“24% of the American population say it’s OK to use violence in the pursuit of one’s goals.”
—Morris Berman, A Question of Values
It’s becoming normal for parents to fear their children. In fact, there is an ever-growing fear of any kind of difference in the US and in the whole Western world. I will go out on a limb now and suggest that this fear of difference is directly related to the homogenization of culture. For thousands of years, human beings have defined themselves according to their tribe and in contrast to other tribes. Our sense of identity is inextricably tied to our environment, and if that environment, and the values being propagated by it, are becoming more and more uniform and unvaried, the distinctions between individuals become increasingly blurry and undefined. Socially and technologically, we may be on the verge of becoming a collective organism, but psychologically we still have one foot in the jungle. At an individual level what people are experiencing, I think, is an ever-more uncertain sense of self and reality and increased feelings of insecurity and anxiety. One way to reduce this anxiety is to identify more fiercely with one’s culture, country, race or religion — in other words, with external values. And when people look more and more outside of themselves for validation, they also look for an “other” as a contrast to those values. Opposing an other who doesn’t share the collective values is a way to prove one’s allegiance to those values, as well as reassure oneself that they are still valid as values (they are even worth fighting for).
This kind of psychological reaction might be called “huddling.” Huddling — the desire of individuals to retreat into a group — stems from an unconscious belief that there is safety in numbers. Actually, the reverse may be the case: the larger the group, the less cohesive it is, the greater the chances of violence become. If you don’t believe me , just look at how US citizens stockpiled weapons after the Sandy Hook incident:
“One local proprietor told Huffington Post customers were particularly interested in combat-style assault rifles like the one used by shooter Adam Lanza to commit mass murder. Though it’s not unusual to see a spike in the sale of weapons after such incidents, at least one shop owner said the volume of prospective customers this time around was ‘unprecedented.’ ‘We already have tons of customers because of Christmas, hunting season is peaking right now, and not to mention, the election,’ said Larry Hyatt, owner of the largest independently owned gun store in America. ‘But this tragedy is pushing sales through the roof. It’s like putting gasoline on a fire.’”[i]
There has been speculation among alternate researchers (“conspiracy theorists,” to the skeptics) that events like Sandy Hook are being engineered in order to implement new restrictions on gun ownership (President Obama gave a speech about it after the incident). Yet so far, as described above, the most obvious result has been the reverse. Along with the growing fear of random acts of violence, rumors of pending gun control laws have apparently been a primary incentive for US citizens to start stockpiling weapons. A week or so after Sandy Hook, there was an apparently unrelated event in which a recently released convict, William Spengler, allegedly set fire to his house and shot several police and firemen when they showed up. One headline for the incident emphasized the fact that Spengler used the same kind of rifle as Adam Lanza. I wonder how exactly this detail was headline news? There are two possible reasons (not mutually exclusive) I can think of for placing the rifle brand front and center. Firstly, to justify restrictions on selling it; secondly, because it’s likely to boost sales!
I don’t want to get pulled into specific arguments about gun control, government conspiracies, and the like. I only cite this recent string of events to illustrate a larger phenomenon which I think is behind it. That phenomenon is the cohesion and stability of a social group — in this case, American citizens in the US — the ways in which its stability is undermined, and the ways that a group (and the individuals in it) attempts to regain its stability. One factor that may not be being considered in all of this is that the US citizenship and the government which ostensibly serves it and provides the structures, laws, and values meant to keep the group stable, may not actually be pursuing the same interests. Stated baldly like this, it seems pretty hard to argue with; yet as soon as specifics are cited along these lines, people immediately start talking about conspiracy theories and the discussion tends to get derailed. So I prefer to tread carefully with the language I use. The primary point I am making is that American society is divided against itself, and that this division — partly or even largely as a result of misguided attempts to heal it — is only getting wider and more fraught. The reason for this has to do with a failure to recognize the true nature of the split, namely, that it is not outside of the group but inside, and inside the members of the group itself.
Belonging to a group identity is fine for bees, migrating birds, and termites. It seemed to work okay for primitive man too, and it still serves its purpose for children learning how to function in the world. But adult humans are meant to individuate, to become self-sufficient, autonomous beings, and not merely the products of their culture and the guardians of it. There is a much larger context to our experience than society, after all. The US is a culture of individuality that at the same time prohibits individuation. Individuation is the psychological journey of self-awareness that leads to autonomy and to an authentic, inner-oriented sense of self. To be an individual in the US means to be an American, which means to conform to a set of cultural beliefs. As Morris Berman pointed out in his essay “Locating the Enemy: Myth Vs. Reality in U.S. Foreign Policy” (A Question of Values), Americanism is an ideology. Central to this ideology is the fact that it is un-American not to value the individual (i.e., Americanism) as the highest good. Individualism, for the American, is not merely a privilege but an obligation. This is why America’s special brand of “freedom” has become a justification for the brutal oppression of everything that is “un-American.” (According to Morris Berman, “24% of American population say it’s OK to use violence in the pursuit of one’s goals.”)
[i]http://gawker.com/5969422/sandy-hook-shooting-prompts-unprecedented-run-on-guns-assault-rifles-across-the-country Also this, from the comment section of Morris Berman’s “Dark Ages America”: “There has been some comment in the press coverage that Nancy Lanza was a ‘gun nut’ as the colloquialism goes. But there hasn’t been much notice that the whole community is heavily armed. She was not that unusual for the context she lived in. Newtown, CT. is a wealthy community full of ‘preppers’ stockpiling weapons to protect their wealth from the hordes of looters they expect when society collapses. Investigative reporters have found that police have been receiving many complaints about automatic gunfire and explosions in the semi-rural areas around that town. That would be ‘preppers’ rehearsing for the big drama they expect. Nancy Lanza was probably friends with many of the people causing those complaints. Not hard to see where Adam Lanza got the idea that weapons and violence are the way to deal with problems… Listen to the story here: Brian Lehrer / ‘WNYC: Black Guns After the Sandy Hook Shooting.’ http://morrisberman.blogspot.ca/2012/12/further-thoughts-on-japanand-america.html