I know who to blame for the increased numbers of mass shootings in the United States, and it’s not the President. We are not thinking from a very nuanced place when we blame him. We need to instead be thinking more about what is missing in our culture that used to be present, where our own actions are encouraging divisive politics, and how we can take some responsibility for shifting the trend away from terrorism in our country.
In other words, it is critical that we think about our own behaviors instead of the President’s, in order to save ourselves and the future of our children.
The rise of the internet, the increase in connectivity, and the monetization of our individual “brands” of personality and lifestyle create a frenzied environment of self-expression that indulges our baser instincts.
This move toward a digital life encourages us each to constantly express our every little thought, and supports our ignorance by surrounding us with an echo chamber of approving and cheering “friends.” It feeds us a steady diet of media “fear stories” to haunt us and chase us further and further into the realm of blaming other people, other groups, and “otherness” itself.
We live in a time and place that seems to be forgetting the fundamental strengths of a representative democracy. We are losing respect for each other and the tether to our better selves that the Constitution promises. (All people created equal, differences between us are ordinary and enriching, we work together to negotiate the best futures for us all.) And in its place we are putting a selfish, entitled, shallow, angry version of ourselves.
“Certainty,” “disgust,” and “self-righteousness” have taken the place of restraint and civility in our public lives. How can we be surprised that the end result, at its most extreme place, produces mass killers?
The persons we must blame, if we are serious, are in our mirrors.
There is, however, a way out, and it’s not that complicated. It’s just scary.
- The first step is to have some self-control regarding where we point our fingers, in our personal social media.
- The second step is trying on an old and musty coat that has been left hanging in the back of our grandparents’ closet — the coat of civility.
- The third step is the uncomfortable experience of face to face interaction.
- The fourth step is a heaping portion of things we don’t like — the nourishing ingredient of other people’s preferences.
- The fifth step is kindness.
- And lastly, the sixth step is noticing (simply noticing) how little we actually need the illusions of the digital world, our group affiliations, and our angry, outraged reactions. Think about what happens if we let go of them.
I am not saying that these six steps directly explain the mass shootings. I am saying that the shootings ferment in the environment of our digital world that then spills out into our physical world. And I am saying that these six steps will mitigate the ecosystem where the mass shootings are being cultivated. I am saying what every major religion says — if we change ourselves, we change the world. It is all interconnected and we must take hold of the connections within our own reach.
We will be more effective at reducing mass shootings if we reach inside our hearts, minds, and physical spaces that are most intimate to us, at the same time that we go about debating and adjusting laws on assault weapons, addressing hate speech, and policing home-grown and domestic terrorists.
Just for a moment, consider how differently the future could unfurl, if we each made these six steps personal goals. The truth is always more personal than we want to admit. But we must be brave. The crisis of people getting gunned down in our public spaces, and our own children taking guns to their schools or getting shot in their classrooms, demands it.
Self Control Where We Point Our Fingers
We all frequently project unwanted things in ourselves onto other people. When we hit pause on this impulse, we can begin to consider the things we fear in ourselves, and change them.
I work at kindness, specifically because I have a personal tendency to be a bully. After going to therapy, I realized that I needed and wanted more kindness in my world — that kindness was not a weakness and I didn’t need to protect myself by being a bully. If we, individually and collectively, took a breath and paused to consider why we were were about to point our fingers at another person or group, we might learn things about ourselves and improve our public discourse.
Much of the time, we don’t blame individuals. Instead, we blame groups, as if the larger group (ie: political parties) is truly pulling the strings of the behavior of its members, and as if it accurately represents how each and every one of the people who associate with the group, feel and act.
We must allow boys and men, especially, the freedom to look inside and think about their feelings. And to do this, we must model the behaviors of both thinking before we point fingers and looking at our impulse to externalize blame. (If you are at all interested in this aspect of what I am saying, please watch The Mask You Live In with your family and your community.)
Stephanie Dowrick said, “Restraint offers a space between intention and action and the opportunity to protect others from actions or reactions that should exist only in your imagination.” I found this beautiful gem of a quote in a book titled, Choosing Civility by P. M. Forni. Watching old movies, we can’t help but notice a kind of restraint that people used to have, which feels a little foreign to us now. Civility is more than the Golden Rule of treating everyone the way we wish to be treated. It is the Golden Rule plus acceptance of differences plus restraint. (Forni points out that if we only treat others as we want to be treated, we ignore their own preferences.)
Clearly, civility in public life has broken down. But I believe civility in private life has also deteriorated to the point that we barely know what it is anymore.
In a parking lot the other day, I witnessed very young parents encouraging a very young child to curse and yell. People around us were laughing. Even those who I consider friends sometimes make fun of the way people look, or grossly exaggerate the faults of others. I find myself gossiping and snickering as much as anyone. But just because I sometimes participate in this does not mean it is behavior I aim for when I am truly being thoughtful about my actions. I read about and think about civility regularly because I believe it is key to a better life, and because I want it for my country as much as I want it for myself.
The internet is filled with revolting examples of people acting badly toward each other in more ways than I can begin to list. People who, like me, would want a more civil world must stand up and say so. We must keep trying to learn and model civility, and to speak back to online bullies, public servant bullies, and the bullies in our homes. It is desperately needed, and I believe it starts at home, between parents and children, and at school between teachers, administrators, and children.
If we only rely on our laws for protection, I am pretty sure that we are not actually going to be protected. It is the combination of many different approaches that will save us — the redundancy of protections. One of the protections should be a renewed respect for ourselves and others, a renewed call for restraint, that I believe can best be referred to as, “civility.”
Face to face interactions
I don’t think this needs much description. I mean it exactly how it sounds. When we go to the super market, we could go through the line where a real person is helping us. When we walk our dogs, we could lift our noses from our phones. When we ride the bus, we could speak to the person beside us. We can try our best to meet each other’s eyes and speak to each other. We should try. This is hard in the world we’ve designed for ourselves (or allowed Amazon, Facebook, and Google to design for us) because we like our little cocoons of self and only self, except for the digital “others” we allow into our eyeballs and ears. But, it seems we become very isolated when we only interact with each other digitally and isolation combined with the digital experiences we are having these days seems very related, to me, to the societal behaviors of both constant outrage and loathing of people with different opinions from our own.
I believe face to face interactions will help us, because I myself experience a lifting of this peculiar heavy fog that is a world gone digitally mad, when I switch my daily mode of operation from mostly digital to mostly face-to-face. I notice improvements in myself. Maybe you will too.
Things we don’t like
As a society, it appears we only eat ice cream and no vegetables. Each of us is surrounded by like-minded opinions, support for our own positions, and documentation of our own “rightness.” We cannot imagine why the “other” that is constantly looming in the far corner of the world we inhabit by ourselves would prefer something else, or have a different opinion.
This is because we don’t expose ourselves to their experiences. They (the “other” — whether this is the migrant caravan or the red state occupants, the activist espousing different opinions than our own, or the national political party opposite our own) seem alien because they are alien. And we must make ourselves experience life through their lens.
Other people’s preferences are scary because, my God, what if they have a point?! What if they understand something we don’t? Then where would our pride be and how could we hold up our heads, after all the vehement things we said online, that will last forever?
It is as if our digital selves feel more pride in our own opinions and the act of self-expression, than we feel any obligation to function as a group. Do you see how silly and unhelpful that is? How it could lead (when multiplied exponentially and blasted world-wide) to people wanting to kill each other?
Does life really need to be only supportive of our own feelings? Are we so weak that we cannot listen to another person? So desperate to hear our own ideas reflected back to us that we only read and watch media telling us we are correct?
I see many people who are convinced that they know things that they simply do not know. They are in internet places and physical spaces where they are only exposed to their own ideas, but the things they think they know, if they were picked up and dropped into another culture, would evaporate.
I cannot say enough about kindness and its importance in my own life. It revolutionizes my world when I consistently try to put kindness first. My body, heart, and mind benefit a million times over when I make kindness a fundamental principal. I cannot ever be 100% successful at this. I still find myself slipping into an unkind place. But I emphasis kindness because I have tried to live in both a kind way and a way that does not particularly emphasize kindness as a value, and the way of life where kindness is something precious is beyond anything I ever could have hoped for when I originally began seeking it inside myself, personally.
That may sound like hyperbole but try it for yourself, and see what happens to the endorphins in your body. See what happens to your day to day experience.
Try setting aside fearful thoughts that things are not fair, that others have more, that you have worked harder, that the world is mean to you. And try on a world where you are kind to others regardless of whether or not others owe you something, whether or not the world is kind to you, whether or not you are afraid. Just be kind. And see what happens. You will not be disappointed.
And when we do this collectively and individually — when we treat kindness as a primary goal — we will help calm the culture of violence and blame, hatred for others, and dehumanizing those who are different from us.
Notice how little we actually need of the culture we have created
We don’t all actually fall so enthusiastically into camps with these loud national political party leaders, even though a look at our social media pages would indicate we do. Perhaps it helps us feel part of a bigger “something important” to attach ourselves to a strong personality on the national stage.
“What she said!” We say, and point to the very visible leader, who is perfectly articulating something (anything.) We want to trust our elected officials and the corporations that brought them to us. It is so much easier if we can just say one word — red or blue — and leave it at that. Or if we can look to the shiny, perfection of the advertisements on our big, huge televisions and the sunny snappiness of our Instagram world. Right?!
But in doing so, we seem to have gotten ourselves into a jamb where we mostly have more than we need in some ways and not nearly enough in others. We lack the wealth of real community and the embrace of nourishing rest and self-respect. Our children are being manipulated and terrorized. They are understandably more and more anxious. We work and work and work to have enormous televisions, expensive phones, and huge houses. Vanity and bragging about our physical acquisitions is common, while talking about God and the spiritual world is uncommon (unless you are in a safe space where you know others are like-minded.)
I am a Christian of no particular persuasion. I believe and try to follow what (to the best of my ability) I understand Jesus teaches. I try to put his teachings into practice in my day to day life, not because of potential rewards in someplace called Heaven, but because I feel more peaceful and happy when I do so. My own children are Jewish, Buddhist, agnostic, and privately spiritual. My mother is Morman, my Father is Buddhist. I was raised Catholic but attended a Reform Jewish synagogue for years, and then an Episcopalian church for more years. In other words, I do not care HOW we express our spiritual beliefs, only that we make an attempt to do so, and to integrate them into our lives.
If we do not believe that we should make fun of other people, then we should not make fun of other people on social media. If we do not believe that we should value physical wealth over psychological health, then this should ideally be reflected in our social media and in our day to day lives. We must set this example for our children, and we must model the behavior — show not teach. By doing so, we will witness a different result in the children we raise and the community we experience. Plus, it is amazing to work for something bigger than yourself when that something is deeply personal and meaningful to you.
I feel sad that our current world is one where corporations set us up to lose our most precious values — morality, common sense, integrity, physical safety, unity, pluralism, opportunity. I feel sad that we seem to idolize winning at all costs. We don’t even seem to care if people cheat. Nazi memorabilia has become common at gun shows.
But I do not actually believe that most of us feel supportive of these things inside. Maybe we feel some minor initial satisfaction about getting the last word in an online argument, or being finally able to say some mean things, without the muzzle of politeness. But if we realized the ways in which our new culture of encouraging brashness was related to creating anxiety and fear in our children and teenagers, and yes — at the far end of the spectrum of people — shootings in public spaces, wouldn’t we be willing to give up some of this culture, in a heartbeat, if we thought it might reduce the anxiety, fear, and shootings?
Perhaps we do not know how much power we each personally have to make a difference. We feel powerless, so we assume we are powerless.
I believe we feel encouraged and emboldened by the commercial world that holds out to us promises of perfection and revenge fantasies. I believe that we could call this illusion out for what it is — a worthless lie that enriches only big tech and media companies and not our families and communities or country. We can reclaim our lives and the future of our children.
If we speak to each other face to face, if we think and take time to self-reflect before we point at others, if we accept that our differences make us stronger, if we don’t say every little mean thing that comes into our heads, if we question our own allegiances to bigger groups, if we let kindness overcome fear, and if we model all of these values in our (digital and physical) lives for our children, to the best of our abilities, we will be stronger and better equipped to end the shootings in our public spaces. And we will be more clear in our hearts about the values we hold, how to talk to each other about those values, and how to project them into the world in which we live. We can become more thoughtful and less reactionary in our approach. And we can save ourselves.