If you read what I put on my tumblr yesterday, then you're aware that I feel that unless you have something prodcutive to say about society in the wake of a tragedy, you should just shut up about it. Public outrage over a tragedy rarely leads to anything good, because we as a society are so hyperfocused on treating the symptoms rather the underlying causes of our society's (not insignificant) ills. And then we only treat the symptoms after people get tired of or are unable to place the blame on one of a set of standard scapegoats (like videogames).
We are a sick society, killing ourselves daily, and in more ways than one. So let's look at how the Sandy Hook shootings show our disease in how we respond to it, going to increasingly deeper levels until we see exactly what our problem is. Prepare yourselves for some Inception-style social diagnostics.
1. Media outrage, public outrage: everyone gets stupid
Obviously no one enjoys a tragedy, and no one likes hearing about them. But our 24/7 news cycle has to cover something. And so what does it do? It invades people's lives with the retelling of traumatic events over and over until no one can stand it anymore. Television producers harass victims for their stories, coercing them into reliving what is probably the most tragic event in their life, ever, for the whole nation to see. But what do we get out of it? People being stupid. Like when a guy on facebook who happens to share the same name as the Sandy Hook shooter's younger brother was blasted with hatemail and death threats (the media using his picture didn't help). When this outrage reaches a feverpitch, even stupider things happen. Case in point: the TSA, or in this case, people saying that the teachers should have been packing heat.
2. Find a scapegoat: videogames, gun control
When blaming the victim isn't an option—which would just be downright distasteful if they blamed those elementary school kids for getting shot, but I've seen some people blaming the school, the parents, and teachers in general—we need a scapegoat. The ususal one for violent gun crime are videogames, because apparently using a few pieces of plastic to simulate some pixels colliding with other pixels in a flattened 3D perspective means that you're already ready to go kill some real people. Another popular scapegoat is lax gun control, but there's a problem with that one: it's a political, not just a cultural, issue.
3. Politicization and the "national conversation" about guns
The legacy of the "right to bear arms" that appears as an amendment to the Constitution comes from the DIY frontiersman spirit of the American militia that repelled both the English and the Indians (which is problematic for a host of reasons). The law has been interpreted for the past few decades at least however to mean that everyone has the right to have a gun. This is an incredibly stupid idea, but because it's been politicized by groups like the NRA and apparently the entire GOP to the point where having guns equals having freedom/democracy/'Murica. The gun control lobby and many administrations 'fear' the NRA should they move for any blanket gun-control policy. That this political posturing is more serious than the prospect of everyone having a gun is baffling to be sure. All this talk though of a "national conversation" about gun control is utter nonsense. Conversation won't do anything here, and even if the lip service to reform for a better society actually had some positive change on society, it still doesn't touch the deeper issues that underlie the entire right-to-bear-arms argument.
4. Going deeper: mental illness as a political and economic problem
Kind of side-stepping the gun issue for a second, many people have pointed out that this and other tragedies are seemingly committed solely by people with mental illnesses. In some cases, this turns out to be the case (I'll talk about the deeper implications though in the next point). There was an editorial cartoon that had an obviously retarded man standing in front of a gun store and a psychiatrist. The gun store was open, on the ground floor, had flashing lights and signs, and looked very inviting (if seedy). To get to the doctor, though (who had a huge white beard, sat in a wingback chair, and was smoking a pipe, all looking very expensive), this man would have to climb a number of tall steps—taller than the man, even. The obtuse point was to show that it's much easier to buy a gun than to have access to a doctor. This too is a political issue however. Political and economic. Guns are easy and cheap to make, and are readily available. Doctors, especially for ones trained in dealing with mental illess (which, incidentally, is a topic that I'm not going to be able to cover here, but which I nonetheless feel pasionately about, having worked in the mental health field for 3 years), take years to train, can be sued for just about anything a lawyer decides qualifies for malpractice, and are few and far between: they are expensive. Stupidly, in this country, there is virtually no public assistance 1) for healthcare in general and 2) especially not for mental health issues. Even Obamacare, which is supposed to guarantee that everyone is insured, requires that people pay for their health insurance at whatever price their insurance company dictates. Most of the time, and for most people on the cheapest health plans, mental illness isn't even covered. It's an out-of-pocket medical expense. That this issue is politicized to the point that the mandate for universal paid insurance coverage almost died multiple times in the process is sickening. Even more so that one side is so adamant about the repeal of Obamacare that discussion of expanding public assistance options is completely off the table. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
5. Mental illness as a social problem
This is about the point where most everyone, excepting much of the mental health workforce, stops talking because this is the point where everyone starts to be implicated and where the cream of hypocrisy rises to the top. Mental illness is a social problem in two ways. One, it's been stigmatized to an outrageous extent: even accepting that mental illnesses are actually diseases is a problem for many. Asking for help with mental illness or admitting that you're in therapy is social death for many. People are written off as 'crazy' and everyone keeps their distance. It's despicable. Two, most of what we call mental illness has a social origin. Even chemical and hormonal imbalances have a social origin, like in our processed, GM'd food. But even moreso than that, people with chemical or hormonal imbalances learn how to cope with those problems via socialization. Parenting is part of it. Socioeconomics or class is part of it. Gender and racial norms and stereotypes are part of it. Religious and cultural beliefs are part of it. Seeing how people with mental illnesses are treated is part of it. The problem is, everyone is implicated in causing mental illness because no one knows how do deal with it or treat it (especially early on) and no one knows how to deal with it or treat it because everyone is scared of it and would so much rather ignore it and hope that none of their children pop out 'messed up.' By not getting educated on mental illness and by perpetuating the stigmas attached to it, you are only causing and worsening mental illnesses.
6. The root of the problem: our values are messed up
There's a quote by one of my most favorite authors of all time, Kurt Vonnegut, and it's probably his most famous one, too. It's from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, and it goes like this: "God damn it, you've got to be kind." This is what we've missed. This is what forms the basis for virtually every single moral system that's ever been invented, every religion, minus all the extra toppings that usually end up covering the basic message. We have become an unkind society. There are many reasons for this, and most are wrapped up in the archenemy of kindness: selfishness. We as a society are so wrapped up in our greed, in our covetousness, in our vanity, in our self-righteousness, in our need to always be right, in our competitiveness, in our even casual disregard for others that we have dealt a severe (fatal?) blow to ourselves. Because we are selfish and unkind to each other, we perpetuate hatred, violence, fear, and selfishness.
Selfishness has so thoroughly permeated our society, however, that we barely even notice it. Our politics is selfish and unkind: from gerrymandering to voter fraud to smear campaigns to Rush Limbaugh (and all those like him) to tax evasion to SuperPACs to filibusters to congressional standoffs to holding the party line, completely gone is the notion that our government and government officials are public servants. Their sole existence is to serve us, the people, yet all we see time after time, with saddeningly rare exception, are politicians out for their own well-being. They are not representative of the people; they only represent their own selfish desires for power and wealth.
We don't recognize selfishness in our culture. It baffles my mind that shows like Gossip Girl are so popular—or rather, it would, if I didn't recognize that we are a selfish people. We have entire television networks dedicated to celebrities, which is the glorification of selfishness and greed writ larger than large. We give a free pass to the greedy, selfish bankers and investors that consistently gamble other people's money and pension funds to fatten their own wallets, and when they lose those bets and sink the entire world into a major economic depression, we give them even more money. We blame the victims of rape, because they deserve it, or provoke it, or have ways of "shutting that whole thing down" rather than acknowledge that our society has a terrible, terrible problem of people feeling entitled enough (to power, sex, other bodies) that lies at the root of every rape.
So when we have these tragic accidents happen, like the Sandy Hook shooting, or the mall shooting in Seattle, or the Chiefs' player killing himself and his girlfriend, or the guy in the theater showing Batman, or any other violent tragedy—which only cover the tiniest fraction of all violent tragedies that happen every single day, in every single city of every single state—it's fine to be sad, hell, it's even fine to be mad, but please, please, do not perpetuate our society's disease. Either shut up about it, or do something about it.