The link between social alienation and shootings
Posted July 25, 2016
In 1897, French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, theorized that a breakdown in shared values that integrate a person into the larger society creates alienation as there is no social glue to bond the person to society. Durkheim labeled this “anomie” and predicted there would be higher rates of suicide under such disconnected and dysregulated societal circumstances. Durkheim described the phenomenon as anomic suicide. However, just as social dysregulation and a lack of social connectivity can lead to self-harm, we believe that it can also play a role in anomic homicide.
When that sense of “I don’t fit in” intensifies, it can create psychological tunnel vision: us versus them thinking. The impact of not fitting in may lead to feeling “less than” others. It may engender a sense of lack of validation, as well as feeling judged and rejected. For some, these feelings can fester into bitterness, anger, and a desire to lash out against those identified with the society or group from which they feel alienated. Such individuals may also believe that their lives are empty and have no meaning. Psychologists label this state an “existential vacuum.” Anomic homicide, paradoxically, may enliven these individuals as it drives them toward a larger than self purpose and creates a sense of belonging, filling in the psychological void or missing piece.
Why now? Why in America, where the cultural subtext is individuality and freedom to be one’s self is this happening? In the 1950s, theologian, Paul Tillich, observed that as some Americans were experiencing burgeoning prosperity, there was also a growing sense of disconnection from others. Tillich identified the post-World War II period as creating the “abyss of meaninglessness” stemming from the experience of being cut-off from others and not belonging.
In the 21st century, there may be an even more profound disconnection where our fast-paced culture fosters “a me-centered, I-driven," self-oriented world. Increasingly, we are connected via digital means, and engaging in fewer in-person interactions, which is critical to the development of empathy. Although such social digital connectivity can be highly positive, we must also recognize that our digitally focused society carries risks. This is particularly so for the already alienated individuals who do not see their own experiences mirrored in social media or that persons like themselves are targeted as outcasts. This can lead to a heightening of differences, enhancing alienation, reducing empathy for others, deepening rage, and cementing the rationale for anomic homicide.
Is there a way to change these circumstances so as to nip anomie? Firstly, we must recognize that belonging is not just social in dimension, but is also a profoundly psychological and existential need. Secondly, we can deepen social connectivity and fill the psychological void in others through social altruism; it may begin by simply reaching out to that person who appears lonely or isolated. It requires a stilling of critical voices, and a lending of eyes and ears to see and listen to those who feel alienated. In this way, we can have a better understanding of the person’s disconnection and offer support and positive involvement. Of course, this will not prevent all homicidal rage. But, decreasing anomie at least offers an opportunity for the alienated individual to find a path toward belonging, to fill the psychological void with positive purpose rather than gaining what they perceive as a “meaningful life” through anomic homicide.