it’s ok, isn’t it? ah. that’s the problem. what if it’s that they left leaves in your driveway? what if they said something nasty about your kids? is it justified then? what is it ok to do? hit them? or is that beyond the limits?

as soon as you start justifying your actions as reactions to someone else’s perceived harm against you, you are progressing a cycle of aggression and violence. and you are training the young people around you to do the same. do you really think people go from totally-calm to bringing a gun to school in their backpacks and trying to kill their classmates and teachers? not likely. sure, there are psychopaths and murderous sadists out there. but most of these young people have been bullied, tortured, teased, provoked. fights have already broken out. they feel slighted and hated and harmed.

and they see a culture all around them that says when someone hurts you you hurt them back. an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. it’s the biblical way. it’s barbaric. it’s brutal. and we call it payback and all’s fair in our society as long as it’s justified.

the cycle doesn’t stop once it gets started. the only way out is to deescalate before the first harm becomes the second. open communication and calm reactions are key but rarely present. and young people echo our handling of these situations. how could they do anything else? we expect them to adapt to our world yet not really live the way we do? you might not be prepared to shoot your neighbor but would you hit them if they backed their car into your favorite garden? i suspect you might. and even if you wouldn’t, there are people around you who would and they’re not rare. this is what young people are seeing as their training in how the world works. it’s no wonder they act on it.

justification of anger and rage

this is exacerbated by another frightening trend in the modern world — it used to be seen as shameful to demonstrate anger, lack of self-control, loudness in the public sphere. that’s no longer the case. now there is only one thing we need to remove the taboo of violent action. justification.

if you have a good reason to be angry, anger is encouraged and expected. shock and awe and horror and public performance of outrage is now the answer to every social problem regardless of size or even intent.

again, this is an extension of the two issues we’ve already just looked at in media and society. but next time you see people getting angry, self-righteous, protesting a new injustice, please give this question some thought — what are young people learning from this behavior?

it’s ok to be violent if you have a good reason. if someone is hurting you, you have a duty, not just a right, to stand up and fight for what you believe in. polarized views and public screaming are no longer fringe elements in our society. party politics have spilled into extreme echo chambers and social media is now self-justification become endemic and incessant screaming and yelling about whatever happens to be the moral-outrage-trigger of the moment.

that’s not to say these things aren’t important. but nothing was ever fixed by screaming at it or fighting about it. things are fixed by calm, deliberate, logical action. we know this. nonviolence and peaceful, progressive change are the only things that have ever had positive impacts on our world — just look at the methods employed by ghandi and dr king if you’re not willing to dig deeper in the history of nonviolence. but we have indulged in our brutal desire to scream and demonstrate our anger at situations like whining banshees suddenly exposed to sunlight.

and young people are learning from us. if it’s ok for us to fight back against the cruel word with words and violence, why not them? why not at school? why not with a gun?

broadcast/interactive violence

of course, there’s one other piece of media and culture that’s relevant but it’s been so heavily-discussed even since i was a child it’s a little counterproductive to spend a lot of time on it. desensitization by gaming and the media. yes, it’s a problem. yes, children are learning violence on screens across the western world. yes, desensitization is a huge issue. but is it the fundamental problem? no. absolutely not. does that mean we should let young people play violent games and encourage the production of violent media? absolutely not.

but the deeper issue is twofold — the unwillingness to control impulsive behavior combined with self-justification for action against a perceived enemy. regardless of how many violent movies you watch, you’re not going to act them out against your classmates unless you think it’s acceptable. it would be nice if we didn’t have to subject ourselves to all that meaningless violence. but perhaps we need to take a step back and ask the more fundamental question — young people aren’t just randomly committing acts of violence. they feel hurt and they believe they’re justified in reacting in this way. they’ve learned that somewhere. and that is the heart of the issue.

final thoughts

when we look at all the factors, it is clear that the problem in america that leads to gun violence, especially gun violence in schools, is complex. it’s not the direct result of a culture of gun ownership, though that doesn’t help. it’s not simply because people play violent video games, though that allows a desensitized model for students seeking the easiest solution to the problem of social pressure.

more than anything, though, the blame for our school violence, armed and otherwise, is a culture that allows us to act on our impulses without stepping back, justifies payback and allows us to frame our anger and violence in a way that says it’s permissible, ok, acceptable or even required as a reaction to the world around us.

fixing these problems is not simple. and it doesn’t come with legislation or blanket solutions from politics. a political solution will have little impact if any and may actually exacerbate the problem. of course, we should have a national registration program. and we should dramatically reduce access to firearms. but those won’t realistically solve anything. we have to take a hard look in the mirror and be willing to walk away from self-justication and the permissibility of both anger and impulsive, mood-and-emotion-driven action in our lives and teach that to the young people who learn from our examples, not just our words.

this has indeed been a long walk but i hope it was worthwhile. thanks so much for your eyes. i appreciate each pair that follows me as i travel these ideas. may you find peace today.

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thank you for reading. your eyes have done me a great honor today.