Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Thin Line of Civilization: More Evidence That the Demons Aren't Very Far from the Surface

In the spring of last year I wrote about a case at Dartmouth College in which a group of students disrupted a presentation to prospective students, in protest over incidents of homophobia, racism, and other similar social ills. 

The story became news not because of the protest itself (these things are not unheard of on college campuses), but because of the backlash that ensued and the college's decision to shut itself down for a day in response. Much of that backlash was viscously, even graphically, threatening, and closing the school seemed to me an appropriately strong response to an outbreak of barbarism online. You can read my original post here.

My conclusion in that piece was that, rather than dismissing the rash of anonymous online threats as "harmless" or "blowing off steam", they are indicative of something important. As much progress as we have made as a species towards something we collectively understand, more or less, as "civilization", we are still not as far from its opposite as we would like to think. Ideas and thoughts walk among us that are decidedly barbaric and which, when considered in the cool light of day, are contemptible. 

One of these is that it is appropriate to use violence against another person simply because you disagree with or dislike them. My conclusion: these "demons" are never very far from the surface, and they bear close watching - especially within our own thoughts, words, and actions.

Today a story came out in the news that illustrates, in a horribly tragic way, the point I was making:
Man Killed in Dispute Over Texting in Theater
Two people, the shooter and the victim, disagreed over the appropriate use of a cell phone for texting in a movie theater (according to some reports, during the previews and therefore before the "main" movie had started). This in itself is not surprising - with new technologies, there are plenty of disagreements over when it is appropriate to use them or not. Most people understand that making noise in a theater is inappropriate; sending texts is, at this point, something of a grey area and certainly something about which reasonable people could disagree.

The shooter also decided that he was sufficiently bothered that he should take steps to alter the victim's behavior - to get him to stop texting. This is somewhat less common, but also at least potentially within reason. The fact that the shooter had been a police officer and was probably used to giving direction to others may have contributed. Again, while this brings the conflict to light it's not outside the bounds of civilization.

At this point, however, things get troublesome. The shooter apparently felt it appropriate not only to try to change the other man's behavior but to escalate the conflict verbally when the victim refused to cooperate. Not getting his way, the shooter decided it was appropriate to get angry and to yell - in the middle of a public theater - at the victim for continuing to text after being told to stop. This is clearly problematic - among private citizens, if you start an angry yelling match every time someone does something that bothers you you're going to be hoarse a lot of the time. 

Once you escalate a conflict, emotion takes over - and that's where you give the demons room. Because it was at that point that the shooter - an ex-cop who presumably had scads of training in the safe and appropriate use of firearms - pulled out his gun and shot and killed the victim. What had started as a disagreement over the social rules of texting in public ended in death.

For all civilized folk, this is a drastic overreaction. Unless the victim had produced a lethal weapon of his own - and there's no indication that he had done so, or even that he was armed - the shooter's action was completely, totally, utterly barbaric. It was far beyond the pale of civilization. I assume the criminal justice system will do its work and, absent some other mitigating evidence, reach the same conclusion.

I've argued repeatedly before: ideas and thoughts are deadly and dangerous things. The presence of weapons - guns in particular - multiplies the danger a thousandfold. In this sense, both the NRA and its critics are right - the NRA because the gun alone is not enough to kill, and the critics because the gun lowers the threshold to, at least in some cases, unacceptably low levels. 

Having written extensively about guns in the past, that's not the point I want to emphasize here. The most important point, in my view, is this: here was a man, apparently living an otherwise normal life in society, harboring a set of ideas that led him in mere seconds to cross the line from civilization to barbarity. Whatever mixture of anger, frustration, and ideas about texting on cell phones had converged in his head were enough to push him over the edge to uncontrolled rage. And because of that mix of ideas, a woman is widowed and a three year old girl has lost her father.

I have seen it suggested (purely in speculation) that there must have been some mental illness involved. That may be true - time will certainly tell. But if so, that illness had apparently gone undetected long enough for the shooter to still be walking around, carrying a weapon and engaging in otherwise normal life. The first time he lashed out will certainly be his last, suggesting that this had not happened before.

The mental illness question aside, the lesson I draw is this: thoughts matter. Anger in particular is dangerous because it's contagious - spend enough time around angry people and you will become angry yourself. Watch enough anger-spewing on television and some of it is bound to rub off. This is why I so despise politicians who play on anger and fear to win votes - I don't care about the particulars of their position so much as I understand the extent to which they are poisoning the well of society. Usually, that poison doesn't lead to death - but how many yelling matches, how many fights, slaps, instances of domestic abuse, have come from that sewage?

This is the reality of our time (and of many times): that though we tout our civilization, we spend too much time polluting it, or partaking in the pollution. It is this reality that the NRA dare not confront - that perhaps we are simply not civilized enough for unfettered access to lethal weapons. If men were angels, James Madison wrote, no government would be necessary - but we clearly are not. The best we can do is to spend as much time as we can cultivating, as Steven Pinker puts it, the better angels of our nature.

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