Violence, Crowds, Individuals, and America’s Viability

Mass shootings at a Texas school and a Buffalo supermarket, the arrest of a man planning to assassinate Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and a question – Why do these things happen so much more in our country than elsewhere? – should spark some hard thinking.  Aside from the politicized question of gun control or rights, we should explore the question of motives.  If we were to stop such violence through gun control but still have people with these drives, we would face a very big problem.

Two concepts, raised by commentator David French, lead to a perspective worth considering.  French is conservative, but the concepts are not political.  

The first is called “stochastic terrorism.”  In short, this means that the more people who hate someone or something, the greater the odds of violence against that thing or person.  

If you’re a normal person and five people hate you, … the odds you’ll face targeted violence… are almost impossibly low… But what if 50,000 people hate you? Or five million? Then the odds … reach a virtual certainty that you’ll face a threat of some kind. “

The idea that numbers alone dictate a translation of sentiment into violence should, however, not be taken for granted.  Here another concept, of a “slow motion riot,” floated to explain mass shootings, offers an insight:

… if you imagine the series of school shootings as a kind of slow-motion riot spread out over years, then as more cases make the news, more people reach the threshold for participation. People who would never have been the first to do something like this are willing to be the 10th or 20th. And as this progresses, some of the people involved become less identifiable as the kind of obviously troubled kids who might consider (mounting an attack) …

It is largely through social media that widely separated events start to resemble riots as we usually think of them – in online ‘space,’ physically separated hard core rioters and casual parties seem to share the same time and space, and the crowd effect comes into play.  The rioter who throws the first rock moves the slightly less inhibited one or two to do the same; they move a less inhibited six or seven, and progressively through rising thresholds, until “normal people who would not usually be disposed to violence…” join in.  Riots, after all, are a social process.

What knits an assassin together with a mass shooter?  In a word, hate.  Whether directed at a specific person or the whole world, the would-be killer is out to kill.  There are, presumably, many different psychological pathways to hatred.  These fall under the heading of “mental health” needs.  Hate is carried by individuals – but slow motion riots, spread under the odds of stochastic terrorism, happen in public. 

America is radically committed to individual rights in our founding language.  Socially, we license individuals to explore wider horizons than older cultures which have deeper collective constraints.  We therefore carry the burden of constructing “my” own reasons for civil behavior, whether by following an established religion or by puzzling through a world of philosophy and impulses.  Disorder will be higher in our society than in many more traditionally based and bound populations.  In our commitment to individual rights, though, do we show in our actions that a society so committed will stay viable?

One way that we exacerbate the bad impulses of the hard core violent person, is to indulge in vituperative, divisive, vitriolic language directed toward those who differ from “me” and “my camp.”  The primary arena for this charging-up of hostile emotions is our polarized politics.  It isn’t just the maladjusted who vilify those who differ from them.  And vilification can occur either by calling that “other” evil, or by blaming them for “violating my rights.”  However remote from any particular incident of violence, those who promote this discourse bear a degree of responsibility for the violence.

If our public figures cannot control themselves, and if we keep selecting and following people who foment hostility and resentment, we corroborate the idea that free individuals cannot govern themselves.  That would undermine our founding premise.  Whatever we do with guns, whatever we do in mental health, whatever we do in our churchgoing, or social media usage, we need to remove the vilifying hostility from our discourse.  The nation needs it, from each and all of us.


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