This morning Rod Dreher put out a very long blog, quoting extensively from other writers: America’s Nervous Breakdown. The entire blog is very worthwhile, but I want to provide a substantial excerpt from the lead article that Dreher cites and quotes from: The Deadly Boredom of ‘A Meaningless Life’, by Terry Newman, who is "an MA student in the Sociology Department at Concordia University in Montreal." And a reminder--the name of this blog is "meaning in history." The author thinks she's doing sociology, and to an extent she is, but at the root of all this is philosophy--ideas have consequences, and our way of life is based on ideas:
These recent shooters fit a similar profile. They were outsiders, ... But there is another factor at play here, too. Before a youth makes the decision to murder, before the gun is stashed in his backpack, before his state of mental health is so deteriorated that he commits the unthinkable, what has happened to him? It’s important to remember that these murders are also, in most cases, suicides.
In his 2008 article School Shooting as a Culturally Enforced Way of Expressing Suicidal Hostile Intentions, psychiatrist Antonio Preti summarized existing research on school shootings to the effect that “suicidal intent was found in most cases for which there was detailed information on the assailants.” The research also indicated that “among students, homicide perpetrators were more than twice as likely as their victims to have been bullied by their peers, and also were described as loners and poorly integrated into school activities… In most of the ascertained cases, perpetrators prepared a well-organized plan, and often communicated details about it to acquaintances or friends, who failed to report threats because they did not consider them serious or were embarrassed or ignorant of where to go for help. The most antisocial peers sometimes approved the plan, sharing the same anger against the stated target of violence.”
Preti’s article predated the rise of some of the most notorious web sites—including 8chan, which was shut down this week after several mass shootings were linked to its users. But the nihilistic phenomenon these killers represent predates modern social-media culture. Indeed, it predates digital communication, and even broadcast media more generally.
In 1897, French sociologist Émile Durkheim noted that suicides overall were increasing in society. But there were differences among the affected populations, he noticed. Men were more likely than women to commit suicide—though the chances decreased if the man was married and had children. Durkheim observed that social groups that were more religious exhibited lower suicide rates. (Catholics were less likely to commit suicide than Protestants, for instance.) Durkheim also noted that many people who killed themselves were young, and that the prevalence of such suicides was linked to their level of social integration: When a person felt little sense of connection or belonging, he could be led to question the value of his existence and end his life.
Durkheim labelled this form of suicide as “anomic” (others being “egoistic,” “altruistic” and “fatalistic”). Durkheim believed that these feelings of anomie assert themselves with special force at moments when society is undergoing social, political or economic upheaval—especially if such upheavals result in immediate and severe changes to everyday life.
Durkheim came from a long line of devout Jews. His father, grandfather and great grandfather had all been rabbis. And so even though he chose to pursue an academic career, his experiences taught him to respect the mental and psychological support that religious communities supplied to their members, as well as the role that ritual plays in the regulation of social behavior. In the absence of such regulation, he believed, individuals and even whole societies were at risk of falling into a state of anomie, whereby common values and meanings fall by the wayside. The resulting void doesn’t provide people with a sense of freedom, but rather rootlessness and despair.
Durkheim’s thesis has largely stood the test of time, though other scholars have reformulated it for modern audiences. In his 1955 book The Sane Society, for instance, Erich Fromm wrote that, “in the nineteenth century, the problem was that God is dead. In the twentieth century, the problem is that man is dead.” He described the twentieth century as a period of “schizoid-self alienation,” and worried that men would destroy “their world and themselves because they cannot stand any longer the boredom of a meaningless life.”
In her 2004 book Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings, Katherine Newman described findings gleaned from over 100 interviews in Arkansas and Kentucky. The male adolescent shooters at the center of her study, she concluded, “shared a belief that demonstrating strength by planned attacks on their respective institutions with (too) easily available guns would somehow mitigate their unbearable feelings of inadequacy as males and bring longed-for respect from peers.” Ten years later, in a 2014 article titled The Socioemotional Foundations of Suicide: A Microsociological View of Durkheim’s Suicide, sociologists Seth Abrutyn and Anna Mueller set out to update Durkheim’s theory about how social integration and moral regulation affect suicidality. “The greater degree to which individuals feel they have failed to meet expectations and others fail to ‘reintegrate’ them, the greater the feelings of shame and, therefore, anomie,” they concluded. “The risk of suicidal thoughts, attempts, and completions, in addition to violent aggression toward specific or random others, is a positive function of the intensity, persistence, and pervasiveness of identity, role, or status-based shame and anomie.”
Writing in the 1890s, Durkheim was highly conscious of all the ways that industrial capitalism corroded traditional forms of social regulation in society, often at the expense of religious—and even governmental—authorities. ... But if he were to visit us in 2019, Durkheim would be surprised at the extent to which once-dominant ideas with no connection to economics have been marginalized as regressive and hateful—such as nationalism, patriotism and even masculinity.
This is one reason why so many people now feel unmoored. As Canadian science fiction writer Donald Kingsbury eloquently put it in his novel Courtship Rite, “Tradition is a set of solutions for which we have forgotten the problems. Throw away the solution and you get the problem back.” ...