America's Cry for Meaning
A culture of violence?
Posted Apr 23, 2018
It’s time that we get serious about not only treating the “symptoms” of violence, including gun violence, in America but also its root causes. Talk is not enough, nor is simply reacting to each tragic event in isolation. Rather, it’s time for real solutions that will make a meaningful difference in what appears to be an epidemic sweeping the nation. It’s time to “disarm” America’s violence culture from both the top-down and from the bottom-up.
The obvious and most controversial issue today is the access to guns. We need to ensure that appropriate background checks are conducted so that emotionally unstable and criminally inclined people don’t have access to what have essentially become weapons of mass destruction. Likewise, we need to have laws on the books that hold all people accountable for their actions, laws that fit the crime and demonstrate the certainty of punishment in addition to its severity.
We also, of course, need to make sure that people who make the conscious decision to exercise their right to keep and bear arms know how to use them properly, be it through training, testing, and certification. These measures, I believe, should be treated as “givens” in the face of the epidemic of gun violence before us.
While gun laws are certainly needed to ensure that such deadly weapons don’t get into the wrong hands, there is also an argument to be made in support of the saying, “if guns are outlawed then only outlaws will have guns.” In other words, gun control, the extent to which is undoubtedly open to debate, is only a part of the answer.
Addressing the access to guns is like treating the symptoms of a disease rather than its root causes. And like a cancer, the root causes of violence are much more pervasive and insidious.
This brings us to the notion of culture. Culture, in short, can be viewed as a set of shared attitudes, beliefs, values, goals, and behaviors that characterizes some group of people in a place or time. Moreover, if we consider that culture depends upon learning and specifically the act of developing the intellectual and moral faculties of people, especially by education and parenting, then we can begin to see how culture contributes to and is a primary cause of the violence problem.
Why, for instance, are teachers having to deal with violent outbursts by five year old children in kindergarten or “girl gangs” in high school? Why are there more incidences of road rage and parking lot rage when drivers don’t get their way in traffic or snag the best parking spot? What has changed in our society, especially in the last few decades, that has made it acceptable to act out with violence?
One familiar answer is “because we see other people doing it.” Culture is formed by the sum of all who live within that culture. It is the sum of all the thoughts, words, and actions. Everyone has an impact — everyone influences the culture, either positively or negatively as their good or bad behavior ripples through the society. As more and more people choose to put their personal needs ahead of the collective, as they choose to make their own rules, and believe that they are more important than the rest, society as a whole suffers. And as more and more people choose to express themselves through various forms of violence, others soon believe that violence is an acceptable way to express their frustrations as well. The cycle begins and continues…
We should not ignore another contributor to America’s violence prone culture: the media and entertainment industry, including movies, television, music, and video games. Too many people want to avoid discussing the impact that this very profitable industry has had on our society, but we should no longer ignore this “elephant in the room.”
To be sure, the jury is still out on the precise link between violent video games and human behavior. Whether this link is causal or correlational, it deserves to be examined closely across different age groups, especially among minors, as well as across personality profiles, mental health diagnostic categories, etc.. The citizens of America (and the world) deserve no less. “For good and bad, video game players are learning lessons that can be applied in the real world,” concluded Ohio State University’s Professor Brad Bushman, co-principal investigator of a research study that revealed first-person shooter video games can teach people how to shoot guns more accurately and aim for the head.2 Final jury determination or not, it would appear that the matter of violent video game effects on aggression warrants further study.
Paradoxically, while it may be “politically incorrect” to play cowboys and Indians in America today, it is acceptable to play video games that allow you — and even encourage you — to shoot and kill others, even police officers! What does this say about our culture? Check out the number of “first-person shooter” genre, best-selling video games on the market (not even counting the popularity of video game web sites). It is astonishing! Surveying the best-selling video games of 2017, it is pretty clear that violence is a common theme, with many of them displaying guns a blazing in a “virtual reality” world.
Not to only single out video games, what about the effects of violence on television and in the movies? Today’s entertainment includes both villains and the “good guys” engaged in physical violence, a far cry from the shows of yesterday, such as Happy Days where “The Fonz” used his words and body language to convey his superiority.
And what about the hateful and violent lyrics that so many people, especially young people, hear in music today? Don’t they too need to be examined in a cultural context? Mental instability and criminal inclinations notwithstanding, what do such messages say about — and how do they influence — our culture, our core values, our relationships with each other, even among those who may have been given a so-called clean bill of health?
Let’s go even deeper. In this connection, there seems to be a deep-seated anger brewing in our society when people, not just the youth, feel disconnected from others, jealous of other people’s success, discriminated against, marginalized, and alienated. Unfortunately, this anger is also being stoked by some for their political and power advantage.
So, if these are some of the root causes of the prevalence and incidence of violence, how can we start to address these issues?
What about our education and training systems? What is and what should be their roles in helping to advance positive cultural change in America? What responsibilities do educators at all levels, including parents, friends, and neighbors, have in helping others, especially the youth, build their capacity to respond and thereby become responsible? We all know, for example, that bullying, a lower-level form of violence, is detrimental to students’ well-being and development, leading to unknown consequences in the future. It’s time to “disarm” our schools and leverage their capacity for advancing the public good, starting at the youngest age possible and working smarter, not just harder, to ensure that students don’t fall through the cracks. Let’s move to stop America’s youth from choosing the path to violence from the get-go rather than waiting until it’s too late.
What about putting a stop to all the violence depicted in our media? Will Hollywood and the music producers choose to lead our way out of this cycle of violence or will they simply continue to serve their customers’ current wants and desires for the sake of profit?
What about being role models for others in society? Where will it start? Will it begin with you? Will it begin in your family and community?
As the late Dr. Stephen R. Covey wisely espoused, “To learn something but not to do is really not to learn. To know something but not to do is really not to know.”3 We must therefore challenge ourselves and each other to do something with what we now know and have learned about the culture of violence that is spreading across America. As a nation, let’s commit authentically to disarm America’s culture of violence and honor those who have fallen because of it. Our society depends on us.
1. Frankl, Viktor E. (1984). Man’s Search for Meaning, 3rd ed. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster/Pocket Books, p. 112.
2. See, for example: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/get-psyched/201201/do-violent-video-games-increase-aggression
3. Pattakos, Alex and Dundon, Elaine (2017). Prisoners of Our Thoughts: Viktor Frankl’s Principles for Discovering Meaning in Life and Work, 3rd ed. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler, p. xiv-xv.