In the wake of last Wednesday’s shooting in Virginia at a Republican workout for the bipartisan Congressional Baseball Charity game, the murder of four UPS workers in San Francisco on the same day, and now a mass killing of five people in Northern New Mexico around Tres Piedras and Abiquiu, many of us are left with the deeply disturbing feeling that we’re experiencing once again another tremor in the spasmodic unraveling of America’s cultural sanity.
According to massshootingtracker.com over 196 mass shootings have ripped through America’s cultural fabric in the first six months of 2017. Huffington Post puts the number at 152. Using massshootingtracker’s numbers that comes to 218 people murdered and 675 people injured through mid-June. And each one of those dead or maimed leave traumatized families and networks of friends who will never really feel safe or whole again.
The weapons used in this mayhem were not rocks or swords or arrows or hammers or hatchets or knives or poisons. The weapons used were guns. We now have almost as many guns in America as we have people, some 310 million, according to the Pew Research Center.
In American culture these days any one of us who frequents a public place, a school, an office, a movie theater, a mall, is a sitting duck for hot lead fired from a gun triggered by an American whose violent tendencies and fantasies mirror our cultural make-up.
Is it a useful idea to make analogies between human beings and the cultures that nurture them? Can we say a culture has gone crazy in the same way we might say such a thing about a murderous sociopath? In the past, I thought that it might be just a metaphor for an indescribable situation, but reading a book by the former president of The Santa Fe Institute, physicist Geoffrey West, entitled “Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies,” I’m beginning to see that when it comes to complex entities like bodies and cultures there is more actual similarity than so called common sense would have us believe.
West’s revolutionary ideas involve the nature of networks and scale. As the book’s description explains: “despite the riotous diversity of mammals they are all, to a large degree, scaled versions of one another.” “Fundamentally, … the issue has to do with the fractal geometry of the networks that supply energy and remove waste from the organism’s body.” Cities are networks of information, energy, and waste removal too. So, basically, are any places humans congregate, rural or urban. While all animal and plant species evolve physical qualities that allow them to compete and prevail in the process of natural selection, all human groups evolve cultures, shared customs, social habits and worldviews adapted to their circumstances and habitats, that allow them to prevail as a group in the struggle for survival. In environments inhabited by many communities the tendency seems to be, over time, to coalesce local cultures into a collective culture of something as massive and complicated as a nation.
Individual human brains have to work perfectly for a person’s behavior to be in sync with the customs and habits of their culture. And I think this is true as well for a culture itself. Its delicate balances have to be working perfectly for it to be in sync with its own worldview. The behavior a culture induces and justifies in individuals can either support the network of moral values and social priorities that allow it to adapt to change and challenge, or it can become radically hostile to those values and priorities and become self-destructive. Individuals can go mad. And, I think, so can cultures. Both end up behaving in ways that undermine their ability to flourish and survive.
Surely a democratic culture in which a large number of its people are paranoid about their own government, a culture which is filled with internal divisiveness and hate can’t be said to be healthy. Add to that the culture’s glorification of weapons and the right to own them that verges on the sacred, even to the extent of supplying them to psychologically unstable members of its national community, and the unhealthy culture begins leaning in the direction of the sociopathic. And if the most deadly of the available weapons are designed not only to kill people, but to kill a great many people at the same time – certainly a culture like that can’t be said to be free of the mental and emotional disorders that, in a different scale, afflict some of its members as a form of insanity.
It doesn’t take everyone in a culture to be insane for the culture itself to start coming unglued and putting its people at risk of being harmed by deranged and murderous behavior. Such a culture becomes like a demonic casino in which jackpots of death are dealt to the unlucky. The customs and values of cultures are meant to promote survival, not undermine it randomly for some of its members. But that’s what we seem to have in America today. We are evolving a self-destructing culture in which its social and information networks are infected with a kind of death-wish that fosters deceit as the road to profit and power, and hate and fear as the primary tools for acquiring political advantage. When the worship of murderous weaponry is added to the mix, our sense of safety, equity and social justice is scrambled beyond recognition.
What can be done to tip the cultural balance away from an evolving self-destruction? I think Geoffrey West gives us a strong if partial answer. It’s all about scale and quantities. If enough people successfully struggle against the evolving madness of their culture then they might tip the balance back to honoring the deepest values their culture still manages to convey – kindness, respect, non-violent resolution of disputes, and equal justice and equal opportunity under law.
What does that struggle take? Fighting the fear that a culture losing its mind induces in the body politic. Refusing to buy or use a hand gun or an assault weapon, even if that seems to have the potential for being personally self-destructive. If you don’t know how to use a gun under stress, if you’re not constantly armed and ready for action at any moment, guns are merely feel-good toys or expensive booby-traps.
Don’t buy into fear as a commercial commodity, fear that sells weapons, that creates political hate, that creates the delusion of safety by owning a lethal device that only a very few people can learn how to use safely and to positive effect.
Individuals both create and carry their culture. A mad culture is by definition a cruel, ruthless, and evil thing. The fewer people who are infected with the fear from which such a monstrosity emerges, the healthier a culture becomes again.
We don’t know what the population tipping point will be to bring American culture back from the brink of total madness, but we do know that what we ourselves individually think and feel matters to the overall health of our culture. And that it is our duty, if I can use such a word, to resist becoming a part of the fear-ridden population that is weighing down the scale of cultural change, tipping us in the direction of disastrous irrationality that could suddenly flip all of us into a well-disguised civil war, or even a dictatorship that merely preserves the forms of our traditional rights and freedoms while solidifying its power by selling fear every day and every hour for all its worth.
*Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it
(Image by Christopher Dombres)