Sandy Hook: Another symptom of widespread cultural despair

—Jessie Klein

I’m still shaken from last Friday’s shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, one of the worst massacres in the history of the United States.

Not much information is available about the 20-year-old gunman or his motives. We know that he had been a student in the Newtown school system years before, and those who were acquainted with him described him as “brilliant” but “remote.” We need to stop looking for the profile of the perpetrators; and examine instead the profile of schools and society more generally. Many school shooters since 1979 have been described with those same adjectives.

When gunmen are repeatedly described as “remote” or as a “loner,” there is likely more than just a “personality disorder” behind their history. In 2004, the General Social Survey (GSS) revealed that fifty percent of our population has either one person or no one to talk to about important issues in their lives. Scholars suggest that this qualifies as inadequate or “marginal support.”

We need to stop looking for perpetrator’s profiles, and instead examine the profile of schools and society overall. According to GSS data from 1985 to 2004, social isolation has tripled. Other reports suggest that empathy has significantly decreased whereas depression and anxiety rates, among adults and youth alike, are soaring. Panic attacks have become part of the common vernacular and are no longer stigmatized as a characteristic of the insane. With fewer options for social acceptance, it is perhaps no surprise then, that depression among youth is starting at increasingly younger ages.

In The Bully Society: School Shootings and the Crisis of Bullying in America’s Schools, I discuss how bullying and other hurtful behaviors have also become common norms. These days, we are pressured to become as successful and powerful as we can be, but are rarely encouraged to check on our neighbors or offer support to others in need. We are working so hard and are so overscheduled that we barely have time to stop for one another, even if it were our priority.

Schools need to make social obligation and support for one another a top goal in curricula, as well as a value discussed and re-affirmed in every aspect of their community. We need a new generation of youth to lead our country who will feel that being compassionate and empathic is just as important as being successful. We need to find a time again when talking to neighbors and offering support is considered kinder than leaving them alone because they are probably busy.

Of course there would be fewer fatalities if we had better gun control laws. There is no question about that. But then the symptoms of our despairing culture will be revealed in other forms. In addition to gun control, we need to tackle the real issues. People need to authentically connect with one another and support each other as a matter of course. We need to transform our bully society into more compassionate and integrated communities. Only then can we truly change.

Jessie Klein is Assistant Professor of Sociology/Criminal Justice at Adelphi University and author of Bully Society (NYU Press, 2012). She has also served as a supervisor, school social worker, college adviser, social studies teacher, substance abuse prevention counselor and conflict resolution coordinator at many high schools. Her writing appears in scholarly journals as well as popular media.

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