The cover image for this post is the Easton Flag, supposedly designed during Revolutionary times and used by the division of Captain Abraham Horn in the War of 1812. It is yet another banner associated with American defiance against tyranny, unclaimed by any modern ideology and therefore a fitting symbol of loving your country but protesting the current government.
I originally wrote the bulk this essay on social media as a reaction to public mass shooting No. 476. I kept seeing all these ridiculous gun posts on either side of the spectrum: “guns are evil and if you own one you’re stupid,” “put armed guards in every classroom in all of America,” etc. Besides how crazy unrealistic a lot of it was, and needlessly divided along party lines, I believe this kind of one-dimensional discourse ignores the real issue of why America in particular has all of these violent mass attacks. This topic once again came to my attention these last few days as I’ve noticed our collective anger and intolerance towards one another spiraling out of control. That is why I revisited this old fulmination from 2015, patched it up, and am sharing it with the wider internet now.
I think the true cause of all this suffering is that our whole culture nowadays is completely out of whack. In the following diatribe I’d like to discuss why I think that’s so and how it messes individual people up. I’ll admit upfront that I’m partially relying on anecdotal evidence, but I do have many studies and articles which corroborate the general sentiment embedded in the text as well. At the end of the day, I’m not a politician, a sociologist or psychologist. I can only write about what I’ve seen and read firsthand. Rather than claim to know everything, and talk at people (especially those I perceive to be “on the other side”) I’m just trying to start a general dialogue that goes beyond the tired, unhelpful “guns bad/guns NOT bad” back and forth we’re all sick of. I think if we saw more of this, like a broader dialogue where everyone didn’t claim to have an easy one-solution answer, maybe we might finally get somewhere.
A Culture of Cruelty
I’m going to go off on a tangent in this section here, but then bring it back to our collective unhappiness and mass shootings afterwards, so please stick with me.
I think it’s disgusting that taking proper precautions against COVID-19 (and seemingly every other trivial thing in the world these days) is now a political issue. This video in particular is what finally pushed me over the edge to addressing it on here. If you don’t click the link, it’s a bunch of self-righteous, willfully ignorant people freaking out at the Orange County public health officials for requiring the use of masks. I especially love the guy using his war veteran dad as a political prop. The chief health officer recently had to resign due to death threats from the “muh freedum!” brigade. These people, who deny science and attack innocent employees (government and private sector) that are just trying to stop the spread of a deadly virus. Their reaction to the slightest inconvenience is to thrown entitled hissy fits when they’re not lashing out violently.
I see this latest extreme behavior as the logical conclusion of an ongoing trend in America. It’s the same sense of entitlement and disdain towards other people all the way down, from armed thugs intimidating health officials to “Karens” from previous years bullying retail workers. It seems to be a uniquely American problem, if the anecdotal evidence I’ve heard from my friends who’ve traveled abroad is anything to go by. I don’t know if it stems from our rose-tinted perception of the “rugged individualism” on the Western frontier, or brainwashing by the consumerist/indulgent cultural paradigm we’ve embraced or the glorification of the rich and spoiled. (How often does society shove the Paris Hiltons, Kim Kardashians and Kanye Wests of the world down our throat at the expense of far more fitting role models?) Whatever the cause, somewhere along the way we, as a society, replaced our humility with a misplaced sense of American exceptionalism.
To expand on that last point, I recall this music forum I used to post on where an older woman snootily proclaimed “this may be a hard thing for any foreign readers to understand, but in America we have rights.” [Slightly paraphrasing.] People like that think we’re the only country which has any semblance of freedom and then they use that ignorant assumption as an excuse to look down on everyone else. Not only that, they have chosen, or been trained, to perceive any inconvenience as a relinquishment of said freedoms rather than a small, temporary sacrifice for the good of the community. You can’t tell them that other countries gladly accepted the small burden and are now doing far better than we are at coronavirus containment because “oh but that’s Europe–in ‘Muricah, we have rights!”
At some point, people decided, or were convinced, that any form of social wellness or betterment of the community is “SOCHULISM!!” I believe it is that unfounded fear-mongering (or convenient excuse) that in turn justified our sliding into this extreme selfishness we see nowadays. In addition, with a hyper-partisan political climate and only two parties, everything is made to be a pitched battle in the supposed “culture war.” So not only does every mundane occurrence, every individual concern, some people’s very existence, become political but adversarial. IE, Democrats say this, so Republicans have to take the most diametrically opposed stance and fight tooth and nail for it because God forbid we all agree on something. This disgusting new trend is on all of us to an extent but, and call me biased if you want, I place the lion’s share of the blame on Republicans. Why? Well, because on this particular issue Democrats are just listening to the experts rather than being contrarian for its own sake. And in the greater scheme of things, in my experience the modern post-Obama Republicans largely have no vision of the country except “owning the libtards/librul tears!!”
ASIDE: I’m sure there’s a few principled conservatives like William F Buckley left. But in the mainstream, the big right-wing pundits I see are the Ben Shapiros and Milos who built their brand on “DESTROYING LIBERALS” on YouTube. That’s the attitude I’ve seen many right-wing laymen embrace and emulate in real life since at least Obama’s second term.
As another example, I remember in college we were watching a hockey game and they played the Canadian national anthem. My one roommate threw a fit: “why aren’t they playing the ‘MURICAN National anthem!!?” I tried to explain that Canada invented the game and, oh by the way, there was just a mass shooting over there. It didn’t get through to him at all. The idea of a sports game honoring, or even just showing solidarity, towards another country for two minutes was offensive to him. This guy never struggled or wanted for anything a day in his life, he was comfortably middle class and the son of a cop. (Which allowed him to tweak people’s noses whenever he wanted without fear of getting knocked down a peg–and boy did he take advantage.) That’s the uppercrust, pridefully ignorant slice of America in a nutshell. And it’s that section, which has it so good, that the biggest problem in their lives is someone else kneeling during the national anthem.
Ultimately, we may live together in the same borders and call it a country but I don’t feel nor do I read about any greater sense of community among us Americans at all. We’re a people who prefer convenience over empathy. We’re a people who lash out at anyone who’s different, or genuinely trying to make the world better. (If you protest you’re a stupid lazy bum who needs to get a job, if you go through the “proper” channels and get elected you’ll never be good enough if you’re on the “other team.”) We’re a people who call the cops on someone acting out of the ordinary–even when we know they aren’t dangerous–rather than simply check if they’re okay. We’re a people whose supposed peacekeepers are so ingrained towards violence that their first instinct is to tackle and choke-hold someone rather than just ask if they’re alright.
Less anecdotally, we’ve got real wages decreasing, unhappiness going up, our life expectancy going down, suicides increasing and still the highest incarceration rate in the world. Americans are poor, Americans are lonely, Americans are brutalized and killed by our own police at an astounding rate. (And you wanna tell me it’s the videogames making people violent?) I believe these are the factors most directly responsible for the unwarranted outbursts and cruelty which I’ve spent the last few paragraphs describing. People are unfulfilled in their own lives due to these cultural and socio-economic trends, and as a result they lash out at others because they’re so unbalanced. This culture of mean-spiritedness then spreads to others and becomes a compounding cycle.
Is it any wonder at all then, why some people, after years of suffering through all this nonsense, just “snap” (for lack of a better word) and commit violent acts? Understand then, that this problem is not going away even if we somehow achieve the impossible and get three-fourths of all state legislatures to repeal the second amendment. This is a systemic series of flaws built into our culture’s very foundation, compounded on themselves and forming a feedback loop of misery.
Suggestions For Societal Improvement
America’s mass shootings stem from a series of cultural and socio-economic shortcomings which feedback on each other. Some people respond to our depressing reality with drug addiction, as evidenced by the opioid epidemic. Some commit suicide, and a few of those decide to do so in a blaze of violence. Others do neither but I would argue they’re far from stable or healthy–I believe that’s why America has such a high rate of anxiety disorders compared to other countries. (This worrying trend has only gotten worse with the recent pandemic. And the rates for depression are no better.)
If that’s so, then how do we fix it? Well, I can’t claim to know exactly, and certainly it won’t be easy in any case. But here are a few suggestions I’d offer:
First of all, the people need access to healthcare, specifically mental healthcare. I believe not having that pervasive need taken care of is keeping a lot of us on edge.
Second of all, the stigma against receiving help, and especially therapy, needs to be trained out of us. We’re often taught, especially in the case of men, to be 100% self-reliant. It’s culturally ingrained that admitting fault, hurt, pain or emotion of any kind is to be weak. Personally, I feel like sometimes the truest strength is the ability to be vulnerable when appropriate, to admit if you have a problem and need someone to be there for you. It’s a basic human need and nothing to be ashamed of.
Third, the rampant unchecked bullying culture in schools these days needs to end, yesterday. As I can personally attest to, that shit can mess with someone’s entire sense of worth and confidence for years if not decades. A lot of people walking around with a chip on their shoulder do so because they see, or perceive, society to reward the mean people who’ve wronged them during their formative years while they struggle. It can create a self-defeating negative thought-loop which some (like myself) eventually work their way out of, but others don’t.
Fourth, the unholy pressures we put on young people with grades, homework, jobs and college is detrimental to their well-being. I’ve addressed this issue in an earlier post. I would argue we could also do with some publicly funded, free to use recreation centers similar to the Roman baths.
Fifth, stagnant wages, inflation and rising cost of living leads to both parents working. This in turn means kids have little time to talk to parents and get that support network our ancestors took for granted. Who do you talk to about your feelings, how to be attractive to the opposite sex, how to live a good life, if Mom and Dad work until 6 and get home too tired to pay any kind of real attention to you? For the kids who suffer from this issue, perhaps compounded by social isolation among their peers at school, is it any wonder they develop psychological problems?
Sixth, glorifying mass shooters in the media, focusing on them and not the victims/heroes who took them down, encourages more loners that this is the way to get recognition. As a concrete example, I think it’s disgusting that NBC aired parts of the Virginia Tech shooter’s manifesto for ratings, as well as disturbing photos of him posing with various weapons. There was no good reason to do such a thing except greed and it was an insult to the families affected.
Seventh, for guys, this whole redpill “alphas/betas” bullshit and romance novels/movies glorifying toxic behavior from suitors/relationships all need to go. Not that everyone deserves a partner by virtue of existing, doing the bare minimum of being “nice” or anything like that. I’m not trying to victim-blame women for not going out with guys they’re not attracted to. But I do think adults, and maybe children’s media as well, could start encouraging guys from a young age to be more confident and interesting rather than “nice” and subservient to win girls over. That would make for a healthier outlook and dating pool for a lot of people. It’d save both women from a lot of uncomfortable situations with (sometimes unintentional) creeps and guys from the frustration of contradictory expectations of what they’re “supposed” to do. The way it is now, some guys after years of rejection or lack of confidence, eventually find pickup artist, redpill and/or incel communities online which convince them they either have to act like a chauvinistic jerk to get women, or they have no chance anyway since they weren’t born a “Chad.” Both mindsets are toxic and lead to bad outcomes for everyone involved.
To combine points seven and four for a second, I think taking off some of that school/homework burden would allow kids more time to be themselves, focus on genuine hobbies and develop their personality to be more interesting to potential partners. The idea of free recreation centers could provide a good place to meet people as well, besides bars (which are terrible in my experience) or other commodified areas where one must constantly be spending money to remain.
Finally, this last point is somewhat tangential I’ll admit, but reading about the actual experiences of prostitutes (and how most of their clients are lonely, sometimes broken men who have no one else in their lives) I also think legalizing prostitution would do a lot of good. Even if one considers it immoral…well, it’s not your body and you don’t have to participate. Besides legalization allowing people freedom over their bodies, and regulating their endeavors so they’re safer, this would also keep some men happy who are lonely and just need to cuddle with someone.
Mixed Messages About Sexuality
If you take all those suggestions from the previous section and search for a common theme, I’d say it’s that Americans have little to no support network. Through various failures of the system, everyone who’s supposed to show us love or otherwise have our back has been neutered if not alienated from us.
For this section I want to build on the issues raised in point seven specifically, about romantic companionship. We have a very disgusting lack of compassion, as well as a society that glorifies violence but represses sexuality. It may sound like a non sequitur but I feel that this plays a large part in why so many young men are frustrated/resentful/unbalanced enough that they commit these acts.
I find it astounding that you can depict all kinds of violence on TV but God(s) help you if you show a woman’s nipple–that gets censored by the powers that be. I distinctly remember watching The Godfather at 13 with my mom and dad in the room. My mom was fine for the shootings, drug dealing and curse words but freaked out when Apollonia took her clothes off. What kind of priorities are those? And it’s not an uncommon sentiment either. This act of making sexuality taboo and shameful demonizes a core aspect of our very humanity and I would argue it sets young people up for a lot of issues down the road. It ingrains the concept that you’re not “supposed to” talk about sex and attraction to your parents, for one. That’s to say nothing of the concurrent hypocritical glorification of violence in the media. (I’m not a prude, I love films and videogames which happen to depict violence. My issue is with sex and the female form as somehow more vilified than depictions of violence or drug use despite being the most natural thing there is.)
What’s more, nobody really talks to you about dating and sex, so your only experiences are melodramatic and/or misleading media depictions and exaggerated rumors from your friends. Another parental example: from the time I was 12 (!) my dad constantly teased me about girls and if I was in a relationship yet. Anytime we saw a cute girl anywhere he’d ask me if that was my girlfriend and laugh. Sometimes, he’d tease me about how cute a girl on TV was and ask me in front of everyone if I thought they were pretty or not, which was embarrassing to me. Yet, while my dad expected me to be dating at such a ridiculously young age, he never talked to me about sex, or courtship, or how to win a lady’s heart. I was pressured to do it but given no advice as to how. This made me more uncomfortable around my female peers than I otherwise would have been, and certainly made me reluctant to ever talk to my parents about my friends (many of whom were girls) much less proactively ask them about sex and dating. I can’t speak for everyone, and maybe other people’s parents were more open about discussing courting and relationships, but mine sure weren’t and they can’t be the only ones.
Frank Zappa mentioned how unhealthy he thinks this kind of thing is in his book. Like, if all you hear on the radio are these love songs about: how desperately important it is to be in a relationship, overly glamorized depictions of love at first sight, persistent public romantic gestures to win a reluctant conquest over… then you internalize the feeling that there’s something wrong with you if you’re single. You can also be made to feel like you missed out on something when your relationship isn’t as instantly wonderful and problem-free as it is in the movies and songs. What’s more, the songs and romcoms give bad advice for winning someone over which, if imitated, could get you a bad reputation among women or even arrested (cough *Twilight* cough).
I believe our constant use of technology also hinders the ability to strike up natural conversations with strangers in the real world. It’s hard to do if you have anxiety, never got much practice in secondary school and the other person already looks uninterested because they’re on their phone (and, often, has headphones in). Just more anecdotal evidence, but at my college everyone walking around, waiting for an elevator, lounging between classes, would be on their phones at all times. I rarely saw anyone who wasn’t already friends with the other person strike up a conversation in public. I was on my phone a lot too, so I’m being hypocritical in complaining. But all the same, it made me feel sad, like we don’t even bother to know the people right next to us, we’re missing out on so many wonderful things. I’ve never lived anywhere in and out of college, where I knew my neighbors well either. This isn’t the way humans were meant to live and interact with each other, and I definitely think it’s emotionally hurting us all whether we realize (or admit) it or not.
Online dating’s a possibility, but it boils complex meeting-assessment-connection interactions down to swiping right if the other person’s hot. This means if you’re not a 9 or a 10 on the physically attractive scale, you don’t even get a chance to try to make an impression. It’s sterilized, cynical and dehumanizing. When I was still presenting male I got some attention but even when I messaged women, it always felt like some kinda weird juggling routine. I didn’t want to seem desperate, or rapey, so I’d try to talk first and get to know them. Sometimes after a few hours of back and forth messaging I’d try to meet up with them for coffee to see if we clicked in person. Very few would. Some seemed to be having a good time up to then, but then made it clear we’d never see each other–possibly they were just looking for validation, not dating. Others outright admitted they were only talking to me for the attention or as a joke–you can imagine how hurtful that was I hope. Two strung me along for days and days promising to one day be available and then never followed through before fizzling out. Looking back I should have insisted on a face to face meetup or walked away sooner, but at the time I didn’t want to appear pushy and make anyone feel unsafe–another example of confusing standards placed on guys in these modern times.
Obviously, suffering slights like these is NOT an excuse for killing people. But all the same, you hopefully see how defeating and impersonal the modern social processes can be for some, especially those who may already be deeply insecure and/or lacking any other support network. (Which I was at the time.) I’m not saying that entitles these people to a girlfriend, but still, that doesn’t mean they deserve to be treated like dirt all the time either. This is NOT meant to be victim-blaming the peers of school shooters for not being BFFs with their future assailant, but all the same, maybe it wouldn’t be too much to ask to just try to be more mindful of others. (IE, just say “you seem cool, but I don’t see much in our profiles to indicate we’d be a good match” as opposed to “I gave my friend my phone and she swiped you as a joke LOL”).
Those were my experiences as a guy on the more popular “vanilla” sites. After I transitioned, I had a lot more attention for sure, but never got to follow up on most of it. Most messages were very shallow and/or rude, like sending me dick pics, telling me they’re horny, asking me to blow them…yeah. There were some genuinely sweet guys, but I had so many messaging me at once I couldn’t keep up even with some I honestly wanted to. Women get too much attention and a lot of it bad, while men get too little attention to where, given enough bad experiences, they can grow resentful towards themselves and the world. (I won’t contribute to their influence by naming them, but this phenomenon is clearly reflected in the manifestos of several young mass murderers from the last decade.) It’s not fair and I don’t know how to fix it, but I speculate that a large number of society’s ills, the most extreme of which being mass shootings, can be traced back to this imbalance that neither sex asked for and both suffer from in their own way.
Other Potential Support Networks
So our modern culture has a bunch of nonsensical, confusing, often self-defeating attitudes and barriers towards fulfilling romantic relationships. What about other potential avenues to turn to for emotional intimacy and support? Let’s return to some of the earlier points on the list now, going more in-depth.
We’re the only developed society that doesn’t guarantee healthcare. If you can’t pay outrageous sums of money at the unexpected instant you get sick, you’re left to beg for change online or just lay down and die. Living under that harsh reality day by day has to be stressful to all of us. It also colors our perception of society as a whole, communicating very plainly that this culture we’ve built for ourselves doesn’t care whether you live or die.
In addition, we mass-prescribe drugs for exaggerated mental “problems” because doctors get kickbacks from pharmaceutical companies on how many people are signed up. We’re still not sure what the long-term effect of such extensive medication is, and this also communicates a disturbing message to those affected. When we medicate certain people, who may not be suffering from a debilitating condition but rather are perceived as an inconvenience to parents or teachers, we’re saying conformity is more important than freedom of expression and individuality. We’re a society who has forgotten that we come from animals, forgotten that asking young kids to sit in one chair all day is against their nature and not everyone acts the same way all the time. (I’m NOT saying mental illnesses are fake or that drugs can’t be helpful for many patients. I’m saying the process is too commodified and corrupt to reliably address the problem. We need to take profit out of healthcare as much as possible, because it sets up contradictory incentives for those whom we turn to for help.)
What we don’t offer enough of is simple therapy and counseling, something I’ve universally heard people say they feel everyone could benefit from. So why don’t we do it, and make these services more available to the general public? Can anybody give me one real reason why we can’t do that–at least in public schools? I’m sure it would single out and work to nullify the bullies before they completely destroy other students’ sense of self-worth. It could also dissuade more suicides and shootings too. Why not take some money out of the administrators and athletics and put it towards that?
I know therapy would’ve greatly benefited me, to get all my self-esteem issues and self-loathing dealt with before I had internalized them all those years. I tried to ask my mother to sign me up for it years ago, after repressed gender dysphoria, constant bullying and two sexual assaults drove me to my limit. It took me an hour to work up the courage to bring it up. She yelled at me, called my generation “spoiled” and told me I didn’t need therapy. She didn’t even ask me why I thought I might need it, or if there was anything I needed to talk to her about. (This whole betrayal was compounded by the fact that my sister was allowed to see a therapist at the time–I guess I was singled out for being unworthy of asking for help by virtue of being the oldest and presenting as male.) Even growing up, I can remember several times where I tried to express sadness, hurt or other non-masculine emotions to my parents. At best I was told “don’t feel that way” and at worst I was yelled at and told some variation of “man up.” I wonder how many other people went through life bottling up their trauma and insecurities because of parents, friends or schools with the same hostile attitude.
Even if you had more empathetic and open-minded parents, it wouldn’t do you much good in today’s world. Why have wages stagnated so much that both parents have to work to make ends meet? It’s killing the future generations’ upbringing. Who can you vent to, get advice from, get a hug from, when there’s no therapy, mom and dad are gone until 6 PM or later and too exhausted to talk much, if at all, when they get back and your siblings are just as lost and troubled as you? What is there…but the computer? And depending on your situation, you’re either getting bullied there as well or getting horrible advice from toxic places like 4chan, r/redpill and the self-defeating incel community. I remember some of the most hurtful things my peers used to say to me were through the computer. I’d be browsing reddit or watching YouTube videos as I did homework, and see some horrible Facebook messages people sent me. I tried to fit in on that aforementioned music forum about my favorite band and would get harassed by several other members for differences of opinion, my feminine persona, predilection towards a certain album in particular and young age.
In short, we don’t offer kids healthy support networks so they bury themselves in self-destructive echo chambers which convince them the reason they’re lonely is that women are stupid and evil, rather than encouraging them to work on themselves. Kids don’t learn conflict resolution at school, or naturally among the neighbor kids anymore, so they retreat to hive-minds which reinforce preconceived ideas. Without tone and body language, text is often misconstrued and people are more hostile online both for that reason and the fact that they don’t have to see the face of the person they’re hurting. I’ve had people on Facebook and forums seemingly ready to fight me on a whim for some perceived insult or sarcasm I never intended. Discussions which in person might be friendly disagreements, quickly become heated arguments where nobody feels they can back down. After so many bad experiences like that, you unfriend or block the offending user, and the echo-chamber intensifies.
In short, the reason there are more mass murders today than ever before isn’t because of guns, which are just a tool, nor videogames which are just an outlet. It’s a pervasive disconnect from other people due to a myriad of factors unique to our modern society.
The way our current social paradigm is laid out, we have the perfect mixing pot of frustration, miscommunication, shame, lack of support, stress, unresolved emotions, as well as glorification of the wrong people and values. I could and probably should go on and expand this train of thought, but what’s the point? Nobody is going to read this anyway, much less act on it. It’s easier to make a blanket statement about guns one way or the other. Or thoughtlessly blame convenient scapegoats like comics, rock music, TV, Dungeons and Dragons, videogames and whatever comes next. If not that, it’s all about calling the shooter a “monster” to deny that a human is capable of atrocities. The more conscientious will opt to say “he was crazy”/”it’s a mental illness issue” to put the onus 100% on the shooter when, as much as we’re all responsible for our own actions, society plays a big role too. For the masses on social media, it’s easier to digest impersonal and uninformative meme pictures which only tell half the story. Nobody reads anything that can’t fit into a tweet, or remembers anything bigger than a soundbite. Our newspeak didn’t come from enforcement of government lingo, but limiting the character count of each thought such that nothing substantial can be expressed.
If all that wasn’t enough, this complex issue is too multi-faceted for our gridlocked, hyper-partisan, corrupt government to do shit about. They’ll sooner ban violent video-games or pass ammo restrictions as an impotent half-measure to placate their constituents rather than take a long hard look at the nuanced factors involved. That’s where we’re at now, and I think things will get a lot worse before they have a prayer of getting any better.