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Sunday, April 29, 2007

Thinking Through Why Massacres Happen
Lenin's Tomb has a lengthy review of Mark Ames's Going Postal prompted by the Virginia Tech shootings. What he writes doesn't actually seem to have much to do with what happened in Virginia, based on what we've heard about it so far—but it does begin to explain why events like Columbine and workplace shootings happen.
As has been repeatedly pointed out, no successful profile of a typical school shooter has yet been devised. Good students, bad students, wealthy ones, poor ones, ones from stable familes, others from broken homes... there's no archetype. This is because, as Ames puts it, "It isn't the office or schoolyard shooters who need to be profiled - they can't be. It is the workplaces and schools that need to be profiled". Now, this bit is rather crucial. I quote verbatim from his list of characteristics to watch for:
complaints about bullying go unpunished by an administration that supports the cruel social structure;

antiseptic corridors and overhead fluourescent lights reminiscent of a mid-sized airports;

rampant moral hypocrisy that promotes the most two-faced, mean, and shallow students to the top of the pecking order; and

maximally stressed parents push their kids to achieve higher and higher scores.
The second point, to avoid misunderstanding, is serious. The dispiriting, uglified surroundings provide an important experiential backdrop for the bullying and hypocrisy and stress. But of course, the main points here are the competitive social structure and the parents' eagerness to ensure children succeed within it. The school is a training ground for the workplace, inculcating the kind of discipline and habits that one will be constant throughout one's life. Most waking hours, at least five days a week, will be spent in competition with one's peers, and the assholes will always rise to the top if they weren't there to begin with. Bullying will be overlooked or tacitly condoned by people who sympathise with the bullies and find it difficult to manage their subordinates without them. They call it 'hazing', apparently, and its often meted out in a formal fashion along socioeconomic lines, sometimes by sororities and fraternities. It's defended as a bit of fun, or as a means to inculcate respect: on the contrary, it is often quite serious and generates fear and mistrust. Aside from the formal 'hazing', there are asshole teachers who will emotionally humiliate students in the name of discipline, and the usual ritual drudgery and idiocy that goes on the minutiae. Many of the most miserable, demeaning things that can happen at work can happen at school, and anyone who remembers their school years knows that it seems to matter a great deal more at that age, and it seems to last forever, even if its only a few years.

That this is an experience with at least some widespread purchase is evident in the subterranean sympathy for the mass murderers. The support of some young people wasn't restricted to Klebold and Karris. When Andy Williams, a lower middle class student attending an upper class college in the fading Republican town of Santee, decided to wipe out many of his classmates, within weeks there were attempted and actual 'copycat' massacres. So far from the Pump Up the Volume fantasy, these kids don't solve all their problems by learning to express themselves through pirate radio stations, and sincerely talking through all of their problems. They implode or explode. The implication of the phrase 'copycat' is that people really want to be like the hick serial killers and destroy their own lives in the process, so that someone who doesn't matter will say they were cool. That's a cheap and lazy excuse for analysis. But, precisely as the slave revolts in the workplace often involve explicit or implicit reference to previous revolts, the example of others provides an interpretive framework, and a 'way forward'.

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