Saturday, May 19, 2018

Friendly reminder about mass shooters

This is an off-the cuff post, with no links. You can find the relevant info yourselves, I hope. More than likely, I am repeating myself to a large degree so you can often find source material elsewhere on this blog even.

Since we had another school shooting in the US on Friday, I wanted to reiterate a few things:

1. There is no link between video game violence and perpetrating a mass shooting. Mass shooters turn out to be less prone to play violent video games than the population at large. There appears to be a causal link between violent video game play and aggressive thoughts and behaviors, but those effect sizes tend to be fairly small, although hardly trivial. Still, the sorts of behavioral outcomes we're likely to find are more along the lines of someone dropping an F-bomb or using obscene gestures than anything that would even remotely resemble actual violence. If you play video games or live with gamers, in general don't worry (even if the NRA or other alarmists tell you to).

2. The above can largely be said for violent media consumption in general. I don't know about what sorts of music, music videos, or films mass shooters watch, but I somehow seriously doubt that the root of their atrocities will be found in those particular media. Like I might observe with violent video games, ask why other developed nations have the same consumption patterns we do in the US, but without the mass shootings. There may be other issues to consider regarding media violence, but inciting actual violence appears not to be one of those issues (again, ignore NRA alarmists or other mass media alarmists).

3. There is no apparent link between mental illness and mass shooting, just as there appears to be no link between mental illness and violent crimes (broadly defined). The prevalence of diagnosable mental illnesses among mass shooters is probably about equivalent to what we find in the general population. Again, keep in mind that mental illness is a very broad term that characterizes a wide variety of cognitive, emotional, and behavior patterns, from substance abuse to schizophrenia. I get wary of those who use such a broad term as a crutch when trying to explain why mass shootings occur with such frequency. Stop stigmatizing those who live with psychological disorders. Much of the discussion regarding mental illness has only further stigmatized people who are already dealing with quite enough.

4. What I do find plausible is that mass shooters just happen to be in a society in which there are a lot of firearms circulating, which is very much unlike the social conditions one finds in other developed nations. Note that I am not arguing that utilizing the sorts of gun laws on the books in the EU, Japan, or Australia would serve as a panacea, as those motivated to perpetrate acts leading to mass casualties will certainly try to find ways to do so. Rather, I am arguing that it would be considerably more difficult for them to do so.

5. Often under-reported is the role that political radicalization plays. Many (though not all) mass shooters in the US tend to gravitate towards ideologies that use violent eliminationistic rhetoric. Many of these individuals gravitate towards neo-Nazism or equivalent ideologies. In that regard, we can view these as equivalent to acts of terrorism. If I were a counter-terrorism expert, I would be studying these individuals, examining what they were consuming prior to their atrocities, and developing tactics to prevent further radicalization. Whatever media consumption these individuals show is likely the sort that has invited them to essentially reject the society in which they live. Some hard questions need to be asked about the prevalence of radical literature and media, and perhaps some harder questions need to be asked about how to minimize its impact on our citizens.

6. Ultimately, let's accept that these individuals are not "misunderstood" and in most cases were not "bullied" - they don't need a hug or a date to prevent them from committing the atrocities for which they are responsible. Any claim to the contrary is just crazy talk.

7. Social learning is probably involved to some degree. Many of our contemporary school shootings have the feel of being copycat crimes. There has been some speculation that school shootings in particular are the result of a Columbine effect. I would not yet rule that out. To the extent that these violent incidents do have social learning component, I do have some suggestions. The biggest suggestion is not to give the perpetrators their 15 minutes of fame. Arrest them, learn from them, but otherwise keep them as hidden from view as possible. Instead, focus on the victims - the injured and deceased. Instead, focus on the punishments doled out to those perpetrators who survive after their attacks. Just because a behavioral process is acquired is no guarantee that it will be performed. In the case of violence, there is plenty of reason to believe that there will often be a disconnect between acquisition and performance. We know from social learning experiments that when modeled antisocial behavior is explicitly punished, such behavior is almost never performed. Let's make not of what social learning research can teach us, and put those teachings into practice.

I mention the above in large part not only as an educator, but as a parent. I have one child in college and two others in the K-12 system (at least for a few more years). I want them to outlive me. I don't want to see their schools in the news because some terrorist decided to attack that location. I also have a fairly long memory, and recall that during my adolescence (the late 1970s and early 1980s) I just assumed that I could go to school and come back home each day relatively unscathed. The worst I experienced was usually boredom. My age cohort treated going to school, or going into any public place in relative safety as a birthright - which is especially noteworthy given that violent crime was at its peak during those years. I really wanted my kids to have that same birthright. They deserved it, but never got to experience life without that particular stressor.  Being an adolescent or young adult is stressful enough without the worry of whether someone might be carrying on campus that day with the intention to kill as many of their peers as possible, or wondering if that fire alarm is real or just a tactic used by a mass shooter to draw them out in the open. I realize that it is politically incorrect (at least to the extent that lobbyists and legislators have dominated the debate have deemed it) to suggest that we change our gun laws to resemble those found in other developed nations, but I am not exactly interested in being politically correct. I am more interest in the opportunities for potential mass shooters to act out their fantasies are minimized, and that if they do manage to act anyway, that the damage they are able to inflict is minimized. Anything less, as a parent or as a professional is unacceptable.

No comments:

Post a Comment