Saturday, April 21, 2007

A Culture of Bullies - UPDATED

I have made fun of the neocons for their swaggering bravado before, and I have offered comments on the tragedy at VA Tech. This morning I read this post that offered a connection I hadn't wanted to think about before. The shooter, in his writings sent to NBC, makes a long series of claims about being driven to do what he did, and further evidence suggests that he had been bullied and mistreated for much of his life. I am not even remotely trying to justify his actions, but I have to wonder what a culture that encourages bullying and humiliation to the extent that ours does should expect to happen now and then. From the White House to reality TV, there seems to be a prevailing theme of humiliating people in American culture. I'm not saying everyone is a bully, but there is a certain thrill in seeing people embarrassed publicly. Sometimes I wonder if the entire public school system is set up in part to facilitate the development of a bullying system.

When I was in junior high school, my favorite book was a Stephen King novella about a high school student who holds his class hostage. The story was a sort of vicarious revenge fantasy, but like the vast majority of children it was just a fantasy for me. I even wrote a short story in the 8th grade largely ripped off from this novella--my teacher gave me a B, but I think a student who wrote that same story today would end up in jail. I can't honestly say I identify with the VA Tech guy, because I really don't understand what drove him from revenge fantasies to the actual reality. Nevertheless, I do not see how we can address this kind of event without confronting our own tendency to make people feel they need revenge in the first place.

In the days and weeks to come, there will be much more hand-wringing and finger-pointing, and eventually everything will go back to the way it was before. More alienated kids will be left to seethe, and eventually this will happen again. I really don't have a solution in mind at the moment--how do we get our culture to encourage everyone to be nice?

The best commentary on this whole phenomenon, IMHO, actually comes from this 1999 Onion article: "Columbine Jocks Safely Resume Bullying." Alas.

UPDATE: Here's a post about the "culture of bullies" idea that makes some good points, but ultimately calls for more "anti-bullying" laws. How many ways is this a bad idea? Too many to count, really, but I left a comment there anyway.

1 comment:

tODD said...

To say that this is merely about alienation (and bullying) is to really malign the alienated. Many of us have felt lonely, oppressed, made-fun-of, whatever, and never killed anyone, much less employed violence of any sort (though most of us likely thought about it plenty). The fact that he did cross that line, to me, indicates that this is about his particular (documented) mental troubles, and not merely that he was a ridiculed loner.

And while I agree that there's a lot that's wrong with our culture, I'm not sure that this problem is totally solvable. Cultures, almost by definition, produce alienated minorities. That's what counter- or sub-cultures are for, to provide a context for those left out of the larger culture.

As to reality TV being a problem or symptom of a problem, you'd then have to explain how Britain fits into your thesis, as they are the source of most of our reality TV hits, and yet, to my knowledge, do not have the problem with murderous outcasts that we do.