Mass Killings: Choose Your Preferred Cause (and Exclude All Others)

As soon as someone identifies the cause of mass killings in the US, they will do something to stop them. Too bad no one wants to see it.
Mass killings in the US, US gun crime, mass shootings, gun crime in the US, Gun control, Gun control in America, US news, American news, shootings in America, American

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The HuffPost explores the question of whether, as Donald Trump and others have claimed, video games are responsible for the frequent mass killings in the US. We learn that Trevor Noah, a late-night television comedian, “introduced ‘The Legislator: License To Bill’ ― in which players try to pass firearms legislation through Congress ― in response to President Donald Trump and GOP lawmakers’ apportioning of blame (despite no credible evidence) for mass shootings on violent video games.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Apportioning blame:

The act of changing an analysis that takes into account multiple causes of a known effect to reduce it to a single cause

Contextual Note

WCCOTV in Minnesota interviewed a psychologist (and father) who characterized the idea of blaming video games for mass killings in these terms: “It takes a very complex multi-factorial issue — what leads a person to commit acts of violence — and boils it down to ‘if we took away the video game they wouldn’t do that’ and there isn’t any evidence to support that.”

This debate about where to “apportion the blame” appears to leave the US with no solutions to a constantly repeated problem. But observers have consistently noted one key fact that could lead to a correct analysis. In the HuffPost’s video, a commentator points out that both video games and mental health problems exist everywhere in the world, but “this combination doesn’t seem to play anywhere other than the United States.”

The commentators all appear, at the end of the debate, to treat this as an unsolvable mystery. But there is an available explanation, though it seems to be less available to Americans than to the rest of humanity. And there may be a very good reason for that, which is also worth exploring.

If something occurs repeatedly only in the US, whereas all the variables isolated for analysis also exist in multiple other environments, the difference can usually be located in culture. But culture is something people in the US prefer to ignore, especially politicians, proud of the nation’s vaunted “exceptionalism.” This removes the need to compare and reflect on how things play out in different countries.

What do we mean by culture, which obviously has a lot of different meanings? Anthropologists and sociologists see it as encompassing the way people spontaneously think and act within any familiar framework. It consists of unconsciously shared values (about what is good or bad, proper or improper, beautiful or ugly, desirable or repulsive), modes of perception (what to notice in an environment), behavioral rituals, assumptions about the real world and knowledge of the stories and narratives that construct their common “moral world.” It also includes the types and quality of relationships that exist between people in recognizable situations (e.g., between friends, colleagues, strangers, professions, classes and so on).

All of these things tend to be codified into “ways of thinking” that apply even between two people who espouse seemingly contrary values (e.g., conservative vs progressive), though their interpretation of the significance of specific factors or events may diverge. For example, on the question of gun ownership, both National Rifle Association (NRA) fanatics and committed gun-control advocates share the idea that every individual is responsible for his or her own defense and must be free to act appropriately to ensure it. They differ on what is appropriate and probably, as well, on the literal meaning of the US Constitution’s Second Amendment.

But, on the same question, people from another culture may think that decisions about how to ensure one’s defense are never an individual’s responsibility. Collectivist cultures rely on a community to decide. It may be their national government, a local tradition or their family (but not the nuclear family). 

The murderous implications of the cultural phenomenon related to the glorification of violence in the US have more to do with the quality of human relationships (or lack thereof) than with either video games or mental health. US culture, through its traditions, its media and its educational system, obsessively promotes competition between individuals rather than cooperation. You may at times cooperate, but you do so to compete and win, a process that could be summarized as the “art of the deal.” You might even help the person you are “dealing with” win, but only because it furthers your existentially important competition with the rest of society.

An analysis of cultural differences could help Americans to move forward in the debate about the causes of mass killings in the US. But that means acknowledging that extreme violence may be directly related to a culture of individualist competition that has devised multiple ways to measure success in terms of a score or ranking system. I can be the amount of money you earn or the number of victories you achieve when gaming. In violent video games, the score is often expressed in the number of enemies you kill. In a culture of individualistic competition, it’s easy to see all other people as competitors and, therefore, potentially enemies. Which turns out to be terribly unfortunate for the others the day you happen to have a loaded AR-15 in your hands (which, of course, is less likely to happen in other cultures and not only because of laws).

Historical Note

Why are Americans allergic to exploring culture and using it to understand the very real internal problems the nation is facing? The belief in exceptionalism is part of the explanation. Although a nation could be exceptional by being exceptionally bad, for US citizens the belief that the nation is exceptional can only mean two things: that in geopolitical terms it will always be “a good guy,” acting out of humanitarian and democratic motivation, and that its very obvious material achievements represent both an ideal for civilization and the proof of its position of natural leadership with regard to the rest of the world.

Since at least the 1950s, the rest of the world has perceived this narcissistic, self-sustaining image of the US as the unique model for humanity as a form of arrogance. It became crystallized in the cliché, “the ugly American,” expressing the idea that the heavy-handed, culturally insensitive approach typical of American diplomatic and military personnel branded them as incapable of interacting harmoniously (i.e., in a beautiful way), especially with Asian cultures, making them appear “ugly.”

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When the US began to assume the role of policing the non-communist world and doing its best to keep Russian influence at bay, the State Department itself became at least dimly aware of the cost associated with this gap of understanding that produced disturbing incidents, a good decade before the most disturbing of them all: the war in Vietnam. In 1950, it hired the anthropologist Edward T. Hall to develop and teach programs for the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) to instruct diplomats in the complexity of intercultural communication and guide them to avoiding misunderstandings.

Hall quickly developed his reputation as a great teacher and the founder of a new field of inquiry: intercultural communication. Extremely appreciated by his public, Hall apparently ended up upsetting people at the State Department, who decided to end the experiment in 1955. In an essay published in 2002, the authors write: “FSI was one part of a government bureaucracy, and the anthropologists and linguists teaching at FSI had difficulties in dealing with the rest of the U.S. State Department, which was suspicious of the enclave of academics at FSI.” A “brief window of academic creativity that had flourished at the FSI from 1951 to 1955 closed.”

So, beyond exceptionalism, but related to it, is a major obstacle to solving the epidemic of mass killings: anti-intellectualism that plays out at both the institutional and cultural level. Going beyond existing categories and seeking to understand is incompatible with the much more essential role of propaganda that the emerging military-industrial complex — belatedly highlighted by Dwight D. Eisenhower in January 1960 — required.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

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