Living Columns & Blogs

Andrew Fiala on Ethics: Random acts of violence raise important questions about our culture

Last week’s violence at UC Merced, where a student stabbed four people before he was shot and killed by campus police, causes ethics columnist Andrew Fiala to consider the deeper issues behind random acts of violence, both cultural and psychological. Fiala writes, “We need to understand the seductive power of anger and aggression. And we need to remember that violence is as rare as it is stupid.”
Last week’s violence at UC Merced, where a student stabbed four people before he was shot and killed by campus police, causes ethics columnist Andrew Fiala to consider the deeper issues behind random acts of violence, both cultural and psychological. Fiala writes, “We need to understand the seductive power of anger and aggression. And we need to remember that violence is as rare as it is stupid.” Miami Herald file illustration

Stories of random violence continue to shock. Gun control would decrease the carnage. But when they don’t have guns, violent young men attack with knives, as happened recently at UC Merced. The technology of murder is only partly to blame.

The deeper problem is cultural and psychological. We need to understand the seductive power of anger and aggression. And we need to remember that violence is as rare as it is stupid.

First, let’s admit that violence can be exciting. Some people enjoy shooting guns. Young men, it seems, are often fueled by a volatile mix of aggression, anger, pride and fascination with blowing stuff up.

The good news is that most of us grow out of it. Violent outbursts are remarkable because they are anomalous. Most normal people learn to sublimate aggression. Rather than hurting a stranger, we play football or video games. If we want to see things explode, we go to fireworks shows.

We also learn that moral arguments are won with words instead of weapons. We learn that violence proves nothing. Violence disrupts rational discourse, undermines mutual understanding, and destroys love and community. Proper moral development moves us beyond the childish compulsion to smash things toward the adult interest in building them.

Unfortunately, some parts of our culture remain focused on adolescent aggression. Violent video games, movies and music are popular among the youths. In some cases, the ideas and images of violent culture get ahold of vulnerable young minds and mayhem ensues.

No one is born a mass murderer. Destructive ideas are discovered in scripts and models found in culture. Of course, pop culture is not entirely to blame. Lots of people witness lots of violence on TV or in video games without becoming violent. But we are cultural beings. Ideas and behavior are shaped by images and education.

A growing body of research points to a correlation between violent culture and violent deeds. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry explains: “The typical American child will view more than 200,000 acts of violence, including more than 16,000 murders, before age 18.” The American Academy of Pediatrics concludes: “The strength of the association between media violence and aggressive behavior … is nearly as strong as the association between cigarette smoking and lung cancer.” The American Psychological Association concludes that there is a “consistent relation” between violent video game use and aggression.

While the causes of youth violence are multifactorial and include such variables as poverty, family psychopathology, child abuse, exposure to domestic and community violence, substance abuse and other psychiatric disorders, the research literature is quite compelling that children’s exposure to media violence plays an important role in the etiology of violent behavior.

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry statement by Eugene Beresin

The good news is that despite all of this, mass murder remains rare. Cultural violence may provide a catharsis, which allows people to satisfy the urge to destroy in virtual reality without really hurting anyone. The problem is that one person’s catharsis may be another person’s inspiration. Culture works that way. There is no singular meaning of any image or idea. This is why we need education: to teach us moral meaning.

Without proper interpretation and moral education, violent images can give the wrong message. “Romeo and Juliet” ought to be viewed as a cautionary tale about violent feuds – not as a recipe for teen suicide. Darth Vader and Hitler are villains, not heroes. And war is tragic and horrible – not a fun game. Those conclusions may seem obvious. But without education and interpretation, these lessons can be lost.

The need for moral interpretation applies to stories of recent carnage. These stories can leave us feeling that the world is a dangerous and ugly place and that the bad guys are winning. This fear can cause even normal people to want to escalate violence as we feel the need to fight fire with fire.

Education about atrocity can help to calm our reactionary impulse. The reality is that mass shootings and terrorist attacks remain rare. More people are killed in car accidents than are murdered by strangers.

The most important lesson of random violence is the outrage of the majority and the courage of the survivors. The vast majority is appalled by violence. We understand that aggression is absurd, violence proves nothing, and the cure for hate is love.

We ought to turn off the TV, find ways to channel youthful aggression, and keep guns away from madmen. We also ought to teach our children that there are reasons for hope, even in the face of senseless atrocity.

Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State. Contact him: fiala.andrew@gmail.com.

  Comments