Conversations about mass violence must change

Americans woke up to news of another mass shooting this morning, this time claiming the lives of at least 50 people and injuring dozens more in Orlando. This is a tremendous tragedy, to say the least. But the conversations we will be having over the next days, weeks, and months are predictable and will be just as predictably unproductive.

We’ll argue about things like gun control, ineffective diagnosis and treatment of mental illness, religious extremism, terrorism, and homophobia. These absolutely are real — and important — issues for our country today, and perhaps one or more are significant in this case. But applying any one as a blanket explanation for a mass shooting gets us no closer to understanding or reducing such violence. The time has come for new conversations.

The first conversation we must have regards patterns — and there are very clear patterns in these violent incidents. Most perpetrators of mass murder in the U.S. are men, natural-born citizens, with little to no history of mental illness or prior offenses. They enact their violence in locations that are mundane, confined, and relatively easy to control. They almost always target groups that lack social power, including women, children, the LGBTQ community, and racial, ethnic, or religious minority groups. They feel that rewards or privileges they are due have been denied, and they often attribute that perceived injustice to the rising status of the targeted minority group.

Patterned behavior like this suggests the presence of influences outside the individual. In subsequent news accounts, I’m sure we will learn every detail of the killer’s life, family, educational and occupational backgrounds, religious and political views, and possible motivation. That could be helpful in understanding why this one incident occurred, but unfortunately it brings us no closer to understanding these violent incidents in general or learning how to prevent them. We must take into account the larger social and cultural contexts of these tragedies.

Inconsistent cultural messages related to violence create dangerous ambiguity. For example, although killing someone is generally accepted as wrong, we have a tremendous number of meanings for the killing act that range from heinous to honorable. We make exceptions for times of war, capital punishment, and instances of self-defense, and we consider mitigating factors like intention, mental capacity, and life histories.

Yet, other cultural messages are remarkably consistent, such as American values of individualism, recognition, and winning at any cost.

Thus, killing is sometimes justified, but accomplishing a goal and achieving mass recognition are always justifiable. In this context, only the worst of the worst offenders — those with the highest body counts, the most vicious and shocking methods, or the most daring schemes to avoid capture — achieve infamy.

This is a very dangerous message, and one that is only bolstered by the news media repeating superlatives like “worst mass shooting in U.S. history.” It’s the kind of message that landed the Boston Marathon bomber on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.

Further, massive social inequalities that exist in the U.S. have created pools of potential victims. It’s no coincidence that most perpetrators of these acts are members of privileged groups and most victims are not.

The U.S. problem with mass violence is multifaceted but not all that complicated. Solving it, however, will require us to have conversations that are uncomfortable and acknowledge social realities that we’d rather ignore. These tragedies will continue until we do.

— Julie B. Wiest, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at West Chester University of Pennsylvania whose 2011 book, “Creating Cultural Monsters: Serial Murder in America,” explores the sociocultural context of serial murder and extreme violence in the U.S.

jwiest@wcupa.edu | @jbwiest on Twitter | juliebwiest.com