Are We a Sick Society?
Posted Jan 17, 2013
Introduction: Evil raised its head when Adam Lanza murdered 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012. This tragedy reminded me of Pete Seeger’s Vietnam era song “Where Have All the Flowers Gone;” only the flowers have become innocent children, students on campus, students on vacation, people watching movies, people attending political rallies, a member of congress and so forth. Should we ask “where is the moral outrage that moves people to march in the streets? Are we so morally anesthetized and confused we can’t act? Is this a new normal?”
As we struggled to grapple with what happened, the National Rifle Association (NRA) told us it takes “good guys with guns to stop bad guys with guns.” Some report that teachers are being armed. Is there anything wrong with this? I grew up with guns. My family hunted raccoon, fox, and deer with dogs and guns for generations. Our ancestor, General Seth Pomeroy, fought with George Washington and he was a Gunsmith. Guns have always had a historic and meaningful place in our family history and are associated with dogs, hunting, sports, protecting farm animals, controlling disease among wild animals, euthanizing sick farm animals, and solidarity with hunting pals; all of which makes guns safe! The teacher-gun relationship is not grounded in history or culture! It defies history and is even counter-cultural. This doesn’t make guns safer in their hands. Do you agree that the ways of senseless violence are the ways of evil and the ways of evil have roots in the “soil of society?” If it takes a society to raise a child, do you have a problem concluding senseless violence is the result of both the insanity of one and the insanity of many. The insanity of one is obvious. The insanity of many is another story!
Once upon a time an ancient Chinese emperor travelled among his people listening to their music. It was their music that warned him of smoldering dissent and far worse. He understood how music served as a sentinel or harbinger of trouble. In this manner the Emperor took the “mental temperature” of his people. Figuratively speaking, should we take the “mental temperature” of our society? Literally speaking, should we listen more closely to our music, especially the music of popular culture? Should we do this and acknowledge that there is more right with our society than wrong with it, and that we had better put what’s right to work fixing what’s wrong?
We have had a clinical psychology for a hundred years. Should this profession now accept society as a patient? The question is novel and never raised. Doing so would open a new frontier and today’s psychology isn’t prepared to go there. Nor are people or the political class prepared to go there. It also comes down to who will lead, assuming we could take the mental temperature of any society. On the other hand, there are alternatives such as passing top-down laws to control behavior. There is also the more basic, bottom-up approach of “therapeutic diagnosis.” This amounts to side-stepping the question, and launching a science-based moral education to complement the learning of ABCs and 123s. Whose morals you ask? This is the question often raised by those seduced by post-modern situation-ethics and moral relativity, as distinguished from core moral absolutes identified by axiological science!
Out of curiosity and the desire to understand what happened, I thought about the 19th century French psychologists who gave us the expression folie à plusieurs meaning “madness of many.” I also recalled how the Germans gave us zeitgeist, meaning “spirit of the times,” and weltanschauung, meaning “world-view.” Pulling these strands of European thought together, I wondered whether a strange combination of a “sick spirit of the times” and a “sick world view” had become a 21st century version of the “madness of many.” Recalling the Chinese emperor, I wondered if this offered clues for taking the “mental temperature” of our society, any society suffering from "islands of moral insanity" or the “madness of many.” I also sought to test my “sick society theory;” perhaps more modestly the sick dimensions of society capable of giving birth to senseless violence.
Let’s consider the following terms: “mental health,” “sick,” “insane;” “moral context,” “glamorizing violence,” and “the raw power of popular culture.” They foreshadow my thoughts in the aftermath of unspeakable evil.
1. I define mental health as rational autonomy reflected in pro-self, pro-social behavior as distinguished from anti-self, anti-social behavior. It’s all about self-benefiting as opposed to self-defeating behavior, assuming sanity is better than insanity and survival is better than extinction!
2. The concepts of “sick” and “insanity” are best seen as two dimensional: on the one hand we have the dimension of “moral insanity.” This is an old fashion concept largely ignored these days. There is also the dimension of the “clinical insanity,” diagnosed and treated by psychologists. An example of moral insanity is Sartre concept of “false faith.” This amounts to behaving in ways opposed to one’s conscience or deeply held values. Unchallenged and ignored, sub-clinical, moral insanity can evolve into varying degrees of clinical insanity and the evil of senseless violence. Moral insanity points to the importance of moral education founded on a science of values and morals capable of enriching religious and humanist morality. This is also the royal road to a preventive psychology complementing preventive medicine.
3. The gratuitous glamorization of senseless violence in popular culture is especially lethal given the absence of a moral context. It erodes the mental health of everyone and especially the vulnerable among us. Escapist and senseless media violence, amplified by electronic technologies, diminishes individual and collective moral consciousness. It puts us on a path of existential and Romanesque decay.
Clinical psychology has ignored the mental consequences of an asymmetrical evolution of natural science without a healthy moral context (moral science). This is an unusual accident of history! Making matters worse, my profession was quick to adopt the medical model of sickness care and overlook how we ought to simply be morally outraged rather than merely compassionate, when confronting the perpetrators of senseless violence. Less developed societies paper-over instances of moral and clinical insanity with grinding poverty, malnutrition, political suppression, religious fanaticism and so forth. We acknowledge clinical-insanity, but we paper-over moral-insanity when we view senseless violence as simply a sickness of one or many. This blinds us to the moral dimensions of such madness and any real hope of prevention.
Given the evil of senseless violence (we need more data on how ominous the trend is), it can be argued that we’re better off viewing the senseless violence of individuals as a “blessing in disguise,” “a harbinger,” “a “canary” or “sentinel” warning of more to come? If our society is tragically flawed in the way I think it is, then putting our house in order ought to have a high priority. Is it possible that the impact of high-tech science and low-tech morality is a problem for us? Is it possible post-Renaissance “modernity” is as tragically flawed as Rome before the fall? If so, it’s understandable how some undeveloped societies might refuse to view us as a role model; or even worse, why some of our citizens have become increasingly cynical and distrustful of science and technology. Do you agree this unfinished business, at the heart of our society, can contribute to the evil of senseless violence? If so, there is hope: it’s a problem we can deal with given recent advances in value science inspired by philosopher Robert S. Hartman and supported by research summarized in the pages of The New Science of Axiological Psychology.
Conclusion: Common sense suggests it is better to go with near-term solutions such as those now under discussion: background checks, improved treatment of the mentally ill, licensing / registration, a ban on assault weapons and large clips, rating and / or censoring the gratuitous, senseless violence found in movies, media, lyrics and games. But there is more to consider: There remains the question of what fundamentally ails society and its discontents...even to the level of civilziation and its discontents? I approach this question from the unique perspective of axiological science and how it is related to mental health (i.e., axiological psychology). This appraoch brings values into sharp focus. Values are cognitive structures. When they “come alive” within us they initiate and direct emotions and behaviors funcioning as the "puppeteer" pulling the strings of the enabling "puppet brain." (Note that morals are normative values). Until recently, there has never been a science of values and morals (i.e., axiological science). This is quite amazing given that we’re prisoners of our values which in turn determine the choices we make and society makes. We have a lot of catching up to do. The coming together of old natural science and new axiological science promises a more sane society and a real preventive psychology. We are not alone! All societies face the unintended consequences of what a World War II American General once referred to as the morally challenged coming into possession of guns and atomic bombs. Because more advanced societies like ours are the first to hit the wall of science without a moral context, we are especially obligated to study this historical accident of science without moral science and how it contributes to the evil of senseless violence. Have we become passengers in a leaky boat on the rough seas of the 21st century? Do you see anything wrong with this approach to senseless violence?
© Dr. Leon Pomeroy, Ph.D.