Why the Mass Killings in the U.S.?

Why the mass killings in the U.S.? The first and most obvious answer is that Americans (by which I mean citizens and residents of the U.S.) can obtain guns, including automatic rifles, far too easily. But there are other reasons. Gun control, though essential, won’t solve the problem, since people will find ways around the laws or use something other than guns. The killings have cultural and ideological sources, even though the killers come from widely different backgrounds. There is something particularly American about this.

First, to get this out of the way: some object to the use of the word “American” as an adjective for the U.S.A. I use it because it’s recognized and simple. Every country that I can think of has a one-word (or, at most, two-word) adjective: Russian, Soviet, Danish, Icelandic, Mexican, etc. Yes, it’s true that North America encompasses more than the U.S., and Central and South America are also America. Yet no other country has “America” as its short name, hence the chance of confusion is negligible.

Criminals do not exist or act in complete isolation; they come out of a history, a culture, an infinite set of attitudes and beliefs. Even mental illness cannot be separated from “normal” life. Besides the availability of guns, what conditions in the U.S. might give rise to mass shootings?

I discussed this with my twelfth-grade students yesterday, and several ideas came up. One was that many Americans feel special: entitled to something good in life, angry and wounded if they do not receive this, and convinced of their own right to avenge themselves and pursue their own “happiness,” as it were. The same cannot be said of Hungarians, who view life with a basic pessimism, who don’t think they are owed anything in particular, who believe that they will be lucky if they achieve a fraction of their goals, and who see the absolute importance of helping others and being helped. (There’s both good and bad in both attitudes, which have plenty of variations and exceptions; the point here is not to judge them but to consider where they lead.)

Another difference is that in the U.S., there’s a much greater value placed on being in the spotlight, having your fifteen minutes of fame (or more, if you can manage it). Appearing on the front page of the NYT–wow! Getting mentioned on TV–wow! The most interesting essay I have read on this subject is David Bromwich’s “How Publicity Makes People Real.” People will go to great lengths, even to the extremes of self-debasement, for a bit of media attention. In contrast, Hungarians tend to eschew the spotlight. This is changing, inevitably, with all of the influences of social media, but there’s a strong belief, with origins in the communist/socialist era and earlier, that you are better off if people aren’t paying much attention to you. Writers, artists, and others want their work to be known, like anywhere else, but children aren’t typically encouraged to “put themselves out there,” except in formal academic, artistic, and athletic competitions.

This Hungarian reticence is refreshing but also has its drawbacks. Whenever I teach Shakespeare, there are some students who play their roles brilliantly in class but absolutely refuse to take part in a public performance. I have had dreams of putting on a musical at Varga, but just persuading enough students to take part would consume an entire year. In contrast, at my former school in NYC, the annual musical might have a cast of a hundred students or more. A hundred students, singing and dancing together on stage and through the aisles. When I taught there, the challenge was the opposite: to encourage quiet thought, which exists here in spades. I love the thoughtfulness of Hungarian culture and feel at home in it–but also come across as exuberant and enthusiastic in comparison with most Hungarians. I think others would agree. So it’s a complex matter: what a culture does and doesn’t emphasize, and what it brings out of a person. Many of us have combinations of cultures in our lives and hearts.

Crime exists here in Hungary too, as does violence, but they’re both usually of a surreptitious, inconspicuous sort: muggings, domestic violence, theft. People aren’t trying to make a splash or get in the news. On the other hand, you can be fooled into thinking you are completely safe here, and you aren’t; you have to be careful and alert here, as anywhere.

So, if you put these three conditions together: availability of guns, sense of entitlement, and desire for attention, and consider them as particularly American, coming out of the country’s history, culture, and beliefs, you can see part of the source of so many mass killings. This doesn’t explain everything, or even close, since you can seek attention and believe in your own specialness without dreaming of killing anyone. In fact, you can hold these attitudes and lead a life of kindness and gentleness. (I’m special and you are too!)

But this is a start.

What Happened to Liberty?

I read just now about the massacre in the Pittsburgh synagogue–which happened yesterday, during Shabbat services–and while I am in a rush, about to go to the U.S. for a week, I have to say a few things about it. First, it is sickening. The lives are gone, and so is everyone’s safety; no place, not even a house of worship, is safe. I am so sad for everyone who was there and for their families and friends.

Second, something strange is going on in the U.S. (and elsewhere in the world–but the U.S. seems to take the lead in massacres). Many have blamed Trump’s rhetoric and recklessness, and the stridency of his followers. Yes, there is plenty of basis for that explanation, but it is far from complete.

There seems to be a growing attitude in the U.S. that if someone or something makes you uncomfortable, you have the right to eliminate it–by ignoring, dismissing, or, at the outer extreme, killing the offending entity. There is a loss of willingness to be uncomfortable, to take in things that challenge one’s assumptions.

This may have to do with the increasing personalization (or appearance of personalization) on social media; the emphasis, in schools and elsewhere, on personal opinion, even opinion without grounding; and a belief, in many walks of life, that the most important thing is to be surrounded with people and things that agree with you. Take that to extremes, and you have hate groups and murderers–but far short of that, I sense an assumption, in milder places, that one of the goals of life is to be reflected and affirmed by others.

It may also have to do with a lack of listening, the lack of a practice of listening. In the name of “engagement,” people are asked, all over the place, for their quick reactions–to a play, movie, book, or anything else–and if you expect yourself and others to react so fast, you don’t have room to take things in.

I don’t know how to begin combating this. Some of it has to happen in education; teachers have to help students understand views and ways of speaking that differ from their own. News and other  publications have to do more to encourage thoughtful comments; I have seen too many good writers put down by readers who refuse to read.

I have often been put down for sounding a little old-fashioned; my diction is not typically American, and I sometimes get carried away with expressions that don’t help what I want to say. I am aware of this flaw in my writing–but some people write me and my work off on account of it. They refuse to read further, instead of considering that I have a slightly different language on account of years lived abroad, years spent with languages other than English, and a distance from much of popular culture.

I do not have any big solutions, but one of the first steps must be to revive the idea of liberty as expressed by John Stuart Mill and others: the idea that we have something to learn from those different from us, from opinions that we find wrong, and from expressions that we find troubling. By “troubling” I don’t mean dangerous; I don’t mean that anyone has to extend an olive branch to a murderer. I mean that in our midst there are many things, many people, that we can either shut out or consider–and while no one can take in everything or everyone, we can make our selections with some doubt, some acknowledgment that there is more in the world than what we understand, like, and accept. And let people worship in peace.

I added a paragraph and made a few changes to this piece after posting it. There is no picture this time.

 

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • TEDx Talk

    Delivered at TEDx Upper West Side, April 26, 2016.

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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