From Community to Legalism

The United States has become a legalistic society. It has always been more legalistic than some countries, for various reasons, but it’s become even more legalistic over time. Earlier last century, most problems weren’t dealt with through the legal system.

This is why it’s hard to compare present data to past data. A lot of criminal behavior never led people to the court system, much less prison. And even when people ended up in court, judges used to have more legal freedom to be lenient, unlike our present mandatory sentencing. This meant that there wasn’t much in the way of mass incarceration in the US until this past half century or so.

Take juvenile delinquents as a key example, far from a new problem. As urbanization took hold in the late 1800s and into the early Cold War, there was moral panic about teenagers being out of control, turning into criminals, and joining gangs. But most kids with problems didn’t end up facing a judge.

There were community institutions that figured out ways to deal with problems without recourse to legal punishment. Kids might get sent to family members who lived elsewhere, to a group home for delinquents, to reform school, etc. Or they might simply be made to do community service or pay restitution. But none of it would end up as a criminal record, likely not even getting reported in the local newspaper. It would have been dealt with quietly, informally, and privately.

There were cultural reasons at the time. It was assumed that kids weren’t fully responsible for their own behavior, as kids were treated as dependents of adults. The problems of kids was seen as the failure of parenting or social conditions. There was little tolerance for bad behavior in many ways at that time, but also society was much more forgiving. A kid would have to commit many major crimes before he would end up in a court and in jail.

The downside of this is that individuals had less rights, as people were seen more in social terms. It was easier to institutionalize people back then. Or if a girl got pregnant, her family would make sure she was sent somewhere else and not bring shame on the family. Juveniles were considered dependents until well into young adulthood. A 21 year old woman who was accused of prostitution, even if false, could find herself sent off to a group home for girls. Early 20th century childhood was highly protected and extended, although far different from present helicopter parenting.

Parents were considered legally and morally responsible for their kids, in a way that is not seen these days. Individual rights were still rather limited in the early 20th century. But there was also a sense of community responsibility for members of the community. It was accepted that social conditions shaped and influenced individuals. So, to change individual behavior, it was understood that social conditions needed to be changed for the individual.

In present American society, we see the past as socially oppressive and it was. We now put the individual before the community. We think it’s wrong to send juvenile delinquents off to reform schools, to separate the low IQ kids from other students, and to institutionalize the mentally ill. But this typically means we simply ignore problems.

The kid with severe autism in a normal classroom is not getting a good education or being prepared for adult life in any kind of way, although there is merit to his being socialized with his neurotypical peers. The mentally ill being homeless instead of in institutions is not exactly an improvement, even considering the problems of psychiatric institutions in the past. And the world is not a better place for our warehousing problematic people in prisons.

Our society has been pushed to an extreme. It would be nice to see more balance between rights of individuals and the responsibility of communities. But that isn’t possible if our main options are to either ignore problems or turn to the legal system. This is a difficult challenge, as increasing urbanization and industrialization have led to the breakdown of communities. There was a much stronger social fabric a century ago. It’s harder for us to turn to community solutions now since communities no longer function as they once did. And growing inequality has undermined the culture of trust that is necessary for well-functioning community.

Yet it’s obvious, according to polls, that most Americans realize that social problems require social solutions. But our political system hasn’t caught up with this social reality. Or rather the ruling class would rather not admit to it.

Armed Americans Are the Greatest Threat to Americans

Americans are more likely to be killed by other Americans with guns than by all of our enemies across all of history combined.

That is a mind-blowing fact. It puts the issue in perspective. It also makes one wonder what people mean by guns making them feel ‘safe’. It certainly doesn’t make Americans on the other side of that gun safe. Nor does it make for a safer society, as compared to other countries.

This can be taken as a direct criticism of guns or not. I take it as a criticism of our gun-obsessed and violence-obsessed culture. There are other countries with as or higher rates of gun ownership and yet lower rates of gun homicide. Likewise, other countries don’t necessarily have less crime, just less crime that leads to homicide. It’s bad enough being robbed or raped, but being killed afterward is far worse.

In America, life is cheap.

The Riddle of Culture

Sam Harris has a fairly good article about the gun control debate, The Riddle of the Gun.

My own position is more or less similar. Like Harris and like most Americans, I’m for the right to own guns within reasonable limits such as basic gun regulation. I suspect that most liberals would agree with this, even if this gets distorted because liberals end up reacting to the right-wing extremists.

Harris apparently doesn’t see it this way. He thinks that the so-called liberal media represents the average liberal, but my sense is that the ‘liberal’ elite might be as far away from the average liberal as they are from those on the right. I think the position Harris is taking, not unlike that of Jonathan Haidt, is motivated by a desire to create an appearance of credibility by criticizing his fellow liberals. The problem, though, is that those like Harris and Haidt are just more liberal elites, maybe no less clueless than any other liberal elite when it comes to understanding most liberals.

The culture wars are the central problem to my mind, although not because of the wars part but because of the culture part. I’d rather have a culture discussion than a culture war. It would be much more fruitful. This is the other challenge that Harris fails to meet. Despite my mostly agreeing, I want more from an analysis than what Harris offers. His article lacks subtler nuance and depth of insight.

The issue of culture is something that I’ve been obsessing over the past few years. In an earlier post about gun regulation, I did touch upon the deeper problems involved… but my thoughts have continued to develop such as considering moreso the importance of regional data on violence. The key to connect it all is culture.

Harris sticks to the standard narrative. He wants to bring the discussion more to the data itself with which I agree. However, there is a lot of relevant data that rarely gets discussed and certainly Harris doesn’t venture very far into the vast array of interesting data.

Most of the time, the type of data discussed is limited to generalized national data. Sometimes the distinction of rural and urban violent rates will be brought up, but usually just to reinforce stereotypes about urban blacks. This data, however, is complicated by other data.

It is true that urban areas on average have more violent crime, including with guns, than rural areas on average. What isn’t true is that this is equal for all regions. In fact, the  opposite is true in the South. The rural South has more violent crime than the urban South. The rural South has more violent crime than the urban North, more crime than the rural North, and actually more violent crime than any other region in the country.

Two other factors relate to types of violence. One factor is that you’re not necessarily less likely to experience violence in rural areas. Rather, you’re more likely to experience violence from someone you know instead of from a stranger (this includes a high rate of ‘accidental’ deaths and a high rate of self-inflicted violence, i.e., suicides). Another factor is that there typically is an inverse relationship between homicide rates and suicide rates, but in the rural South both are high.

All of this is quite significant considering that gun regulation is the weakest in the South and gun ownership is the highest in the South. This data punctures the argument that higher rates of gun ownership have no correlation to higher rates of gun violence. Even so, the correlation may not be direct. My own view is that they both are connected through culture.

So, I’m not blaming guns in and of themselves. What I am blaming (as others have noted) is the gun culture that is prevalent in America, specifically the romanticizing of violence and the pushing of military-style tactical gear. More importantly, I’m laying responsibility upon the culture of the rural South which is a culture of honor that has a long history of weak government and vigilante justice (think of the Hatfield-McCoy feud). This is seen in exaggerated form on the borderland of Kentucky and Tennessee where, following the Civil War, the violence was ten times the national average.

Interestingly, it isn’t just those on the left making this argument. Thomas Sowell, the popular black conservative, wrote an essay about culture, “Black Rednecks and White Liberals”. I haven’t read that essay, but I’ve read a number of reviews about it and aspects of it seem to hit upon an element of truth. Is it mere coincidence that black culture also came from the South?

This isn’t about blaming a region for all problems. My impulse is to seek understanding. What specifically might be the common factor between rural white culture from the South and urban black culture from the South? It’s not just an issue of the South as if a direction on a compass magically conveys an essence upon people. It’s certainly not to make a blanket judgment. What I want is to get at the root cause(s), the fundamental motivation behind diverse behaviors.

I’m less interested in knowing what motivates people to want to own guns and more interest in what motivates people to be prone to using guns and to being violent. Why is it the exact demographics that are the most violent are also the demographics most antagonistic toward the government? I don’t know about the urban black culture in the North, but I do know the rural white culture in the South believes that people should take care of their own problems. Similarly, what is the correlation to the Republican Party in terms of how the rates of violence consistently increase after a Republican administration takes office?

Of course, these two specific demographics have some good reasons for feeling antagonistic toward authority. Blacks have been one of the most oppressed groups in American history. Poor whites in the rural South haven’t experienced much privilege either. These are all people that have had to fight for their own way in the world, rarely with any help from those in authority. The problem for the gun regulation issue is that such demographics become pawns for the fight between elites.

I don’t think cultures are inevitably dysfunctional on their own terms, although sometimes that might be the case. This seeming dysfunction is a response to larger dysfunctions in society. The Scots-Irish are a good example of this. They have been pawns in America and in the past they were pawns in Britain. Their culture became so prone to violence because they found themselves amidst violence. In the victimization cycle, violence endlessly begets violence.

I don’t want to scapegoat this group or that. From my perspective, that would be avoiding the real issues that are much more profound and pervasive. The individual cultures manifest particular symptoms, but dealing with the symptoms won’t help in the long-term. There are different levels of culture. How do we dig down to the root level?