In the wake of the Las Vegas massacre which, to be quite honest feels as if it was months ago rather than a couple of weeks ago (thanks 24-hour news cycle!), many of the same arguments have been recycled, the same camps have duked it out over social networking sites and, ultimately, nothing has been resolved.
Americans are left angrier than ever at their fellow countrymen, or they’re lost in the deluge of new outrageous controversies which break into trending topics on their social networks of choice.
Often the arguments are overly simplistic or reductionist in nature and very rarely, if ever, do the arguments in the wake of tragedies such as these take stock of the society as a whole as a factor for the tragedy itself. I was reminded of this perspective recently while watching footage from Mythcon Milwaukee, specifically a talk given by MIT grad and secular activist Melissa Chen about the importance of retaining Enlightenment values in the West.
You can view Chen’s talk here by starting at 46:28.
In the talk itself, beyond the overarching theme of retaining values of freedom of expression, and safeguarding against illiberal modern movements, Chen also decried the toxic side of postmodern philosophy which has largely taken hold of academia in the States. The dissolution of the idea of absolute truths as a foundational building block of a thriving society, and the nihilistic, lethargic attitudes of individuals which have accompanied this paradigm shift have produced a stagnation in our culture which is also contributing to our overall decline.
It is nothing short of a grand paradox our modern culture has created such a standard of living that those who are immersed in it are living in a state of luxury and abundance never before afforded to humankind, and yet, the empirical evidence shows a populace which is far less content, far more medicated and hostile toward one another, a state of existence which seems to only be increasing as the civilized slowly slide back toward barbarism.
Are we truly building our very own hell? Are we the cause of the social plagues which mark countless families as victims of senseless tragedies?
By all standards of human progress and development we as a culture should find solace in knowing that we are at the pinnacle of human evolution for the present. That we are the heirs of centuries of construction of one of the greatest human experiments ever devised, and yet we seem more intent on tearing it down than ever before.
The first time I ever heard about a mass shooting was the aftermath of the Columbine shootings. I was 12 years old. The media frenzy surrounding that event was unreal, it was on the news constantly, specials were done as more information came out as people strove to construct a picture that would make sense and explain all the questions they had. The media capitalized on this and, inadvertently, ended up canonizing these mentally disturbed, socially isolated teenagers.
Perhaps what we didn’t understand at that time was that we were creating a template for the future in those moments as we huddled around the T.V. seduced by the mesmerizing, macabre nature of this fresh horror.
As the technology progressed our culture began to degenerate. With no truth but our own personal truths we as individuals became unmoored and detached from the cohesive bonds of tradition and principle which served as the bulwark of society. Social networking sites allow people to be constantly connected yet perpetually alone. Film and gaming industries tried to keep up with the new advances in content sharing on the internet by continuously pushing the envelope when it came to their product releases. For an example of this, look at the evolution of the horror industry from its relatively restrained roots to the the utter normalization and desensitization of murder, torture, and rape which are regarded as fairly normal tropes for modern horror movies today. The institution of traditional family has been on a steady decline, with just 46% of parents managing to remain in their first marriage as recent as 2014, according to Pew Research. This coupled with the growth of single parent households, the likelihood of those households to fall into poverty (even first world poverty), and the increase in children raising themselves is a formula for disaster of societal proportions, especially when many of those children are being informed by various external influences around them that they largely have little to no purpose in life except drinking, getting that next high, accumulating “stuff”, and having copious amounts of sex without any sort of attachment.
Along with the nihilists we breed when it comes to teaching children “purpose” devoid of any objective truths, we also breed their diametric opposites when we focus on overcompensating and overemphasizing their sense of self-worth, and rendering them ineffective in dealing with any real-life frustrations.
The strength of a society rests in its youth, the ones who will carry the mantle of that society into the future. When the youth of a society are abused through defunct parental units, nihilistic educational systems and mediums of epicurean entertainment which revel in the licentious, rather than being engaged to use their minds to discover purpose and to wrestle with finding objective truth, we have created a toxic petri dish in which self destructive action can ultimately flourish.
Gustave Le Bon, writer of the landmark sociological work The Crowd, aptly described the life cycle of a society by saying:
“At the dawn of civilisation a swarm of men of various origin, brought together by the chances of migrations, invasions, and conquests. Of different blood, and of equally different languages and beliefs, the only common bond of union between these men is the half-recognised law of a chief. The psychological characteristics of crowds are present in an eminent degree in these confused agglomerations. They have the transient cohesion of crowds, their heroism, their weaknesses, their impulsiveness, and their violence. Nothing is stable in connection with them. They are barbarians.
At length time accomplishes its work. The identity of surroundings, the repeated intermingling of races, the necessities of life in common exert their influence. The assemblage of dissimilar units begins to blend into a whole, to form a race; that is, an aggregate possessing common characteristics and sentiments to which heredity will give greater and greater fixity. The crowd has become a people, and this people is able to emerge from its barbarous state. However, it will only entirely emerge therefrom when, after long efforts, struggles necessarily repeated, and innumerable recommencements, it shall have acquired an ideal. The nature of this ideal is of slight importance; whether it be the cult of Rome, the might of Athens, or the triumph of Allah, it will suffice to endow all the individuals of the race that is forming with perfect unity of sentiment and thought.
At this stage a new civilisation, with its institutions, its beliefs, and its arts, may be born. In pursuit of its ideal, the race will acquire in succession the qualities necessary to give it splendour, vigour, and grandeur. At times no doubt it will still be a crowd, but henceforth, beneath the mobile and changing characteristics of crowds, is found a solid substratum, the genius of the race which confines within narrow limits the transformations of a nation and overrules the play of chance.
After having exerted its creative action, time begins that work of destruction from which neither gods nor men escape. Having reached a certain level of strength and complexity a civilisation ceases to grow, and having ceased to grow it is condemned to a speedy decline. The hour of its old age has struck.
This inevitable hour is always marked by the weakening of the ideal that was the mainstay of the race. In proportion as this ideal pales all the religious, political, and social structures inspired by it begin to be shaken.
With the progressive perishing of its ideal the race loses more and more the qualities that lent it its cohesion, its unity, and its strength. The personality and intelligence of the individual may increase, but at the same time this collective egoism of the race is replaced by an excessive development of the egoism of the individual, accompanied by a weakening of character and a lessening of the capacity for action. What constituted a people, a unity, a whole, becomes in the end an agglomeration of individualities lacking cohesion, and artificially held together for a time by its traditions and institutions. It is at this stage that men, divided by their interests and aspirations, and incapable any longer of self-government, require directing in their pettiest acts, and that the State exerts an absorbing influence.
With the definite loss of its old ideal the genius of the race entirely disappears; it is a mere swarm of isolated individuals and returns to its original state—that of a crowd. Without consistency and without a future, it has all the transitory characteristics of crowds. Its civilisation is now without stability, and at the mercy of every chance. The populace is sovereign, and the tide of barbarism mounts. The civilisation may still seem brilliant because it possesses an outward front, the work of a long past, but it is in reality an edifice crumbling to ruin, which nothing supports, and destined to fall in at the first storm.
To pass in pursuit of an ideal from the barbarous to the civilised state, and then, when this ideal has lost its virtue, to decline and die, such is the cycle of the life of a people.”
The untold story of mass shootings (and other mass violence) in America is one that goes far deeper than the over simplistic, reactionary impulses to “ban guns”, which is the methodology of an inept parent. It’s easy to take toys away from your toddler, it’s far harder to transcend the momentary frustration and anger and to use the moments of infantile rebellion as moments which can shape that child’s character in such a way that they grow into a functional, well-adjusted adult.
The problem in America isn’t a mass-shootings problem, or even a gun problem – it’s a values problem. Its the slow decay of civilization, a disease which has been subtly taking root, and the increasingly frequent instances of mass violence are an extreme symptom which is growing out of many other pre-established symptoms which have been gradually appearing over the decades.
Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not advocating for a large scale return to religious superstition. I don’t think America needs to “come back to Jesus” to be great again. I do believe, as Melissa Chen noted in her presentation, that the remedy America requires is a return to Enlightenment values and a renewal of liberalism, innovation and championing of scientific inquiry. We need to, once again, engage the minds of the youth with purpose whether through a revival of the entrepreneurial creator’s spirit, or the philosopher’s quest to delve into the deepest, existential questions of life in search of universal truth.
Yes, these aren’t the the solutions that will make nightly news. They aren’t quick fixes that make great audio soundbites for politicians to pander to their constituents with. They aren’t “mic drop” moments on Twitter and you’ll rarely get this deep on other social platforms, however, if we truly want to cure the disease which is destroying our culture it’s time to better understand it, and to invest in actual medicine, not band-aids.