What is Happening to the World?

Well, here’s a brief answer.


I’m actually working on a different blog post, but I’ve heard this question quite a bit, lately. I mostly overhear it in conversations between people who do not know I can hear them. However, people who know that I’m a sociologist, including many students, have approached me directly and asked what is happening with the world today.

The answer[s] are not simple, and I don’t really have time to elaborate. Nor am I so arrogant as to believe that I have “the answers.”

There are, however, some things that I and other sociologists know. First, and foremost, the simplistic answers, encouraging equally simplistic solutions, are largely wrong. Violent video games, television shows and horror films are not to blame. Our kids are not becoming increasingly violent. The availability of guns may have some comparative regional consequences, but are not the cause of our current social pathology.

If that is, in fact, what it is. In 2012, we as a society were witness to a stunning and heartbreaking seven mass shootings. This is a thirty year record. It certainly seems, based on this evidence, that our society has a nihilistic trend. But determining the state of society based on the number of mass shootings is questionable logic. A maximum of seven mass shootings out of a population of over three-hundred million people is statistically not much different than the many years in which there were only one mass shooting. As is evidenced by the graph at left, the last thirty years have seen spikes and peaks of mass murders and their associated troughs.

While researching the incidence and trend of mass shootings, and hoping that someone had done the math for me so that I wouldn’t have to, I stumbled upon a blog in which the author did the math so that I wouldn’t have to. Rutgers grad student Aatish Bhatia and his marvelously geeky blog, Empirical Zeal ran the numbers against a Poison Curve suggesting that the distribution of mass shootings is largely random.

Hmmm. Sociologists are not entirely comfortable with random. We do suggest that there are often so many variables that events seem random. There are influences that can be understood and can inform how we interact in our society. So when we look at phenomena such as mass shootings, we look for commonalities. So what can mass shootings tell us about the state of our society as a whole?

Researchers have identified mental illness as a component part of mass shootings. Indeed, this is a good point, but mental illness is a combination social construct and social disease. What aspects of society contribute to mental illness? We know that mental illness, from a sociological context, is influenced by social pathologies associated with social change and the integration of the members into society. Related to integration, a sociologist might identify as common among mass shooters are social isolation, an extremist zeal for transcendent ideologies and, ultimately, suicide. These often go hand in hand.

The question above is, however, “what is happening to the world?” The answer could very well be nothing, at least on the individual level. Bombings, terrorist attacks, mass shootings; these are all very rare occurrences in the United States (though fairly common in other nations) and could simply be the result of random or random-like variables. For instance, what was the difference between the year 2012 and the year 1999, a year with one fewer mass shootings? In what ways were 1993, 2007 and 2009 similar? Or how is it that in four of the last thirty years there were no mass shootings? Economic conditions do not seem to explain it; cultural variables haven’t changed that much. Violent video games? Hollywood movies? Lead pollution?

Despite almost endless media coverage, as well as the intense level of tragedy associated with such extreme events, it’s difficult to glean anything useful, sociologically. However, there is something to be said about how we interpret these events.

Let’s face it, we know that there is something wrong with our society, and we have a visceral certainty that events like Sandy Hook and the Boston Marathon Bombing are, in some small way, related. This may say more about us than about the perpetrators of tragedy. It’s a disturbing testament that, in some dark way, we have certain sympathies (not to be confused with empathy) for those who commit such atrocities. In them, we see individuals who are isolated from the larger society, or in sociological speak, lacking appropriate integration. Perhaps they have suffered a loss, been laid off, like Andrew Engeldinger. In Columbine, Klebold and Harris were socially isolated by exclusive peers. Kipland Kinkel, a year before Columbine had been expelled before he went on his killing spree.

When we look into the lives of these individuals we see severe mental illness, indeed, but also the refuse of social exclusion. Despite the fact that almost none of us will pursue such a deadly response to our own social exclusion, we nonetheless experience it.

The role of social institutions is to integrate people into the larger society, and yet what is left of these social mechanisms? The family unit has been invaded by the demands of the marketplace in which parents are coerced into being producers for fear of losing their jobs without regard to the needs of their children. The costs of keeping a family rise while wages stagnate and benefits wither. The primary stressor on marriages is money, and ours is a nation in which the market has failed almost half of us. Media has become the role model that many parents simply don’t have time or energy to be.

Our schools? Well, if you want to create a dysfunctional society, simply create the current American educational system. Cultivating students has been replaced by the goal of raising test scores. Kids are convinced that their schools and teachers have turned their backs on them as they perform an endless regimen of meaningless tests. To guarantee that teachers and students cooperate in what they know to be balderdash politicians make sure to use threats and coercion. Students will fail and never go to college…unless they do well on a test. Teachers will lose their jobs if their students don’t do well on the tests. Education has become an institution of fear rather than one of nurturing character and knowledge.

As for our government, forget it. Congress has an approval rating of 9%, just slightly better than Fidel Castro. The nation understands that ours is not a government that represents us unless our yachts are larger than fifty feet long. We don’t need much data to confirm this. All we need is to read the newspaper. Our government has abandoned most of us who are not too big to fail.

The market is clearly not working for us and is mostly a destructive influence in our lives as our wages are depressed and our costs increase. The market can take what it wants—our homes, our time, our livelihoods, our lives—and there’s no way to get anything substantial in return. Americans go to work every day knowing that they are nothing more to their employers than a figure on a spreadsheet. At any moment their jobs can be deleted with no more sentiment than one has for clearing a cell on an Exel sheet. Job security, loyalty and investment are gone as are any delusions on the part of working Americans.

We don’t even dare get sick because our health system will leave us choosing between everything we’ve ever worked for…or our lives. Those tasked with caring for those in need have abandoned medicine and nurturance and even health in their drive for higher profits. Our very health is subject to commodity status.

Even our religions are suspect. More of us are leaving mainstream religions and are becoming unaffiliated, or choosing to affiliate with smaller, less traditional beliefs.

Great swaths of our culture and society have lost their legitimacy. During this time, we have swallowed an exclusive version of individualism positing that we are on our own. More and more it seems that that is true, be it through self-fulfilling prophecy or social contingency. Human beings are not good at being on our own. Isolation and lack of integration are destructive to the human soul. It has certainly been destructive to these specific human beings holding the guns, and most destructive to their victims. It’s also destructive to us, and we know it. Yet we fear that we can do nothing about it. To what extent does hopelessness drive the likes of Adam Lanza to commit horrors?

When a society fails to integrate its members, individuals become easy prey to those who do offer meaning, a place, no matter how distorted. It appears that this is what happened to at least one of the alleged Boston Marathon Bombers. Unable to integrate in the larger American society, Tamerlan Tsarnaev turned to religious fundamentalism and radical nationalism to give his life meaning. This may also be true for Wade Michael Page and his embrace of fascism before he opened fire on a Sikh Temple, or Fort Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hasan, or even Timothy McVeigh. Weak social integration leaves the field open for extremist visionaries.

In 1897, Emil Durkheim wrote his seminal work, Suicide in which he demonstrated that anomic social change and lack of integration has devastating impacts on people. Indeed, suicide is a common component of many mass shootings. Suicide is also becoming more common in the nation as a whole. This is especially true for some of our least effectively integrated members, our combat veterans. Suicide is a powerful indicator of the health of a society. It is clear that something is terribly awry in ours.

We know that there is something wrong with our society. We’ve all been abandoned to greater or lesser extents. That some of us have resorted to horrific violence has inspired most of us to ask not what is wrong with them, but what is wrong with our society. This is an appropriate question.

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