The big problem is violence – more than guns, ideology and political rhetoric. Violence offers a seductive sense of power. But violence is stupid. Its power is senseless and fleeting.
The guns and ideologies also matter. Modern weaponry explain the extent of recent massacres. But this week there was a stabbing spree in Southern California. We can also blame video games, the dark web and racism. But violence plagues gangland neighborhoods and family life. The most common violence is domestic. Many more children are killed by their parents than by random strangers.
Some say love is the answer. Democratic presidential candidate Marianne Williamson said she wants to combat the dark psychic forces of our era by harnessing the power of love. In her campaign book she writes, “We need a politics love. Love is the angel of our better nature, just as fear is the demon of the lower self.”
But talk about angels, demons and psychic powers makes it seem that the problem is more than human. The truth is that violence is an all-too-human affliction. Men have always been tempted to lash out and kill.
And while love can be powerful, it is also volatile. There is a fine line between love and hate. The late great Toni Morrison wrote through one of her characters that “wicked people love wickedly and violent people love violently.”
Instead of love, we need to control our emotions and learn to leave each other alone. Hate does not leave others alone – but neither does passionate love. Both are obsessed with “the other.” And both lack inner tranquility that is at peace with self and world.
Virtue requires control over the violent, emotional and reactive parts of the soul. Virtue is moderate and steady. It is a calm and sustained devotion to justice, truth and reason. Inner peace and self-control are found on the other side of love.
Adolescent passion fuels the fevers of extremism. The perpetrators of mass shootings are almost always young men. They are raised in a culture of over-stimulation. In this culture, our screens are always on. The careening news cycle throbs and social media incites. Violence thrives in a culture of noise, panic and emotion.
So let’s slow down, cool off and calm down. We need to cultivate the mellow midpoint of stoic acceptance, tolerance and self-control. One key to this is a commonsense appraisal of reality. Facts defuse fear.
The headlines scream out about mass killings. But you are far more likely to die in a traffic accident or from a drug overdose than to be killed in a mass murder. Gun violence killed over 14,000 people in 2017, including 117 people killed in mass shootings. But in that year, 1,700 children died from abuse or neglect. And over 700 peopled drowned in swimming pools, over 5,000 choked to death on food, over 40,000 were killed in traffic accidents, and 61,000 died from drug poisoning.
I am not saying we should not be concerned about mass murder. But we don’t freak out about driving, swimming or eating. A rational appraisal of the situation can prevent panic. And panic is part of the problem.
These days, everyone seems freaked out. On the right, people are agitated about immigration. On the left, people are aggravated about white supremacy. As the panic buttons get pushed, violence becomes more likely. So let’s take a breath. Yes, there are problems to be solved. There always have been. But the more we hyperventilate, the harder it is to think.
Stoic equanimity or “even-mindedness” can be cultivated. The Stoics advise us to ignore minor setbacks and keep focused on the big picture. We can’t control what other people do or what they think. But we can develop our own strengths. And we can see that no good comes of anger, resentment and fear.
It would be nice if we could learn to love one another. But let’s also aim for virtue and wisdom. The recipe for wisdom is fairly straightforward. Get the facts. Avoid extreme emotions. Leave other people alone. Remember that we each only play a small part in the drama of the world. And understand that violence is the problem.
Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala