In response to the Parkland school shooting, Jared Sichel takes a different perspective. He puts it into the context of Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life.
I’m not sure of my opinion on this article, as might be noted by the title of this post. We should take Peterson seriously, but it is hard to know how his message applies to extreme cases of young males that are struggling to such an extent that they might commit mass violence. That is a lot to ask of a public intellectual, even when he has experience in clinical psychology as does Peterson.
The article begins with a general description of American school shooters, the implication being that by knowing who these people are we could help them before they turn violent (via the sage advice of a professorial father figure):
“He, like every one of America’s other young, school shooters since Columbine, is male. And like many, he grew up without a father present, is not socialized, is a loner, is not religious, sees himself as a victim, is angry and depressed, wants to get even, is attracted to violence, and meticulously planned his final, redemptive, act of chaos.”
I wanted to break this down a bit (although in less detail than I did with an earlier post on the demographics of violence). Let me start with the religious component. Whatever they identify or don’t identify as, many and maybe most school shooters were raised Christian and one wonders if that plays a role in their often expressing a loss of meaning, an existential crisis, etc. Birgit Pfeifer and Ruard R. Ganzevoort focus on the religious-like concerns that obsess so many school shooters and note that many of them had religious backgrounds:
“Traditionally, religion offers answers to existential concerns. Interestingly, school shootings have occurred more frequently in areas with a strong conservative religious population (Arcus 2002). Michael Carneal (Heath High School shooting, 1997, Kentucky) came from a family of devoted members of the Lutheran Church. Mitchell Johnson (Westside Middle School shooting, 1998, Arkansas) sang in the Central Baptist Church youth choir (Newman et al. 2004). Dylan Klebold (Columbine shooting, 1999, Colorado) attended confirmation classes in accordance with Lutheran tradition. However, not all school shooters have a Christian background. Some of them declare themselves atheists…” (The Implicit Religion of School Shootings).
Princeton sociologist Katherine Newman, in studying school shootings, has noted that, “School rampage shootings tend to happen in small, isolated or rural communities. There isn’t a very direct connection between where violence typically happens, especially gun violence in the United States, and where rampage shootings happen” (Common traits of all school shooters in the U.S. since 1970).
It is quite significant that these American mass atrocities are concentrated in “small, isolated or rural communities” that are “frequently in areas with a strong conservative religious population”. That might more precisely indicate who these school shooters are and what they are reacting to. Also, one might note that rural areas in general and specifically in the South do have high rates of gun-related deaths, although many of them are listed as ‘accidental’ which is to say most rural shootings involve people who know each other; also true of school shootings.
Sichel goes onto focus one particular descriptor of so many school shooters, that they are young males: “America is in the midst of a well-documented crisis of young males. […] “Boys are suffering in the modern world,” Peterson writes. […] Thus “toxic masculinity.” […] The combination of a toxic culture and broken homes has produced millions of anxious, confused, and even angry, teenage and young adult males.”
I’d put it more simply. America is in the midst of a well-documented crisis. Full stop. The crisis is found in every demographic and area of American society, even though it impacts and manifests in diverse ways of dysfunction and unhappiness.
But I might emphasize the point that some of the worst harmed are GenXers, which is to say middle agers, especially among certain demographics of white males such as in the lower classes and rural areas (the most harm in the relative sense of having experienced the greatest decline, the only demographic with worsening mortality rates). And I could add that GenXers — a generation with high rates of violent crime and social problems — are probably the majority of young parents right now, which is to say the parents of these school shooters and other struggling young men (and young women).
James Gilligan, among other issues, discusses this in terms of loss of status and loss of hope. This leads to stress and short term thinking, shame and frustration. Et cetera. It’s a whole mess of factors, across multiple generations, especially in considering how GenXers were the first mass incarcerated generation which caused much devastation, from absentee fathers to impoverished communities. It’s not only individuals who are hurting but also families and communities.
It just so happens that yesterday I wrote a post about American violence. Based on extensive data, I made the argument that lead toxicity and inequality are the most strongly proven explanations of violence, both in its increase and decrease. And it must be noted that violence in the US has been on a steep decline since the 1990s.
School shootings and other mass murder, however, is a different kind of action. Even though lead toxicity has been dealt with to some degree, although less so in poor communities (both inner city and rural communities full of old lead pipes and old buildings with lead paint), inequality keeps rising and that is one of the clearest predictors of a wide variety of social problems. And James Gilligan, as I discuss in that post, goes into great detail about why high inequality affects males differently than females. As part of his analysis of the stresses of inequality, he speaks of a culture of shame that particularly hits young men hard. To his credit, Jordan Peterson does admit that inequality is an important factor (as I recall, he discusses it in an interview with Russell Brand).
I’ll respond to one last bit from Sichel’s article: “And the aim of your life, Peterson argues, should not be happiness. He does not belittle it as a worthy pursuit among many, but “in a crisis, the inevitable suffering that life entails can rapidly make a mockery of the idea that happiness is the proper pursuit of the individual.””
I wonder what Jordan Peterson would think of Anu Partanen’s The Nordic Theory of Everything. She clarifies the issue of individualism. The United States is simultaneously too individualistic and not individualistic enough. Or one could say that few Americans take seriously what individualism means or could mean, instead being mired in the pseudo-individualistic rhetoric that authoritarianism hides behind.
Partanen argues that the Nordic social democracies, on a practical level, have greater individual rights and freedoms. Individual happiness can only be attained through the public good. Nordic laws treat people as individuals, whereas US law prioritizes family which Partanen sees as being oppressive in how it is used to undermine public responsibility. The American nuclear family is expected to hold up the entirety of society, an impossible task.
This relates to the difference between the cultural notion of Germanic freedom (etymologically related to ‘friend’) and the legalistic tradition of Roman liberty (simply meaning one isn’t a slave). But I don’t think Partanen discusses this distinction. Maybe American (pseudo-)individualism is too legalistic. And maybe precisely because individualism is less of a political football in Nordic countries that genuine individualism is possible. Individualism can be a result of a functioning social democracy, but not a starting point as an abstract ideal.
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Here is a relevant section from my violence post where I share a passage from Gilligan’s book. He goes into more detail about other factors influencing males, specifically young males. But this particular passage fits in with Partanen’s view. Simply put, it can’t so easily be blamed on family breakdown, missing fathers, and single mothers.
by James Gilligan
Kindle Locations 1218-1256
Single-Parent Families Another factor that correlates with rates of violence in the United States is the rate of single-parent families: children raised in them are more likely to be abused, and are more likely to become delinquent and criminal as they grow older, than are children who are raised by two parents. For example, over the past three decades those two variables—the rates of violent crime and of one-parent families—have increased in tandem with each other; the correlation is very close. For some theorists, this has suggested that the enormous increase in the rate of youth violence in the U.S. over the past few decades has been caused by the proportionately similar increase in the rate of single-parent families.
As a parent myself, I would be the first to agree that child-rearing is such a complex and demanding task that parents need all the help they can get, and certainly having two caring and responsible parents available has many advantages over having only one. In addition, children, especially boys, can be shown to benefit in many ways, including diminished risk of delinquency and violent criminality, from having a positive male role-model in the household. The adult who is most often missing in single-parent families is the father. Some criminologists have noticed that Japan, for example, has practically no single-parent families, and its murder rate is only about one-tenth as high as that of the United States.
Sweden’s rate of one-parent families, however, has grown almost to equal that in the United States, and over the same period (the past few decades), yet Sweden’s homicide rate has also been on average only about one-tenth as high as that of the U.S., during that same time. To understand these differences, we should consider another variable, namely, the size of the gap between the rich and the poor. As stated earlier, Sweden and Japan both have among the lowest degrees of economic inequity in the world, whereas the U.S. has the highest polarization of both wealth and income of any industrialized nation. And these differences exist even when comparing different family structures. For example, as Timothy M. Smeeding has shown, the rate of relative poverty is very much lower among single-parent families in Sweden than it is among those in the U.S. Even more astonishing, however, is the fact that the rate of relative poverty among single-parent families in Sweden is much lower than it is among two-parent families in the United States (“Financial Poverty in Developed Countries,” 1997). Thus, it would seem that however much family structure may influence the rate of violence in a society, the overall social and economic structure of the society—the degree to which it is or is not stratified into highly polarized upper and lower social classes and castes—is a much more powerful determinant of the level of violence.
There are other differences between the cultures of Sweden and the U.S. that may also contribute to the differences in the correlation between single-parenthood and violent crime. The United States, with its strongly Puritanical and Calvinist cultural heritage, is much more intolerant of both economic dependency and out-of-wedlock sex than Sweden. Thus, the main form of welfare support for single-parent families in the U.S. (until it was ended a year ago) A.F.D.C., Aid to Families with Dependent Children, was specifically denied to families in which the father (or any other man) was living with the mother; indeed, government agents have been known to raid the homes of single mothers with no warning in the middle of the night in order to “catch” them in bed with a man, so that they could then deprive them (and their children) of their welfare benefits. This practice, promulgated by politicians who claimed that they were supporting what they called “family values,” of course had the effect of destroying whatever family life did exist. Fortunately for single mothers in Sweden, the whole society is much more tolerant of people’s right to organize their sexual life as they wish, and as a result many more single mothers are in fact able to raise their children with the help of a man.
Another difference between Sweden and the U.S. is that fewer single mothers in Sweden are actually dependent on welfare than is true in the U.S. The main reason for this is that mothers in Sweden receive much more help from the government in getting an education, including vocational training; more help in finding a job; and access to high-quality free childcare, so that mothers can work without leaving their children uncared for. The U.S. system, which claims to be based on opposition to dependency, thus fosters more welfare dependency among single mothers than Sweden’s does, largely because it is so more miserly and punitive with the “welfare” it does provide. Even more tragically, however, it also fosters much more violence. It is not single motherhood as such that causes the extremely high levels of violence in the United States, then; it is the intense degree of shaming to which single mothers and their children are exposed by the punitive, miserly, Puritanical elements that still constitute a powerful strain in the culture of the United States.
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After writing this post, another factor occurred to me related to this.
There aren’t only the chemicals kids get accidentally exposed to — including far from being limited to heavy metal toxins for there also such things as estrogen-like chemicals in plastics and the food supply, not to mention a thousand other largely untested chemicals that surround us on a daily basis — but also those we intentionally prescribe them such as the increasing use of psychiatric medications on the entire population, more problematically prescribed to the still developing youth. A relevant example are the ADD/ADHD medications that are given mostly to boys to get them, as some argue, to act less like boys and more like girls. And these drugs have been proven to permanently alter neurocognitive development, specifically affecting areas of the brain related to motivation.
Dr. Leonard Sax in Boys Adrift (see my post) argues that, by way of chemicals and drugs along with schools constraining and punishing typical male behavior, we have now raised two generations of boys who are stunted (physiologically, cognitively, and psychologically). This is seen in the growing gender disparity of sexual development, girls maturing earlier than ever before and boys reaching puberty later than seen with previous generations. The consequence of this is that more young women are now attending and graduating college, including in many fields (e.g., business management) that used to be dominated by males.
It’s even a wider problem than this. The dramatic changes are also seen in the larger ecosystem. Males of other species showing the effects of shrinking testicles and egg-laying, the latter being particularly non-typical for males of all species, in fact one of the defining features of not being male. It appears to be a multi-species gender problem. Boys aren’t just adrift but stunted and maybe mutating. Why would anyone be surprised that there is something severely problematic going on and that it is pervasive? Simplistic psychological and social explanations, especially of the culture war variety, are next to worthless.
Take the challenges targeting the young, especially boys, and combine them with the worsening problems of inequality and segregation, classism and racism, climate change and late stage capitalism, and all the rest. The worst cases of lost young males are indicators of deeper troubles coursing through our entire society. The stresses in the world right now are immense, leaving many to feel overwhelmed. If anything, I’m surprised there isn’t far more violence. With the increasingly obvious decline and dysfunction of the United States, I keep waiting for a massive wave of social turmoil, riots, revolts, assassinations, and terrorist attacks. The occasional school shooting is maybe just a sign of what is to come.