What to do about violence

Kaitlin Cho, Opinion Columnist

Unbelievably, mass shootings are on the rise. On paper, it doesn’t make sense. Crime has been on a largely downward trend for decades, gun ownership in America is half of what it was a half-century ago and yet the number of mass shootings has only skyrocketed. These statistics seem incongruent with our reality. What their incomprehensibility suggests is that gun legislation is ultimately a band-aid solution over a deeper and ever-festering wound. Americans commit a third of the world’s mass shootings. More than race, class, age or even mental illness, what links nearly all American mass shooters together is gender. 

There are, of course, a few exceptions — but by and large, the vast majority of mass shooters are men. What are the implications of this statistic? What is happening to American men? Is it socialization or biology? Is it alienation or capitalism or misogyny? And, most importantly, how do we answer these questions?

Philosopher Slavoj Zizek writes in “Violence: Six Sideways Reflections” that “[w]e need to perceive the contours of the background which generates such outbursts.” When we examine mass shootings as just a result of their weapons or singular evil actors, we make it more difficult to analyze the workings behind these explicit tragedies. I am not trying to suggest that these inhumane murderers do not have fault or responsibility, but rather that the widespread issue of mass violence transcends the individual. It is a societal ill — our societal ill — and we cannot truly heal it without first understanding from where it originates.

This does not mean that gun legislation is bad or pointless. A band-aid is better than nothing, and it can at least stop — or slow — the bleeding. The fact is if we had no guns, there would be no mass shootings. Yet, practically speaking, any kind of substantial or meaningful national gun legislation will likely take years to instate, and certainly many years to fully enforce (a number of mass shootings already involved guns that were dodgily procured). In the interim, mass shootings will undoubtedly continue to occur; even with the gun control bill passed by Congress this summer, we have seen tragedy after tragedy, most recently seen in two back-to-back mass shootings in California. And just as crucially, eradicating guns does not guarantee that mass violence will cease.

Guns certainly contribute to mass violence, both for their fundamentally harmful function and their relative ease of usage. We can’t ignore the psychological impact of having such a destructive weapon be so commonplace and so ordinary in our society. However, we can’t hyperfocus on the weapon used to the extent where we ignore the society that generates mass violence. That, too, is danger — a more mundane, subtle, pervasive and invisible danger, and it is all the more dangerous because of it. Gunfire is deafening; its ferocity prevents us from hearing the constant hum underpinning it, particularly when we’re already desensitized to it.

This “hum” of mundane and invisible violence is what Zizek calls “objective violence.” Objective violence is the intrinsic violence that resides in our society’s “normal,” regular state. Our perception of it as “normal” renders it difficult to notice, “but it has to be taken into account if one is to make sense of what otherwise seem to be irrational” explosions of violence – what Zizek refers to as “subjective violence.”

The difficulty, of course, is that analyzing objective violence gives us no clear-cut answer. We can hardly pass gun legislation; how are we meant to legislate away a violence that we don’t even understand? My answer is that we’re not meant to legislate it away, not yet. Maybe not ever; maybe the reckoning we need goes beyond the legal system. I don’t know; none of us do. So then, what do we do?

We think about it. I don’t mean the useless and empty “thoughts” that come with “thoughts and prayers.” I’m talking about a serious contemplation, a rigorous examination of the world around us and a seeking of understanding. In our current political climate, the question of “what do we do?” carries an implied focus on immediate action. As Delaney Tarr wrote in her recent article for Teen Vogue, this impulse has led to many youth gun violence activists being asked “to ‘solve’ an issue that requires drastic intervention from local, state and federal lawmakers.” We regard political problems as something that must be “solved” as soon as possible. 

This is understandable; we’re present-focused and want to reduce harm. To end harm requires more than just taking action on the actionable; it requires us to learn what causes this violence.