The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

How People Crack or Succeed

After a recent school shooting, the shooter’s father deflected blame from his son, saying that he had been bullied, but was a good kid.

He was immediately jumped on by critics. Most of them  had an argument that ran as follows, “I was bullied all the time and never turned into a mass shooter.”

This argument is a corollary of the standard one for not caring about poor people, “I grew up poor/sick/whatever and I still got rich.”

Now obviously a kid who goes on a mass shooting isn’t a good kid, and obviously also, I hope, a father who loves his son, in the immediate aftermath of something like this, may be in denial and that denial should lead to more sympathy than mockery. If you can’t manage that, at least understand.

But the larger argument is important: the bullying may have been necessary but not sufficient. In other words, the kid, had he not been bullied a lot, might not have gone on a killing spree.

For other people the bullying was not enough.

People are different. What breaks one person doesn’t break another. One succeeds in circumstances another wouldn’t succeed in. A broken down loser like the Civil War’s General Grant (before the war) becomes the war’s greatest general and a two-term president. No war, he’d probably have stayed a loser.

No bullying and that kid might not have gone on a killing spree, even though bullying doesn’t make most people go on killing sprees. But chronic bullying is high stress, and it does break some people, and some of them will be violent.

There are always the extremes: the people on the edges, who are close to breaking or exploding anyway. Push them, poison them, and something goes wrong.

This should be obvious.

What should also be obvious is that explaining something isn’t excusing it. Of course being bullied doesn’t justify going on a killing spree.

But since it is a known factor in causing mass killing sprees maybe we should admit that, and try not to push the one in ten million kid (or adult) over the edge?

Life is luck. Your genetic endowment was luck. Your parents were luck. Your character is luck. It all comes from being born with a specific body in a specific place and time, and everything flows from that.

We want to run from this. We want to believe were are in full control, that we would never do something like “that”, whatever that is. That we would never obey Hitler’s orders (most of us would have, and if you don’t have a record of standing up even when you knew you would be hurt for doing so, you probably would have.)

The kid did something monstrous. The father, understandably, tried to hold onto his view of his kid as good. And while bullying is no excuse, it may be a reason.

And just because you’re rich and were once poor doesn’t mean everyone else should be able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

And yeah, although following a mob is a different thing, you almost certainly would have done what Hitler told you to; would have been chopping with a machete in Rwanda, and so on.

This doesn’t mean no one is good, of course. There are those who didn’t obey Hitler. A small minority. There are those who won’t shock a subject in the Millgram experiment, no matter  how hard the authority figure pushes (about 5% at the extreme end.) There are always good people.

But most people aren’t good, and they aren’t bad. They are weak, and they follow their personal mob, doing whatever other people they identify with do.

And some people are close to breaking, and one day something, usually some cruelty, pushes them over the edge.

And they become monsters.

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  1. Jay

    I get the impression that the main reason for the increase in school shootings isn’t the bullies. It’s the constant testing. Schools seem to have gotten much less endurable since I was young (and I hated them then).

  2. Herman

    I find the modern denial of the role of luck to be quite odd given that throughout most of history people understood the role that luck played in life. In the extreme this can lead to a paralyzing fatalism but now I think we have gone too far in the other direction to the point where we believe that we can control everything in our lives if only we make a strong enough effort.

    I am not sanguine about the future of progress in America precisely because so many people buy into the meritocracy myth. It took the Great Depression to get Americans to realize that they could be ruined by forces outside of their control. As long as the Great Depression generation was alive there was still a constituency for old school New Deal politics and common decency.

    Today Americans have no empathy. If another person falls on hard times they are quick to find some bad decisions the person made to rationalize why that person deserves to suffer. However when these same people fall on hard times they are quick to find scapegoats and absolve themselves of all wrongdoing. It is a very ugly aspect of our culture.

  3. IdahoSpud

    Conjecture time.

    Kids have always had access to firearms. When I was in school, a lot of kids would keep their guns in their vehicles so that during hunting season, they could get in some hunting after class. Some of these children were bullied, and yes, probably some were also broken.

    Nevertheless, these weekly/monthly school shootings simply did not occur back then. Didn’t happen.

    I am pretty certain that most, if not all, of the school shooters have been psychologically off-kilter and on anti-depressants. All of the major anti-depressants are now required to have black box warnings about suicidal ideation.

    Now consider that if a drug can make you numb enough to your own suffering that it can lead you to suicide, might it not make you also consider leading you to homicide? Especially toward those who have been making you suffer?

    Again, this epidemic of shootings doesn’t seem to have much correlation with access to guns, but it does seem to have a correlation to mind-altering prescription drugs. Of course if illegal drugs were causing this issue, people would be up in arms about this.

    Food for thought…

  4. J Bookly

    Long ago, both my mother and grandmother, and their friends, would often respond to an unhappy news story by saying, “There but for the grace of God. . .” Finally I asked Mom for an explanation and she said it meant “There but for the grace of God go I.” That wasn’t enough of an answer for six-year-old me, so she went on to say “I could have been the one who was crossing the street when the drunk driver came through, or I could have married somebody I thought was wonderful but he turned out to be a wife beater.” She gave more examples; some were decisions that didn’t turn out well and some were just plain bad luck. The common sense of the day was quite different, and a touch of humility was thought of as acceptable, even commendable. Sometimes I think we’re awash in illusions, and they are making us crankier.

  5. Steeleweed

    “… and they follow their personal mob, doing whatever other people they identify with do.”
    Maybe those discounting bullying as cause simply identify differently. And maybe some never really identify with any “mob”. In the end, you live your values (not necessarily your professed ones) and few people build their own, from their own experience and examination of life. Mostly values are handed down by authority – parents, teachers, religion, The Establishment, social milieu – and you’re at the mercy of rules and behaviors accepted without much thought.

  6. bruce wilder

    I remember reading an essay by holocaust survivor — I think it might have been Viktor Frankl — in which the author complained that few who read his accounts of life and death in the camps ever grasped one essential point: the best did not survive. The best people, good people, were usually destroyed by that horrific experience.

    People think survival is proof of virtue, that people survive and “overcome” bullying or poverty or other traumatic or stressful experience and are “better” for it, but we ought to at least consider the opposite may be the case: the damage is damage and diminishes the people who survive, selects for people who possess capacities to adapt to evil by being. (at least a bit) evil.

  7. Hugh

    Our powers that be want us to have lots of guns. The guns present no threat to them, but keep the rest of us in mortal fear of each other as we are ground down, atomized, alienated and our social ethos and cohesion are destroyed.

  8. someofparts

    All of the people who are getting rich at the expense of some other person’s community have children. Do we think that the children of horrible people will turn out well? If we tried to do something about the epidemic of bullying, it would have to begin with calling out their parents. Since those parents habitually dominate police, courts, and schools, there is no way to stop them.

    In a sense, the shootings in our schools are a predictable outgrowth of our adult culture these days. Some guy/gal gets rich by destroying a string of companies. Naturally they adopt a self-serving philosophy that justifies their crimes and they teach it to their children.The children of beat down former employees go to school and get bullied by the kids of those predators. What could be more natural?

    Not to worry. Eventually, the children of the precariat who survive at all will beome adults who are in prison or on powerful, debilitating sedatives and the children of the vicious wealthy will grow up to become even more inhumane than their parents.

  9. Spot on again, Ian – how do you do it and at the same time not see that socialism is a totalitarian failed ideology completely out of keeping with modern day values of personal freedom and responsibility?!

    We are what we inherit, both nature and nurture, and cannot be held responsible for either. Yet some are fine wines who mature with age and others just plonkers. Free Will I suggest is the ability to prefer our principles (if we have any) to our instincts, but even then our instincts are far sharper and our principles often arrive on the scene too late.

    There is clearly a greater gap between the top (civilized) end of the human spectrum and the bottom than there is between the bottom and the rest of the animal kingdom. There may even be some overlap! But humans can talk and can alter their attitudes. I suspect those humans most prone to evil are those who have not developed the ability to talk openly and honestly, building trust between two people, beyond teenage banter. You cannot stand up for yourself and for the truth if you are afraid of hostile reactions. The art of the game is to answer back to hostile reactions in a calm and dispassionate manner than try to avoid them. We must teach it in schools.

    Also to be prepared to die for what we believe in. Churchill told his new war cabinet that they must be prepared to spill their guts upon the streets of London rather than accept defeat at the hands of Hitler, and the Taliban and ISIL also know they are stronger because they are not afraid of death. We may mock their belief in paradise, but it works!

  10. ponderer

    I wonder sometimes if the anger expressed at these kids that lashed back at their oppressors is more from jealousy than anything else. I remember in high school a kid that was being bullied pulled a small pocket knife on his tormentors in the gym and said something like “I’ll kill you, I’ll kill you all”. They all laughed because it was such a small knife and he was just a little kid. He probably expected the same treatment every day for the rest of his time in high school. After that he might have thought his life would get better, but he might just have ended up getting bullied at work and home for his entire life. The only time society cares about the small number of people who chose mass murder over suicide is when episodes like this happen. And it seems to be indignant rage that the system was not followed tinged with some small fear that karma might have something in store for them. I’m sure drugs play a role, even Tylenol has been seen to reduce the empathy of teenagers.
    I don’t have the moral high ground. I didn’t do anything to help that kid. I wouldn’t have complained if he cut someone though.

  11. SteveInNC

    While bullying is a common ingredient, and guns are necessary ingredients in school shootings, the point has been made that both of these things have been around for some time, but only now do we have what seems like weekly massacres. Even in past times of extreme economic or other social stress there wasn’t anything on this scale. Were there any incidents of mass youth violence during the Depression?
    What’s different this time is the zeitgeist, not merely of stress or hardship, but of impending doom (political, economic, and particularly environmental), and the awareness that our society’s official response to that impending doom is either to pretend that it’s not happening, or to try and make a quick buck from it.
    The teenage years are a time when some kids come to the realization that adults, particularly authority figures, are imperfect. Even a subconscious understanding of just how imperfect they are and where they are leading us might be enough to give a vulnerable (having many other risk factors) teen the last push over the precipice into violence.

    This will of course never be discussed in the MSM, which is happily monetizing the Eschaton.

  12. Willy

    There was a blogger once, whose theme was that mass shooters are consciously or unconsciously trying to punish the bystanders who witnessed their (the shooters) bullying yet did nothing.

    Personal responsibility can mean that one is fully responsibly for defending oneself. But it can also mean that one bears some responsibility in defending innocent others. I guess it depends on what is commonly considered moral.

  13. Webstir

    Strip away the veneer of culture, education, and rule of law and do ethics and morality even have any meaning any more? We’ve been engaged in a market driven cultural race to the bottom for some time now. It’s unsurprising then that the average human’s conduct reflects that fact.

  14. Diana J

    The responses of most to these things is often interesting, this one particularly so given that the author does not seem to project the typical close mindedness of many typical responses.

    Is this individual, who broke under the weight of injustice really a monster? I have a feeling our culture would not produce such a flippant response were it a woman acting against her unpunished rapists and their fact, you’d have many cheering for her, something that those same people would find horrific if the cheers were for this shooter.

    Barack Obama is a monster. George Bush is a monster. Donald Trump is a monster. Dick Cheney is a monster. James Clapper is a monster. This kids broken and abused by a system and others who are broken in their own ways. It’s quite disgusting to see an essentially powerless victim condemned.

    If this kid was being hurt, harmed and no one would do anything (or so it seemed to them) how can you condemn their act? How does one sit and pass judgement on someone experiencing such pain, hopelessness?

    The powerless murdering the powerless will not cease until we remove the actual monsters from power. Given what is at stake, the consequences we will face if we do not act, those monsters must be destroyed, by any means necessary.

  15. steeleweed

    @SteveInNC: “What’s different this time is the zeitgeist”.
    Spot on! People think of an empire as though it was a quick collapse, the equivalent of fatal stroke or heart attack. In fact, it’s more like the aged person who slowly declines – cane, walker, wheelchair, bed – independent, assisted living, nursing home – getting more feeble and disoriented month by month until death is almost an afterthought. The American Empire is collapsing and it will be long drawn out and messy. The political mess we see is only one aspect and most people don’t ‘live in politics’. They live in economics – which are declining – and social culture – which is fragmenting. Political norms have crashed; economies have crashed; society is crashing.

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