If your Facebook wall is like mine, you have seen no shortage of memes trying to convince you that a simple explanation for school shootings exists. One claims that their increase coincides with the decline of proper “discipline” (read: corporeal punishment) of children thirty years ago. Yet all sorts of things have changed over the last several decades, especially since 2011 when the frequency of mass shootings tripled. In any case, Europeans are equally unlikely to strike their children but see no uptick in the likelihood of acts of mass violence—the 2011 attack in Norway notwithstanding. Moreover, assault weapons like the AR-15 have been available for fifty years and a federal assault weapon ban (i.e., “The Brady Bill”) expired back in 2004, long before today’s upswing in shootings. Under the slightest bit of scrutiny, any single-cause explanation begins to unravel.
Journalists and other observers often note that the perpetrators of these events were “loners” or socially isolated but do little to no further investigation when it comes time to recommend solutions. It is as if we have begun to accept the existence of such isolated and troubled individuals as if it were natural, as if little could be done to prevent it, as if eliminating civilian weapons or de-secularizing society were less wicked of problems. If there is any mindset my book, Technically Together, tries to eliminate, it is the belief that the social lives offered to us by contemporary networked societies are unalterable—the idea that we have arrived at the best of all possible social worlds. Indeed, it is difficult to square sociologist Keith Hampton’s claim that “because of cellphones and social media, those we depend on are more accessible today than at any point since we lived in small, village-like settlements” with massive increases in the rates of medication use for depression and anxiety, not just the frequency of mass shootings. At the very least, digital technologies—for all their wonders—do less than is needed to remedy feelings of isolation.
Such changes, I contend, suggest that something is very wrong with contemporary practices of togetherness. No doubt most of us get by well enough with some mixture of social networks, virtual communities, and perhaps a handful of neighborly and workplace-based connections (if we’re lucky). That said, most goods, social or otherwise, are unequally distributed. Even if sociologists disagree about whether social ties have changed on average, the distribution of connection has and so have the qualitative dimensions of friendship. For every social butterfly who uses online networks to maintain levels of acquaintanceship that would have been impossible in the days of rolodexes and phone conversations, there are those for whom increasing digital mediation has meant a decline in companionship in both numeracy and intimacy. As nice as “lurking” on Facebook or a pleasant comment from a semi-anonymous Reddit compatriot can be, they cannot match a hug. Indeed, self-reported loneliness and expressed difficulties in sustaining close friendships persist among the older generations and young men despite no lack of digital mechanisms for connecting with others.
Some sociologists downplay this, as if highlighting the downsides to social networks invariably leads to simplistically blaming them for people’s problems. No doubt Internet-critics like Sherry Turkle overlook many of the complexities of digital-age sociality, but only those socially advantaged by contemporary network technologies benefit from viewing them through rose-colored glasses. Certainly an explanation for mass shootings cannot be reduced to the prevalence of digital technologies, just as it cannot be blamed simply on the ostensible disappearance of God from schools, declines in juvenile corporeal punishment, the mere presence of assault weapons, or any of the other purported causes that proliferate in the media. What Internet technologies do provide, however, is a window into society—insofar as they can exacerbate or make more visible social changes set in motion decades earlier.
To try to blame the Internet for social isolation would fail to recognize that it was suburbia that first physically isolated people. It makes the warm intimacy of bodily co-presence hard work; hanging out requires gas money as well as the time and energy to drive to somewhere.
Skeptical readers would probably point out that events like mass shootings became prevalent and accelerated well after the suburb-building boom of the mid-20th century. That objection is easy to counter: social lag. The first suburban dwellers brought with them communal practices learned in small towns or tight-knit urban neighborhoods, and their children maintained some of them. 30 Rock’s Jack Donaghy lamented that 1st generation immigrants work their fingers to the bone, the 2nd goes to college, and the 3rd snowboards and takes improv classes. A similar generational slide could be said about community in suburbia: The 1st generation bowls together; the 2nd organizes neighborhood watch; the 3rd waits with their kids in the car until the school bus arrives.
Even while considering all that the physical makeup of our cities does to stifle community life, it would be a mistake not to recognize that there is something unique about many of our Internet activities that make them far more conducive to feelings of loneliness than other media—even if they do connect us with friends.
Consider how one woman in the BBC documentary, The Age of Loneliness, laments that social media makes her feel even lonelier, because she cannot help but compare her own life to the “highlights reels” posted by acquaintances. Others use the Internet to avoid the painful awkwardness and risk of in-person interactions, getting stuck in a downward spiral of solitude. These features combine with a third to help give birth to mass shooters: The “long tail” of the Internet provides websites that concentrate and amplify pathological tendencies. Forums that encourage and help people with eating disorders continue damaging behaviors are as common as racist, violence-promoting websites, many of which had been frequented by recent mass shooters.
While it is the suburbs that physically isolate people and make physical friendships practically difficult, online social networks too easily exacerbate and highlight that isolation. My point, however, is not to call for dismantling the Internet—though I think it could use a massive redesign. Such a call would be as simple-minded as believing that just eliminating AR-15s or making kids read the Bible in school would prevent acts of mass violence. Appeals to improving mental health services or calls to arm teachers or place military veterans at schools are equally misguided. These are all band-aid solutions that fail to ask about the underlying causes. What we need most is not more guns, God, scrutinization of the mentally ill, or even necessarily gun bans, but a sober evaluation of our social world: Why does it not provide adequate levels of loving togetherness and belonging to nearly everyone? How could it?
To some this might sound like a call to coddle potential murderers. Yet, given that people’s genetics do not fully explain their personalities, societies have to reckon with the fact that mass shooters are not born ready-made monsters but become that way. It is difficult not to see parallels between many young men today and the “lost generation” that was so liable to fall prey to fascism in the early 20th century. The growth of, mainly white, young, and male, mass shooters cannot be totally unrelated to the increase in, mainly white, young, and male, acolytes of prophets like Jordan Peterson, who extol the virtues of traditional notions of male power. Absent work toward ameliorating the “crisis of connection” that many face men currently face, we should be unsurprised if some of them continue to try to replace a lost sense of belonging with violent power fantasies.
Andrew Potter’s recent Maclean’s article claiming that Quebec is suffering from a pathological degree of social malaise has certainly raised eyebrows. Indeed, he has recently resigned from one of his posts at McGill University in response to public outcry—and no doubt the Quebec University’s administrations view of the matter. I won’t delve into the question regarding perceived damage to academic freedom that this resignation may or may not represent; rather, I take issue with the way in which Potter charts Quebec’s purported social decline—seeing it as reflective of a widespread failure to grasp the diverse character of social community.
On the one hand, some of the statistics Potter cites to support his case are alarming, especially those regarding the relatively small size of social networks and volunteering rates in Quebec. On the other hand, Quebec is noteworthy in terms of having one of the highest rates of happiness/social well-being in Canada. At a minimum, this apparent discrepancy is something that needs explained. One would, of course, scarcely imagine that a province suffering from widespread social malaise would be simultaneously happy.
Potter, moreover, draws heavily on Robert Putnam’s concept of social capital, which posits that certain social and political activities help build the civic foundation for well-functioning democratic societies. Being familiar with Putnam's work—it has inspired my own research into the character of contemporary community life--I think that Andrew Potter has taken some liberties with it. Sure volunteering may be low, but Quebecers are known for being politically active, which is another contributor to and reflection of social capital. At the same time, Potter seems to conflate social capital with level of conformance to a non-Quebecer's idea of law and order. He argues that the colorful pants worn by police as a sign of corrosion of “social cohesion and trust in institutions.” While I am not an expert on Quebecois culture, it is hard not to see this as reflecting an English-Canadians cultural bias. Indeed, the impulse to denigrate protest and collective bargaining disproportionately afflicts Anglophones. For those less afflicted, the camo pants might evoke a feeling of solidarity. Left-wing Americans, for the sake of comparison, rarely decry the blocking of streets and highways during protests as the demise of social cohesion.
That is not the only place where Potter could have been more sensitive to how cultural differences make social issues much more complex than one might initially think. He cites, for instance, the fact that far fewer Quebecers express the belief that “most people can be trusted.” As a social scientist Potter should be able to readily acknowledge that cultural differences can have a big impact on survey data. It is often claimed—on the basis of survey research--that Asian countries are much less happy than those in the West. However, once one recognizes the fact that readily labeling oneself as happy conflicts with Asian expectations for modesty, such interpretations of the survey data soon seem dubious. Given that Quebec’s rates of happiness and high marks in other dimensions of social capital, one wonders if individually low levels of trust simply reflects a cultural hesitancy to seem too trusting or gullible.
Some of the confusion in Potter’s piece may be the result of not explicitly acknowledging different scales of analysis. Quebec is unique compared to other provinces in terms of its social policy (i.e., L'economie sociale): heavily subsidized daycare, generous support of cooperatives, high labor participation, etc. In many ways its citizens are more communitarian than people elsewhere, but more at the level of the province than locality or nation, more via official politics than through non-governmental volunteering. Maybe they don't quite have the ideal mixture by some accounts, but it seems hyperbolic to argue that the whole society is in a state of alienated malaise.
In any case, both the controversy over Potter’s article and its analytical limitations are suggestive of the need for far better understandings of what community is. The term often evokes a fuzzy, warm feeling in some people, and worries about suppression of individuality in others. At the same time, few people seem aware of what exactly what they mean by the word: using it to describe racial groups (e.g., the black community), and online forum, and physical places—even though none of these things seem to be communal in even slightly the same way. Community is a multi-scalar, multi-dimensional, and highly diversified phenomenon. The sooner people recognize that, the sooner we can start to have more productive public conversation about what might be missing in contemporary forms of togetherness and how we might collectively realize more fulfilling alternatives.
Adam Nossiter has recently published a fascinating look at the decline of small to medium French cities in the New York Times. I recommend not only reading the article but also perusing the comments section, for the latter gives some insight into the larger psycho-cultural barriers to realizing thicker communities.
Nossiter's article is a lament over the gradual economic and social decline of Albi, a small city of around 50 thousand inhabitants not far from Toulouse. He is troubled by the extent to which the once vibrant downtown has become devoid of social and economic activity, apart from, that is, the periodic influx of tourists interested in its rustic charm as a medieval-era town. Nossiter's piece, however, is not a screed against tourists; rather, he notes that the large proportion of visitors can prevent one from noticing that the town itself now has few amenities to offer locals: It is a single bakery and no local butcher, grocery, or cafe. Residents obtain their needs from supermarkets and malls at the outskirts of town.
One might be tempted to dismiss Nossiter's concerns as mere "nostalgia" in the face of "real progress." Indeed, many of those commenting on the article do just that, suggesting that young people want an exciting night life offered by nearby metropolises and that local shops are relics of the past that were destined to be destroyed by the ostensibly lower prices and greater efficiency of malls and big box stores.
I think, however, that it is unwise to do so, if one wishes to think carefully and intelligently about the issue. Appeals to progress and inevitability are not so much statements of fact, indeed evidence to back them up is quite limited, but instead rhetorical moves meant to shut down debate; their aim, intentionally or not, is to naturalize a process that is actually sociopolitical.
If France is at all like the United States, and I suspect it is, the erection of malls was nothing preordained but a product of innumerable policy decisions and failures of foresight. So contingent was the outcome on these external variables that it seems obtuse to try to claim that it was the result of simply providing consumers with what they wanted. Readers interested in the details can look forward to my soon to be released book Technically Together (MIT Press). For the purposes of this post I can only summarize a few of the ways in which downtown economic decay is not inevitable.
The ability for a big-box store or mall to turn a profit is dependent on far more than just the owner's business acumen. Such stores are only attractive to the extent that governments spend public funds to make them easy to get to. Indeed, big box prices are low enough to attract Americans because of the invisible subsidy provided by citizens' tax dollars in building roads and highways. Many, if not most, malls and big box stores were built with public funds, either as the result of favorable tax deductions offered by municipalities or schemes like tax-increment financing. Lacking the political clout of the average corporate retailer, a local butcher is unlikely to receive the same deal.
Other forms of subsidy are more indirect. Few shoppers factor in the additional costs of gasoline or car repairs when pursuing exurban discount shopping. Given AAA's estimate of the yearly cost of driving as in excess of ten thousand dollars per year, the full cost of a ten mile drive to the mall is significant, even if it is not salient to consumers. Indeed, they forget it by the time they arrive at the register. Moreover, what about the additional health care costs incurred by driving rather than walking or the psychic costs of living in areas no longer offering embodied community? Numerous studies have found that local community is one of the biggest contributors to a long life and spry old age. It seems unlikely to be mere coincidence that Americans have become increasing medicated against psychological disorders as their previously thick communities have fragmented into diffuse social networks. While these costs do not factor into the prices consumers enjoy via discount exurban shopping, citizens still pay them.
Despite the fact that these sociopolitical drivers are fairly obvious if one takes the time to think about them, "just so" stories that try to explain the status quo as in line with the inexorable march of progress remain predominate. Psychologists have theorized that the power of such stories results from the intense psychological discomfort that many people would feel if faced with the possibility that the world as they know it is either unjust or was arrived at via less-than-fair means. Progress narratives are just one of the ways in which citizens psychically shore up an arbitrary and, in the view of many, undesirable status quo. Indeed, Americans, as well as Europeans and others to an increasing extent, seem to have an intense desire to justify the present by appealing to past abstract "market forces."
Yale political economist Charles Lindblom argued that the tendency for citizens to reason their way into believing that what is good for economic elites is good for everyone was one of the main sources of business's relatively privileged position in society. In fact, many people go so far to talk as if the market were a dangerous but nonetheless productive animal that one must placate with favorable treatment and a long leash, apparently not realizing that acting in accordance to such logic makes the market system seem less like a beacon of freedom and more like a prison. One thing remains certain: As long as citizens think and act as if changes like the economic decline of downtown areas in small cities are merely the price of progress, it will be impossible to do anything but watch them decay.
Taylor C. Dotson is an associate professor at New Mexico Tech, a Science and Technology Studies scholar, and a research consultant with WHOA. He is the author of The Divide: How Fanatical Certitude is Destroying Democracy and Technically Together: Reconstructing Community in a Networked World. Here he posts his thoughts on issues mostly tangential to his current research.
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