Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Holy Shit, School Shootings!

Mass Shooting Timeline

Let me just say right off the bat that I agree, there is nothing funny or entertaining about school shootings. They are entirely tragic and horrific, and though I'm almost always going for entertainment on this blog, I called it "That's Interesting" and not "That's Entertaining" for a reason.

With that being said, recent research into the mentality of school shooters has opened up terrifying insights into why they're becoming more of a thing. Don't get me wrong. School shootings are not a completely new phenomenon. As long as there have been privately-owned guns, there have been those rare few who think it would be fun to use one in a place of learning.

But until fairly recently, the phenomenon was exceedingly rare. Thankfully, it still is relative to most other violent crime. But the numbers are starting to look disturbingly like rain in an oubliette. The water is rising and we haven't quite found a way to divert it yet.
It's a dungeon with a high hatch as the only entry point.

Very recently, a new explanation has emerged to explain why this rare tragedy is starting to look more like a trend, and it's terrifying. It has to do with riots.

Mark Granovetter, a sociologist who studied paradoxical human behaviors about 40 years ago, set out to explain why people who are otherwise rational and peaceful will participate in a riot. What he eventually determined was essentially peer pressure. Any social process, he argued, is driven by thresholds. A threshold in this case is the number of people doing something, whatever it is, that we need to see before we define it as an okay thing to do.

So how it works is that someone with a low threshold -- a particularly hotheaded person, or maybe just someone looking for an excuse to cause some damage -- starts wrecking something. Someone else with a threshold of 1 joins in, because as long as someone else is doing it, it's probably okay, right? Then a few more join, and a few more, and pretty soon there are decent people surrounded by destructive frenzy, and everyone temporarily becomes willing to redefine what is normal, what is acceptable. The more it happens, the more it becomes normal.
Stanley Cup Riot

If you're thinking ahead at all, a sinking dread may be creeping up on you. Because Malcolm Gladwell recently suggested that this same principle can be applied over a longer period of time to explain the school shooting epidemic. The trend started, he argues, back in 1999. With Columbine. The shooters in that case were textbook psychopaths, but the media frenzy around their messages and preparations started a threshold. Since that time, people who commit mass shootings at school have slowly begun trending away from violent mental illness.

This is the Columbine Memorial. I have no witty comments.

The more it happens the more it becomes normal. We can reassure ourselves with the knowledge that people generally don't like to hurt each other, but if Gladwell's hypothesis proves true then it's going to get worse before it gets better. As he puts it, "The problem is not that there is an endless supply of deeply disturbed young men who are willing to contemplate horrific acts. It’s worse. It’s that young men no longer need to be deeply disturbed to contemplate horrific acts."

Holy shit.

NOTE: I avoided using any mass shooter's name in this post because it may be a contributing factor to the normalization of mass violence.

Dalibor Tower Dungeon, Prague Castle by kitonlove. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons

"Riot in Vancouver" by Elopde. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

"Columbinememorial" by Denverjeffrey. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons

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