Beyond Newtown - Our Greatest Challenges
There are so many things that can be said and need to be said about mass shootings in the U.S. No single article can hope to do justice to the complexity and the subtleties of the key issues.
The reality is that more of these events happen in this country than any other -- and by a margin that far outstrips any rationale cited by differences in population.
We have a problem. More accurately, we have several problems that are the sum of a number of factors. Even the will to engage with these problems is suppressed by fear, denial, vested interest and more.
As a society, we have become like a functioning addict who lives on a potent cocktail of social, behavioral, political and commercial factors that diminish us more each day. We live in denial of the reality they collectively represent.
To change our attitudes so we change our behaviors is a significant challenge. There will be conflict between those advocating change, those fearful of it, and those who profit from the status quo. And yet the status quo cannot be allowed to stand if we are to consider ourselves a civilized society.
I believe -- like many others -- that certain aspects of the media are part of the problem. Like other parts of this Gordian Knot, the media is not a single simple fix to the bigger problem. The media and the communications industries will be fundamental to successfully addressing our collective societal challenge.
Communications professionals have played major roles in effecting attitudinal and behavioral change many times before -- it’s what the industry tries to do in every ad campaign. The skills are there. The opportunity to apply them is less clear, but one can only hope we play our part in making society a safer, better place.
So what are the factors that underlie the attitudes and behaviors would need to be addressed? I would suggest the following:
We live in a “violence culture”
This is about more than guns. The casual acceptance of violence — sometimes even its celebration — is part of what defines American culture. Gun ownership is enshrined in both the country’s Constitution and it’s folklore. But TV, the movies and sport all feature some version of violence. We are infinitely more relaxed about our children being exposed to extremes of violence than nudity on the TV.
Our language is peppered with violence and the 24-hour news cycles linger on the shocking and the violent as a means of grabbing ratings. Even so-called discussions on news programs takes on angry, rather than reasonable tones. And yes, there is also the issue of guns. Discussion of this cannot be avoided. Guns enable people who wish to kill to do so more quickly and on a larger scale than just about anything else -- certainly anything legally obtainable. For that reason alone, the conditions of ownership of certain types of firearms needs to be intelligently and rationally debated.
We live in a “sound-bite culture”
The problem with any situation that calls for rational debate is that we now live in a sound-bite culture that mitigates against serious and open discussion. Again, the news media has to bear some of the blame for this; complex and important issues have been reduced to overly simplistic talking points. Sound bites become the totality of conventional wisdom and form the bedrock of interpersonal exchanges on the complex and important issues. (Think of any election of recent years.) Social media appears to be compounding the situation to some degree as people share simple sound bites that reflect their view and how they wish to appear to others.
We live in a “quick-fix culture”
In recent days, many have rightly highlighted the need to better understand and address the influence of medical illness and more importantly, its treatment in the context of mass shootings. Sadly, our desire for quick fixes (and perhaps quick profits) have led to a dumbing down of how people in need are treated for mental conditions. (Often, they get prison rather than proper care.).These aren’t issues that can support the quick-fix approach and everyone suffers. The quick-fix mind-set is also likely to lead to a simplification of addressing the larger problems of mass shootings -- unless we prevent it.
We live in a “them and us culture”
Debate and reason-based discussion has been largely replaced by adversarial invective. Dialog has become gladiatorial combat. Agreeing to disagree and remain respectful appears to have become un-American in the modern age. This has become a toxic norm we must end in order to address our greatest challenges.
We live in a “money culture”
Based on the way things are currently done, Big Money will be the biggest barrier to change. Colossal amounts of money are made from the status quo -- and not just from the gun industry. These groups and their lobbyists will have already quietly slipped into post-shooting mode as they reach out to measure sentiment among key influencers and power-brokers in order to determine next steps.
We live in a “no-blame culture”
One can argue the pros and cons of living in a no-blame culture. But it's helped all of us avoid taking any measure of responsibility for the deaths last week and those that have gone before. It’s been too easy to pass it off as being down to one or two “whack jobs” or “the ready availability of guns in our society” or “violent video games." All that says is that it’s tragic, but it’s nothing to with me and I can’t do anything to change it.” We are to blame for making it too easy for warning signs to go undetected, un-addressed and for making it to easier for these tragedies to occur. We don’t pull the trigger, but we have a hand in perpetuating the circumstances that make such events possible.
Just as we get the government we deserve, we also live in the society of our making. If we really give a damn about the daily safety of men, women and children, then we must acknowledge that the frequency and scale of events such as Newtown, Columbine and Virginia Tech demonstrate we haven't done enough to fix a deadly problem.
The media and the communications industries have a role to play in addressing all of these issues. I hope we are given — or create — the opportunity to play our part.