A Sociologist Looks at Violence | The Socjournal

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Does it seem like the world is going to hell in a hand basket? Hard to conclude otherwise when children are massacred as in recent fashion. If you want to understand why however, maybe it is time to put aside “stock” answers and look past clichés about God, madness, and guns. If you are interested in a deeper look at the world we live in, sociologists can help.

Dr. Michael Sosteric

Department of Sociology Athabasca University

It’s a cliche but when the tragedies hit, the questions start coming. This is certainly the case with the horrible massacre in Connecticut. The horror of the events put us at edge of global madness and the immediate question is “why.”  As I argue in my Sociology of Religion class, humans naturally search for meaning and so when an event like this occurs we want to know the meaning. In fact, when an event like this occurs, we’re desperate for it. We look around in abject horror and shock and we ask the people who are supposed to know (i.e. psychologists, priests, and the media)  “what’s the meaning and why” and we stand around expectantly waiting to know. Ask these people though and not only will the answer you get depend on who you ask, but the answer they give will never be very satisfying.

For example, ask a priest “what’s the meaning and why” and the answer will be something to the effect that “only God knows the meaning why.” The priests job is, by definition, to search for meaning and they’ll grasp desperately to provide it, but the answers they provide are ultimately unsatisfying (even if we to pretend otherwise) because it is ultimately an admission of ignorance. “Only God knows” is exactly the same as “I don’t know.”  If you are religious you are supposed to accept this answer,  but accepting it provides no real relief. It is a pernicious statement because it passes the buck and doesn’t really leave you in anything more than a passive and vulnerable position.

Of course you fair only marginally better when you ask a psychologist. Psychologists, psychiatrists, and their students tend to internalize causation. That is, the problem is a problem with something inside you. In the case of Connecticut the problem will no doubt have something to with mental illness, or madness, or temporary insanity. It isn’t an issue with parenting, or the school system, or society, or the gun culture, or our dependency on harsh pharmaceuticals known to create depression and violent, or a violent society fueled by a violent Hollywood media machine, it is a problem with the individual. In this case the explanation is mental illness and the meaning is individually derived.

And what about the media? Again, in my opinion, not so good. The main stream media is corporate controlled and corporate funded after all and they aren’t going to say anything bad about any corporate acts that might have been involved.  More than that, the media depends on attracting the attention of the masses and in order to not jeopardize their control of mass attention, they’ll stay firmly within the bounds of mass opinion, even if that opinion is stone-cold wrong. If the masses rally against guns, then guns will be the problem. But wait a minute, lots of people like the NRA watch the news as well so let’s not take a stand  that’s too strong, let us just say that “opinions differ” and leave it like that. Hear it long enough and you eventually realize the mass media doesn’t report news, it reinforces the status quo and reflects social convention. Take meaning from the media if you want, but be a smart sociologists about it and consider the possible limitations of the source.

So, leaving behind unsatisfying explanations, let us look at how a sociologist might look at the events? And that would be with as much care and statistical sophistication as possible. As I say in my Sociology 287 class (Introduction to Sociology), Sociologists are complex thinkers and complex events like the Connecticut massacre rarely come down to single causes.  Guns are certainly a factor, as is mental disturbance (who but a mad man could do something like that), but these can only be part of the cause and probably not the most proximate cause at that. So a sociologist would ask deeper questions, and go further down the rabbit whole. A link has been suggested between anti-depressant pharmaceuticals, depression and violence for example and so we might start by wondering, were there bad drugs involved.  Maybe there were social reasons, like exclusion, or ridicule. But even if so there is still way more to it then even that. Let us not forget, for example, how violent our Western culture really is.Deny it all you want but in our country we solve things violently. Many of us may be above physical violence, but not so many above emotional and verbal. When we don’t get no satisfaction, the gloves come off and the [physical, emotional, psychological] beatings begin. Physical beatings, straps, name calling, shaming, incarceration, and a host of other violent acts dot our daily existence. When our children don’t do what we say, we hit them. When a student doesn’t repeat the world in our image, we shame them. When a country does something we don’t like, we use our military to get what we want.

Violence is everywhere around us.

And don’t even get me started on our “entertainment” industry. They will tell you they are responding to market demand but  is the market really demanding ultra violent video games, torture porn, and “good guy murders bad guy” action thrillers? There isn’t even any artistic integrity involved anymore. When violence wins the day, story loses sway. A great example is the recent Expendables sequel, or anything by Tom Cruise these days. In these movies, if you can call them that, we see nothing but special effects enhanced violence.


And this overview of our social violence is just the tip of the iceberg. I haven’t even mentioned sports (in particular Hockey),  our nation wide obsession with business competition (which is really just a form of economic violence), our military culture, or our religious doctrines which  make us think that’s it OK to beat the bad guy down “if” the bad guy can be defined as “evil.” Remember the Spanish Inquisition, or the crusades, or all the other wars fought in the name of holiness? Or what about religion’s involvement in class oppression? (“divine right of kings, noblesse oblige, or the worldly estates).

And don’t forget religions support of child abuse (“spare the rod”).

Do you want meaning?

Do you want to know the reason why?

The violence in our societies, and the justification for that violence, goes on and on and so is it any wonder at all that when you put a billion guns into the mix people, even young children, aren’t going to get killed?  It is a wonder we don’t have massacres every day, but then again, maybe that’s where we are headed. Ask anybody from the mainstream media and they will tell you, the year 2012 was a banner year for mass violence and massacre. If you want my professional opinion, things are going to continue to get worse until enough people are dissatisfied with the stock answers that they’ll finally make the effort to wake up and see the truth. Let’s hope, for the sake of children and families the world over, that day is sooner rather than later.

So what’s a Sociology professor, professional, or student to do? Well, we can do what others do and march, hold vigil, and protest; but we can also bring to bear on the situation our deep critical sensibility, bestowed upon us by the nature of our sociological training. Anybody who has spent any time in a Sociology classroom will know the depth and breadth of the analysis can be, at times, breathtaking (even if often not expressed very well). So take a page out of the notebook of a Sociologist and put the pieces together so you can understand the bigger picture. It’s not drugs, or parenting, or gun. Those are intervening variables only. The real problem is our international obsession with violence. It is our international obsession and acceptance of violence in all its forms that has ruined the Christmas of so many families in Connecticut. As a parent my heart goes out to them, but as a Sociologist I have to ask, isn’t it time to wake up and say no to violence in all its forms? Isn’t that the only way to end our increasingly obvious descent into global chaos, violence, and darkness?