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We Don't Need Psychobabble to Understand the Shootings in Colorado


Official and media responses to school shootings illustrate the continuing slide from personal responsibility to collective responsibility for individual actions.


Ed Hooven

 Author Notes

Ed Hooven has a Ph.D. in Sociology and has taught at Ontario universities for the past 25 years. He is politically active in the Ontario PC Party, was a candidate in the 1997 Toronto Municipal election, and was the Research Director for the 1998 New Hampshire Republican gubernatorial candidate.

 Essay - 4/29/1999

In the wake of the horrific killings at Columbine High School, the TV talking heads are casting about for explanations that will make sense out of the tragedy. The proffered ideas include everything from the shooter's family circumstances to TV violence and video games.

While these factors have some common sense value, I believe that they are merely reflections of a deeper reality: the direction our society has been taking since the 1960s. During that decade we abandoned one view of society, its purpose and its place in our lives and adopted another. In the process, radically restructuring everything from our attitudes and values to our institutions.

From Plato through St. Augustine to Burke and the later Freud, the earlier view of human society was articulated: the purpose of society, is to provide a cultural and institutional framework that will restrain man's instinctual narcissism and aggressiveness by teaching impulse control, imparting the ability to defer gratification, creating empathy for others, developing a conscience, and the like. Implicit in this perspective is a recognition of man's darker side and the necessity to control it. From this viewpoint, for example, the traditional human rituals associated with sex, eating, and social interaction are meant to demonstrate that humans are on a higher plane than animals; that our urges and our appetites are under control and we are their masters - not the reverse. The end result: the vast proportion of citizens possess the kind of internal controls that ensure that a "Lord of the Flies" social order is avoided.

The contrary view, the one we adopted in the 1960s, is to be found in the works of writers such as Rousseau and Nietzsche right down to contemporary authors Norman Mailer and Ken Kesey. In this view, society and its rules and regulations are seen as inherently repressive to man; each person should be free to choose their own rules and values; and that man does not possess a dark side. Indeed, man's "nature" is seen as a mere reflection of his life circumstances - change those conditions, this school of thought believes, and behaviour will change. "Liberation" from the dead hand of the past became the rallying cry. Freedom from all our society's traditional practices was seen as the ultimate goal.

Unfortunately, the more perfect, liberated society dreamt of by those who enthusiastically embraced this 60s zeitgeist turned out to be just what the proponents of the alternative perspective had predicted: an increasingly violent society lacking any orienting values. If Woodstock seemed to embody the hopes of the liberationists, the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont, where tens of thousands of young people high on drugs led to violence and murder, became emblematic of the fears of conservatives.

In terms of individual responsibility, the 60s message is clear: guilt is not a personal but, rather, is a collective phenomenon. Our laws now both reduce punishment based on criminals' life circumstances (thus downplaying the importance of individual responsibility) and stress the "reparations" due various historically disadvantaged groups (such as affirmative action - making one group responsible for the actions of the long dead).

The value of human life was radically reduced in the 1960s. Families split apart as "no fault" divorces reinforced the 60s message of personal happiness as the measure of all things. Abortion became a matter of convenience. The aborting of foetuses has moved from the first trimester to the hours before natural birth would occur. Princeton has recently hired a prominent "ethicist" who argues that parents should be able to legally kill their babies until they are up to 28 days old (perhaps a late-late term abortion).

Advocates are pressing to legalize euthanasia. In jurisdictions where it has been in place for some time, increasing numbers of such "legal" deaths are found to have circumvented the so-called safeguards built into the laws. The disabled are worried about this trend towards killing inconvenient human beings; recent court cases also justify their concern.

When a teenager throws her baby into the garbage can at her prom, how do we respond when she asks: "But I only waited a day beyond the legal limit, what's the big deal?" How many fine logical distinctions will we need to explain that one?

Since everyone was supposed to create their own values, and that therefore being "judgmental" is unsophisticated, it would appear that the students create the moral climate in today's high schools. Even a fascination with Hitler or repeated credible threats are passed off as somehow acceptable.

Reinforcing the moral relativism already rampant in their school, Columbine High even taught its students "Death Education." One of the wackiest and most dangerous of recent educational fads, students reportedly "talked about what we wanted to look like in our casket." And, "The things that we learned in class taught us to be brave in the face of death." Fortunately, this particular student said she wasn't "brave" enough to kill herself. In some schools students taking Death Ed are required to go to morgues to view corpses.

At least three children appear to have been targeted for their religious faith. One was asked, "Do you believe in God?" "Yes" was the reply. Within seconds she had been shot 8 times. Yet if a teacher had approached these troubled kids with God's message he would have found himself in court.

Go figure.

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