Yesterday I came across an article in the New York Times called “Wounded by the Language of War” by Paula Span. Span wanted to know why the language we use to talk about dealing with illness seems to “resemble a Pentagon briefing.” People who die are described as “losing a valiant battle against cancer.”
Span quotes Patrice Villars, a gerontological and palliative-care nurse-practitioner, “I worry about the implication that somehow, someone was deficient or a loser or didn’t do something right if they died…People die.”
Do you ever have one of those days when an idea seems to be following you around? A couple of hours after I read this article, I decided to look at some of my old books and I noticed The Argument Culture by Deborah Tannen. The book was written in 1998, and it describes a situation that seems to have only gotten worse. We have, Tannen writes, a tendency to frame all discourse in the form of an argument or debate, allowing for only two sides and focusing on winning over the other.
“Culture, in a sense, is an environment of narratives that we hear repeatedly until they seem to make self-evident sense in explaining human behavior. Thinking of human interactions as battles is a metaphorical frame through which we learn to regard the world and the people in it… In a society that includes people that express their anger by shooting, the result of demonizing those with whom we disagree can be truly tragic.”
She refers to this habitual posture as “agonism” based on the Greek word for contest. It is a programmed contentiousness “a prepatterend, unthinking use of fighting to accomplish goals that do not necessarily require it.”
Some of the causes or factors she points to (indeed, when it comes to culture it is hard to say what is the cause and what is the effect they work together in a reinforcing loop) is a taste for entertainment, which she traces to World War II, in which victory comes when the pacifist takes up his weapon and kills the bad guy. She also discusses our polarized political discourse, a presumed need on the part of journalists for news to be about confrontation and conflict. She cites one study about the coverage of the Clinton era health plan– and found that the politics of the battle were reported twice as often as the impact of the plan on consumers. I have a feeling the gap between coverage of the politics of Obama’s health care plan and the content of the plan would be even more dramatic.
Tannen also has a chapter devoted to the adversarial legal system. Another author, Thane Rosenbaum, in his book The Myth of Moral Justice, makes a similar point. The system actively discourages apologizing. “In the American legal system,” Rosenbaum writes, “moral behavior automatically triggers exposure to liability. You do the right thing, in the eyes of the law, you get punished…One of the dirty little secrets of the legal system is that if people could simply learn how to apologize, lawyers and judges would be out of work.”
What struck me while re-reading The Argument Culture was how current it sounds and how dramatically the trends she presented have been amplified. Tannen was writing the Fox News Channel was only two years old. Rachel Maddow was still working on a philosophy degree at Oxford. The Tea Party was an event that happened in Boston. No one was blogging or posting angry comments about “you liberals” and “you conservatives” on on-line articles.
The Columbine High School shooting happened a year after the book’s release.
If it is true that people express mental illness in culturally recognized ways, it is worth asking whether framing every disagreement or challenge, big or small, using the language of war is one of the social forces that acts on the mass killer.
Culture does change over time. It doesn’t change through acts of congress. It doesn’t usually change with one artistic work– to be accepted in one’s time a book or film has to speak the language of that time enough to be accepted. Culture changes with little nudges. Perhaps we can try to nudge our discourse out of its war footing.
Last November, I wrote a long post, The Happy End vs. The Noble End about how many 19th Century works are altered to give them more “happy ends” when they are adapted to appeal to a modern audience. I talked about the popularity of tragic, noble endings in Dickens day vs. our own.
Yesterday I was skimming through Susan Cain’s Quiet again and I came a little bit closer to understanding the cultural change that has made happy ends, in which the characters get what they wanted at the beginning of the story, eclipse noble ends, in which characters perform good works in secret and receive no earthly reward for it.
Cain cites the influential cultural historian Warren Susman who dubbed our extrovert-focused culture a “Culture of Personality.”
“The social role demanded of all in the new Culture of Personality was that of a performer,” Susman wrote. “Every American was to become a performing self.”
Before we started to admire those with the greatest skills in self-promotion, we lived in what Susman described as the Culture of Character.
In the Culture of Character, the ideal self was serious, disciplined, and honorable. What counted was not so much the impression one made in public as how one behaved in private. The word personality didn’t exist in English until the eighteenth century, and the idea of “having a good personality” was not widespread until the twentieth. But when they embraced the Culture of Personality, Americans started to focus on how others perceived them. They became captivated by people who were bold and entertaining….
Susman counted the words that appeared most frequently in the advice manuals of the early twentieth century and compared them to similar advice manuals from a century earlier. The earlier guides used these words: Citizenship, Duty, Work, Golden deeds, Honor, Reputation, Morals, Manners, Integrity. The new breed of self-help literature focuses on personality trait and uses words like: Magnetic, Fascinating, Stunning, Attractive, Glowing, Dominant, Forceful, Energetic.
This shift is not mere vanity, by the way. It is a survival tactic. In her book The Managed Heart by Arlie Russell Hochschild makes a good case that as our economy has shifted from a base in manufacturing and agriculture to one with more and more service jobs, presenting a pleasant personality has become a required job skill. She sums up the difference in 19th century and modern labor this way: “in order to survive in their jobs, (workers) must mentally detach themselves– the factory worker from his own body and physical labor, and the flight attendant from her own feelings and emotional labor.”
The ideal hero has changed as well. The physical laborer owned his inner world, as did his hero. The service worker gets things by manipulating the impression he makes on people in the outer world. His hero acts in this realm and must win in this realm. In the culture of personality, what is not apparent to the outer world might as well not exist. If good intentions do not yield good results– directly for the person who is the viewpoint character– what is the point? We can’t abide by a story like Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth where the main character’s self-sacrifice is a secret shared only with the reader. We may not change the story to the extent that Lily Bart lives happily ever after, but in the modern film version we at least have to see that someone in her world learns what she did.
The most dramatic story in a culture of character, however, is one that gives the reader a glimpse of someone who has a strong moral center. The best test of that character is what a person does when his goodness goes completely unrewarded and unknown. The tragic end of the 19th Century is just as idealistic and uplifting in its own way as the requisite “happy ending” of our times.
Both types of endings provide reassurance. In modern culture we want to reassure audiences that they can win against all odds and that their efforts will be recognized eventually. More reassuring to those living in a culture of character was the idea that a person could maintain ideals and morality in the face of the greatest hardship and unfairness.
A few months ago I went to my local library to hear a speaker who had worked for the secret service for many years, including on the detail of President Kennedy. One of the things that he mentioned in passing was that throughout our history we had someone try to shoot a president every 20 years or so. Ronald Reagan was the last. I remember as I left the lecture wondering if mass shootings of ordinary people had in some way replaced attempts on the lives of presidents and celebrities. It is much easier for an angry, irrational man seeking infamy to go into a crowded place than to get access to the leader of the free world.
In his book Crazy Like Us, Ethan Watters describes the work of the Canadian scholar Edward Shorter. “Shorter believes that psychosomatic illnesses (such as leg paralysis at the turn of the twentieth century or multiple personality disorder at the turn of the twenty-first) are examples of the unconscious mind attempting to speak in a language of emotional distress that will be understood in its time. People at a given moment in history in need of expressing their psychological suffering have a limited number of symptoms to choose from— a ‘symptom pool,’ as he calls it. When someone unconsciously latches onto a behavior in the symptom pool, he or she is doing so for a very specific reason: the person is taking troubling emotions and internal conflicts that are often indistinct or frustratingly beyond expression and distilling them into a symptom or behavior that is a culturally recognized signal of suffering.”
Mass shootings seem to have entered the American “symptom pool.” Of course there have always been isolated cases of people going mad and acting out in extreme violence. The difference is that now, in part due to the publicity surrounding mass shootings, this type of behavior has become an increasingly common form of expressing a certain kind of anger and pain.
Back in 2012, Adam Lankford, writing for the New York Times, made a persuasive case that the same mindset that creates a school shooter in this country creates suicide terrorists in other nations.
Over the last three years, I have examined interviews, case studies, suicide notes, martyrdom videos and witness statements and found that suicide terrorists are indeed suicidal in the clinical sense — which contradicts what many psychologists and political scientists have long asserted. Although suicide terrorists may share the same beliefs as the organizations whose propaganda they spout, they are primarily motivated by the desire to kill and be killed — just like most rampage shooters…It is tempting to look back at recent history and wonder what’s wrong with America — our culture and our policies. But underneath the pain, the rage and the desire to die, rampage shooters like Mr. Lanza are remarkably similar to aberrant mass killers — including suicide terrorists — in other countries. The difference rests in how they are shaped by cultural forces and which destructive behaviors they seek to copy. The United States has had more than its share of rampage shootings, but only a few suicide attacks. Other countries are regularly plagued by suicidal explosions, but rarely experience a school shooting.
The word “amok” comes from Indonesia. It describes a condition in which a man suffers a minor social insult and launches an extended period of brooding punctuated by an episode of murderous rage.
Our version of “amok” seems to be the mass shooting.
After each event there are talking heads who advocate various changes that could address the issue. I find myself increasingly weary at hearing them speak. “Our thoughts and prayers are with…” “Care for the mentally ill in this country…” “Where was security…” “Would more people with guns have prevented….”
It doesn’t seem as though it should be controversial to suggest that better access to mental health services and better training for human resources to recognize and deal with people who might be mentally ill would be a step in the right direction. Having a functional system to keep weapons out of the hands of people who should not have them would be a step in the right direction. Maybe we could try making high capacity magazines hard to come by so that when someone does decide to shoot up an office or a mall he at least has to reload.
It does not seem to be a simple question of gun availability in and of itself. Canada has relatively high levels of gun ownership as well. Yet Canada does not have the same problem of gun violence as its neighbor to the south. (It takes sixty days to buy a gun there, and there is mandatory licensing for gun owners. Gun owners pursuing a license must have third-party references, take a safety training course and pass a background check with a focus on mental, criminal and addiction histories, says Business Insider.)
The reason we seem to be paralyzed in our discussion is that there is not a simple solution. There is not one law that can be passed to make the carnage go away. That does not make for great political sound bites.
One question that we probably should ask is what aspects of our culture are producing these impulses in unstable young men. (And they are almost always men.)
I don’t have an easy answer to this, but I have a few thoughts. After a deadly shooting, angry people speak out against the shooters who wreak so much havock and alter so many lives. There are a couple of things that tend to be said, and these may provide some clues as to what we assume motivates mass shooters and therefore they may point to what cultural forces drive them.
The first is that people tend to call the shooter a “coward.” It is not really the right word. But then, I do not think they say this because they believe the shooter was afraid of risk. They say it because they believe that the shooter wanted to prove his manhood and strength and they want to rob him of what he wanted. They do not want to let him win. This suggests that there is something about the idea of bravery, power and proving one’s manhood that is a driver.
Describing mass killers, Adam Lankford, associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Albama, wrote in the New York Times that they share “a deep sense of victimization and belief that the killer’s life has been ruined by someone else, who has bullied, oppressed or persecuted him. Not surprisingly, the presence of mental illness can inflame these beliefs, leading perpetrators to have irrational and exaggerated perceptions of their own victimization.”
After the Newtown shootings, Michael Kimmel wrote on the CNN blog about notions of masculinity in particular:
In the coming weeks, we’ll learn more about Adam Lanza, his motives, his particular madness. We’ll hear how he “snapped” or that he was seriously mentally ill. We’ll try to explain it by setting him apart, by distancing him from the rest of us. Risk factors among shooters And we’ll continue to miss the point. Not only are those children at Sandy Hook Elementary School our children. Adam Lanza is our child also. Of course, he was mad — as were Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, and Seung-Hui Cho, Jared Lee Loughner, James Eagan Holmes, and Wade Michael Page — and the ever-longer list of boys and young men who have exploded in a paroxysm of vengeful violence in recent years. In a sense, they weren’t deviants, but over-conformists to norms of masculinity that prescribe violence as a solution. Like real men, they didn’t just get mad, they got even. Until we transform that definition of manhood, this terrible equation of masculinity and violence will continue to produce such horrific sums.
Most often, mass shooters are middle class males and predominantly white. What cultural norms do people in this demographic share?
I think back to Dave Ramsay’s article on the success secrets of the rich and his assertion that the rich “teach success habits” to their children while the poor do not. What he means, I believe, is that the rich and the upper middle class teach their children to expect opportunities and options and that they will succeed at whatever they put their mind to. They teach them to “aim high” and never give up. Working class people, studies have shown, are more apt to teach their children that they will not always have choices and they need to learn to adapt to difficult circumstances. (I have argued that this is, in fact, teaching a different kind of “success habit.” See the link above.)
The culture of the college-bound middle class is most likely to believe optimistic assertions that failure is only a temporary road bump on the way to success, and that there is always a way if you try hard enough. If people believe they have full control over their destinies then failure is a much greater taboo. In the toxic case of the mass shooter, the self-esteem that we so value turns toxic. He expects to achieve, he is blocked, and he looks for someone– all of society perhaps– to blame.
As I wrote in a previous post, “…the fact is, failure happens. Because we are loathe to admit this, we have an absolute dearth of instruction on how to deal with failure– not delayed success– failure.” Maybe a more nuanced idea of “success habits,” which includes how to deal emotionally with inevitable failure (everyone experiences failure sometimes) would be healthier for everyone.
Another thing that people usually say after a mass shooting is that the shooter should not be given the “prize of fame.” Whether it really is the shooter’s motivation or not, we assume that he opened fire in a quest for fame.
After the Newtown shooting I wrote on this subject:
Some time ago I read a quote in a book called The Frenzy of Renown by Leo Braudy that struck me: “John Lennon of the Beatles caused a scandal by saying that his band was more famous than Jesus,” he wrote. “As far as immediate fame goes, he was right. But the outcry over Lennon’s remark is instructive because it implies that fame is by definition a positive category: If Jesus is the greatest man, he must also be the most famous.”
It seems as though we have lost the sense that there is such a thing as negative known-ness. Not fame but shame.
In Puritan times, those who upset the community were held up to public ridicule. They were placed in the stocks. That made them the most visible members of the community at that moment. In other words, the most famous. No one confused this type of fame with honor.
…If the world were fair, [a victim of the Aurora theater shooting] would never have come to the attention of the general public at all. If the world were fair, he would be some guy who went to a movie one night, and came home and no one outside his circle of friends would never have heard a thing about him. Most of the admirable people in life have never been and will never be recorded in history. It does not mean we value the spectacularly known faces of the famous more than the anonymous people who change the course of our lives day in and day out.
I should not know the name of Dawn Hochsprung, the principal of Sandy Hook Elementary School. None of us should ever have heard of her.
We assume that shooters are motivated by fame (and they may well be) because we assume everyone wants to be famous. We assume that saying the killer’s name on television is a kind of prize. All of this points to the value we place on being known. We live in a society that values popularity and self-presentation.
Quiet by Susan Cain does a great job of showing how American culture has evolved to value extroversion and devalue introversion. “…today we make room for a remarkably narrow range of personality styles. We’re told that to be great is to be bold , to be happy is to be sociable. We see ourselves as a nation of extroverts…”
The successful job candidate is the one who can prove he is a “people person.” Writers were once understood to be solitary creatures who were much better at expressing themselves on the page than face to face. These days, any book on writing, and any of the thousands of writing blogs will tell you that it doesn’t matter how good your book is– success goes to the writer who knows how to promote, promote, promote. The person who can’t, or doesn’t want to, live up to an extroverted ideal can have a hard time of it.
Most shooters are described as quiet loners. This may be because they are quiet loners or it may be that the people reporters ask to describe a killer following a tragedy are not the ones who knew him best. “He didn’t socialize with me, so I assume he didn’t socialize.”
If they really are introverts, the cultural value we place on self-presentation and being the most known could well be a motivating factor. You have an unstable young man who feels as though the world is made for the benefit of other people, who expects to succeed and blames others for his inability. His model for known-ness is right in front of him, in the TV reports on the mass shooting of the month.
From where I sit in the early part of the 21st Century, it seems had to imagine that these cultural trends will change. Yet cultures do shift and change. American culture of today is different from what it was a century ago. There was a time when women experienced a pool of symptoms that were diagnosed as “hysteria.” Men who were traumatized by war used to routinely suffer from hysterical leg paralysis. We can only hope that mass shootings will somehow fade out of the modern American “symptom pool” as well.
One of the blogs that I follow in my Word Press reader is Daily Post. Today they posted this writing prompt:
Do you love to dance, sing, write, sculpt, paint, or debate? What’s your favorite way to express yourself, creatively?
The question jarred me because lately, after a couple of years of intense writing productivity, I find that I have little interest in writing. (I’ve been researching my genealogy in my spare time instead.) It is, in fact, the success I had in completing projects in the past couple of years, the burst of activity and inspiration, that makes it feel so unappealing right now. Since my novel Angel was released I have completed a couple of novels and a stage play to my satisfaction. I have also written 95% a novel I have decided to cast aside, a detailed proposal for a biography and a theological project that is ongoing. I approached each of these with focus and enthusiasm and the sense that it was important that I do the work– not that the works were necessarily important. I mean that it mattered that I put my energy into these projects. During my last ballet tour I continued to take notes and write scenes for another idea for a novel and for additions and revisions to all of the works I mentioned before.
When I got back home, however, it was all I could do to bring myself to make the revisions I’d so carefully plotted out. The idea of starting work on the next book is completely unappealing. I chalk this all up to the Sisyphus factor. (See last entry.) None of these projects, undertaken with such great enthusiasm, has yet found an audience. There have been a few close calls with some of them. Agents and publishers who wanted closer looks, even a couple who made me offers that– unfortunately, I had to refuse. (All rights and no royalties…) Self-publishing is an option I would take only if I had the resources to put the work out in as professional a manner as my books with traditional publishers and at the moment I haven’t.
Look at how the writing prompt is worded one more time. “How do you like to express yourself?”
Writing is not expression if it is not read or presented. To express something someone needs to hear it, and preferably to appreciate it.
At some point, no matter how much energy and enthusiasm you put into it you need to have your voice heard in order to keep going, in order to maintain the sense that it is worth it.
There is no such thing as self-expression. You can’t do it alone. Expression requires an audience.
I have a pet peeve as a writer. I hate it when people say things like, “You’ll always be a writer whether anyone reads your work or not,” as if that was supposed to be comforting in some way. It has always struck me as being a bit like saying, “Don’t worry Sisyphus, you’ll always be a boulder pusher, whether you ever get to the top of the mountain or not.” That’s more of a curse than a comfort.
Of course it matters to aspiring writers if their work is published and people read it. Of course it mattes.
“Aspiring” is a troubling word in itself, really. It irks writers with way it lumps in rank amateurs with those who have labored long and hard with serious intentions. (Sisyphus was an aspiring boulder pusher the first time he headed up and is still an aspiring boulder pusher on his 200th try.)
Beyond that, unpublished writers (or writers who have published some things but not their Great Works) are not aspiring to write. They are writers. That is of course, what those well-intentioned friends are saying with their “you’ll always be a writer, it’s just who you are” pep talks.
The language seems to be lacking a word for what such writers aspire to be. “Published writers” is closer, but it isn’t entirely it. There are few writers more miserable than those who have published books that do not sell. “Read writers” is more like it, but it is a terrible phrase.
What I think it boils down to is that the artist is not seeking an identity or a title as much as a relationship. The goal is to connect to other human beings by sharing the work. In that sense saying “of course you’re a writer” is a bit like saying “Don’t worry, you’ll always be a woman whether or not you ever have a boyfriend or husband.” This may be true, but it is not much of a comfort to someone who would like to find someone to share her life with.
In conclusion– yeah, I haven’t really got a conclusion, except to say maybe our language needs some new terminology to express the artist who has completed the artistic process by forming a relationship with an audience. Not just a writer but a person whose writing is read.