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.

Unhyped

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In Hungary I am relieved of the pressures of hype. Here, by and large (with exceptions and shadings), people care more about the quality of a thing than about the publicity surrounding it. It is more important to write a good book, song, or play than to “succeed” in terms of sales and numbers.

Not that this is always true here, or always false in America. Here in Hungary, artists have to promote their work just to keep on going; to make a living off of it, they have to win a large audience. Conversely, in the United States, people are not always impressed with big publicity; especially with music, they look beyond the fame.

But often, in the United States, you are judged by your external success. If you want to be considered–yes, even considered–by a major publisher, you must find a literary agent. To persuade a literary agent to represent you, you must usually show that you have a “platform”–that is, a built-in audience that will guarantee sales. Or you must have connections with the big media outlets. Or else your idea must look like a big hit–something that will sweep the country and the world. Once the book (or other work) is out, you are judged by the splash that it makes–even though that splash, in many cases, has been pre-engineered. “Everyone’s talking about such-and-such”–people forget that sometimes the strongest reaction to a book is silence.

Beyond all of that, in the United States there is a fantasy of “making it”–of hitting upon something that makes you famous and rich and that tells the world that you matter after all. Many people believe that if they make it, they are legitimate human beings, and if they don’t, they aren’t. I know musicians who were profoundly and widely appreciated and who still believed they hadn’t made it. Some quit out of discouragement. Some shifted their attention to other things. Some switched to other kinds of music, where the “scene” didn’t matter any more. (Granted, this wasn’t always out of discouragement; sometimes they just wanted to take a new direction.)

In Hungary, from what I have seen, people recognize that life is difficult and bounded, that external success involves a lot of luck (and sometimes privilege too), and that you are better off focusing on your work itself than on the attention it is or isn’t receiving. Every writer or artist wants an audience that grows over time; audiences are necessary. Everyone wants recognition–awards, positive reviews, and so forth. But a small audience is not taken as a judgment against the work or its creator. Or maybe it is sometimes, in some places, but not everywhere.

Also, in Hungary there is intense emphasis on quality, sometimes to a fault. People readily criticize their own and others’ work, not always to put it down, but to point out how it can be better. The adjective “good” is a serious compliment, not freely given. People do not often laud creativity in the abstract; that is, they do not respect it as much as they respect a created thing, if it comes out well, and its creator. This has a negative side: judgments can be harsh, inaccurate, and overly self-assured. But in the best circumstances they can encourage discernment.

Take, for instance, the band contest in Törökszentmiklós. I had never seen anything like this before. The bands were being judged by a jury on the quality of their musicianship, lyrics, uniqueness, and overall stage picture. The results made sense. Contests abound in Hungary–academic, artistic, athletic contests of talent and accomplishment. These contests have limitations and imperfections, but they can bring out the good. In the U.S., there are contests aplenty, but one contest reigns supreme: the “buzz” tournament, the challenge to produce something that everyone will be talking about for months to come. As though talk were a measure of anything.

This topic could be the subject of a book, but it wouldn’t be easy to write. I would have to go much farther into the essence of the matter. Right now I am dissatisfied, knowing I have barely touched the surface. Much remains to be asked, considered, probed, rethought. We shall see.

I made some revisions and additions to this piece after posting it.

Twitter and Loss of Solitude

Last March, during a book talk,  Jonathan Franzen committed the scandalous act of criticizing Twitter. An audience member took issue not with his points, but with his failure to admit to his own privilege. Franzen, she argued, doesn’t have to  worry about promoting himself. His publicist probably dreams about him every night. Many lesser-known writers have to go on Twitter and Facebook if they want to reach readers.

But do we? Isn’t there a way to reach people without reducing yourself? If you genuinely enjoy Twitter—and many do—then it can have benefits. It can serve as a good source of information, if nothing else. But if you aren’t drawn to it, why force yourself to use it? One of the most grating aspects of Twitter (and other social media) is the subjection of everything to a popularity vote and public display.

Publicity is not evil; writers and others need to reach an audience. Still, there are many ways of doing this, each with its benefits and costs. One must choose carefully, resisting pressure to join the crowd.

Promoting your work through Twitter takes more than finger-patter. It isn’t enough, from what I have seen, to toss out a tweet now and then. No, you have to build a following (which you can check moment to moment). This requires time and strategic activity. What’s more, it requires that you look somewhat friendly and accessible. You tweet about how great it was to meet so-and-so for lunch. You tweet that you’d love to come to so-and-so’s reading but—alas—are about to board the plane to LA, where you will be giving a reading of your own. Too bad! Another time!

Now, some claim that this sort of online socializing actually preserves privacy. Susan Cain suggests that it appeals to introverts because it relieves them of the pressure to socialize in person. According to Cain, introverts would rather tweet and blog than speak in public or introduce themselves at parties. Clearly there’s some truth to that. It’s probably less draining in some ways to send a hundred tweets than to meet ten people in a day. Introvert or extrovert, a person gets tired.

Let’s set aside the question of introversion for the moment and consider solitude instead. (Introvert-extrovert distinctions are a bit messy, in my view.) If you value solitude—that is, time apart in the mind, even time alone with a friend—do you really want to muddy it up with tweets of “great to see you” and “say hi to Nancy”? Are your conversations really mass entertainment pieces? Some will argue that such communications aren’t special or intimate–so nothing is lost in making them public. But I consider even acquaintanceships important enough (and, in a sense, private enough) to keep to myself.

In my book, Republic of Noise, I define solitude as the apartness we have at all times, which we may honor and shape or not. There is solitude in friendship, because friendship requires a certain aloneness of spirit, a willingness to take the other person on his or her own terms. Each friendship has its special language, history, and rituals, which are understood by the two friends alone. Conversations between friends do not have to become public property.  Something’s corrupted when they do.

I like to separate public from private. When in public–for instance, when giving a speech or teaching at school—my words are for all, and my focus is mainly on ideas, not on personal relationships. When in private, alone or with others, a mixture of ideas, rumblings, and affections (or, in some cases, antipathies) comes into play. Although it is impossible to separate the public and the private completely, I find meaning and respite in such division.

Twitter and other social media erode the distinction between public and private. They create a zone that is neither one nor the other. Of course, this erosion is not new, nor is social media the sole cause. Hannah Arendt considered it a feature of modernity;  she gives a fascinating analysis of the problem in The Human Condition. There is something perturbing about the zone that is neither this nor that—the extension of our selves into arenas that do not care for us.

Now, one can use Twitter in a purely formal manner: sending out links and announcements with no personal content. But unless you have a large following, this will likely have little effect; moreover, you still have to deal with tweets from others. I’d rather stay off the whole thing.

My upstart abstinence may cost me a host of readers. So be it; I’d rather have a thousand readers and independence of mind, than a hundred thousand and twice as many tweet-intrusions. I do not have to broadcast what is private or mundane (or even what is not). Some say social media is the wave of the future, but that does not obligate anyone to ride it. An age contains far more than its trends; a life, far more than avatars and “likes”; a book, far more than its surrounding chatter.

Note: I made a few edits to this piece after its initial posting.

  • “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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