Violence, Culture, and Character

Fresno Bee, June 27, 2021

Violence is rising. The Washington Post reports that gunfire killed 54 people per day through the first five months of 2021. This exceeds the death toll for the same period in 2020, which was the deadliest year in two decades. Here in Fresno, the story is similar. Last year there were 70 homicides, the highest number in 25 years. This year we are on pace to eclipse that number.

The epidemic of violence is especially tragic here at the end of the pandemic. We have endured a difficult time of dislocation and loss. But the worst is over and the future is bright. How sad that violence is raging when the world is reviving.

There is a general sense that people have become angrier and meaner. Some violence is racially charged. Some is connected to gangs and other crime. But some is merely random spite. In Los Angeles, 6-year-old Aiden Leos was shot on his way to kindergarten by an angry stranger on the freeway. Mass shooters have attacked in San Jose and elsewhere.

Commentators have offered various explanations. Some say this is the result of the stress of the pandemic. Others blame inequality. Pundits on the left blame Trumpism. Pundits on the right suggest that efforts to defund the police have empowered criminals.

Many blame guns. The White House is launching an initiative focused on guns. Biden’s Press Secretary, Jen Psaki, said “We believe that a central driver of violence is gun violence and the use of guns.”

There is no doubt that guns make violence easier. The history of violence is about the evolution of killing power. Cain killed Abel with a club. Achilles went on a murderous spree with sword and spear. Guns produce more killing with less effort.

Technological innovation exacerbates all kinds of vice. Modern chemistry produces powerful psychoactive drugs, including distilled alcohol. The Internet makes porn readily available. Social media makes it easy to gossip. And fast-food chains facilitate drive-thru gluttony.

But technology only explains part of the problem. It is human beings who put technology to use. Most people avoid addiction, debauchery, gossip, and gluttony, just as most people avoid violence. There is some truth to the slogan “guns don’t kill people, people do.” The same is true of other vices. Booze does not cause alcoholism. And French fries don’t cause obesity. Somewhere in the background is human culture and psychology.

What gives people the capacity to resist the supercharged temptations of modern technology?

Virtue and character provide part of the answer. Moral psychology must be on the table as we confront the epidemic of violence. Virtuous people control anger, cruelty and spite. Every human being gets angry. But good people resist this negativity. They resist their vicious instincts. And they find affirmative outlets for negative emotions.

Defective character is an overlooked aspect of the increase in violence. Angry and violent people are lacking in psychological development and spiritual fulfillment.

The good news is that character can be improved. We are not pre-programmed. We can learn to speak a language and play the piano. We can also learn to defer gratification, control spite, overcome hate and become compassionate.

Culture matters in character development. Good culture supports us in doing the right thing, while bad influences contribute to vice. As we analyze the increase in violence, we must consider cultural inputs. What kinds of ideas and images inspire us? Who are our role models? Are we reinforcing kindness or teaching cruelty?

We must also think critically about violence itself. Violence is not natural or normal. Violence decreased during past decades. This shows that violence is not inevitable. People can learn to be less violent. But that requires lessons and reminders about the fact that violence is a sign of moral failure. It is shameful, stupid and sad. Decent people do not celebrate cruelty. Nor do they lionize villains, thugs, and murderers.

Finally, we must give people productive ways to find meaning, purpose, and happiness. Violence is a dead-end for hopeless souls who have lost faith in life. Another antidote to violence is to create a world that provides social connection, creative outlets for the human spirit, and opportunities to experience joy, love, and hope.

Let’s stop the violence

No more urgent task than to create a world where children don’t get murdered

Fresno Bee, June 3, 2017

The river of tears keeps flowing. Children are killed by bombs in Baghdad, Kabul and Manchester. In Portland, Oregon, three Good Samaritans are knifed while protecting teenage girls from racist harassment. In Fresno, a teenager who worked to end violence in her neighborhood is killed in a gang-related shooting.

We search for causes and cures for cruelty. Some blame weapons. Friday was National Gun Violence Awareness Day. Protesters wore orange to bring attention to gun violence, which kills 90 Americans every day.

A Breitbart columnist, AWR Hawkins, has criticized the campaign. He points out only a third of those 90 daily deaths are homicides. The rest are suicides or accidents.

That’s a difference without significance for grieving families. Our tears fall for all of the dead. Suicide is as troubling as murder.

A different approach might look to neuroscience. Mental illness can contribute to violence.But let’s be careful. People who commit violent crimes are often mentally ill. But most mentally ill people are not violent.

A similar story holds with regard to alcohol, which is a major contributor to violence. Many violent people are drunk. But most drunks are not violent. Moral character is what matters. A good person who is drunk is not suddenly going to become violent. And an evil person is a menace, whether stoned or sober.

Some blame religion or politics. But terrorists and mass murderers have been politically, religiously and racially diverse. They say that “guns don’t kill people, people do.” It is also true that ideologies don’t kill people, evil people do. The danger lies in the cruel indifference of people who wield ideas and weapons in immoral ways.

Masculinity is another significant factor. Mother Jones has a database of mass shootings in the U.S. Its latest entry is for a racially charged murder that killed three white men in downtown Fresno on April 18, 2017.

In 83 of the 86 cases in this database, the attacker was a man. But again, let’s be careful in drawing conclusions. While nearly every terrorist and mass murderer is a man, not every man is a terrorist. Men of good character simply don’t commit mass murder.

It is clear that violence involves multiple causes. Violence occurs when unstable or drunken men with easy access to weapons get fixated on bad ideas.

There are no simple solutions here. Just think how much society would have to be modified in order to change the causal factors contributing to violence. We might begin by providing better mental health care, alternatives to gangs, and drug and alcohol counseling. One simple proposal is to raise the price of booze. Apparently this has worked to reduce violence in the United Kingdom.

In a society that values liberty, we are not going ban weapons and alcohol – or cruel religions and racist ideologies. The risk of violence may be the price of liberty. But that should not leave us indifferent to atrocity. Liberty must be linked to education, morality and responsibility.

Free people need compassion and self-control. A society of free persons depends upon a serious commitment to universal moral education. We create a peaceful world by teaching children to be loving, courageous, and just.

Among the more poignant stories emerging from the recent carnage is a letter written by the mother of Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, a 23-year-old who was killed trying to protect those teenage girls from a racist assailant in Portland. Taliesin’s mother wrote, that her son’s selfless act “changed the world, when in the face of hate he did not hesitate to act with love.” She raised her son well, it seems.

Slow progress will be made by strong mothers who raise courageous sons like Taliesin. Let’s not forget that there are many brave and loving people among the decent majority of peace-loving people. Fresno’s Kayla Foster was another example. She worked to end violence before she was gunned down.

Let’s celebrate the good, while we lament the evil. We need a systematic and multifaceted effort to reduce violence. We should avoid simplistic answers and politicized debate. And once we stop mourning, let’s get to work. There is no more urgent task than creating a world in which our children are no longer murdered.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article154033489.html