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.

God, Guns, and the Gospel

Is God pro-gun?  President Trump seems to think so.  This week Trump attacked Joe Biden, saying that Biden is going to “take away your guns, destroy your Second Amendment, no religion, no anything. Hurt the bible, hurt God. He’s against God, he’s against guns.”

Trump gives voice to a prototypical American myth of a land that loves God, guns, and the gospel.  You can see this mythic complex in cowboy movies and elsewhere.  WWII gave us a song with the lyrics, “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition and we’ll all stay free.”  In 2009, Lynyrd Skynyrd released an album called “God & Guns.”  The title track (covered recently by Hank Williams, Jr.) says, “God and guns keep us strong.  That’s what this country was founded on.”  The song seems to respond to something Barack Obama said about “bitter” and “frustrated” Americans who “cling to guns or religion.”

Of course, religious liberty and gun ownership are protected by the First and Second Amendments.  But the subsequent case law is complicated and contentious.  These complex Constitutional questions are not easily reduced to the simplistic idea that to be an American is to praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.  The First Amendment gives you the right to worship God in your own way.  It protects pacifists, atheists, and militant Christians  The Second Amendment affirms the right to have a well-regulated militia and bear arms.  It does not, however, help us interpret the Bible.

We live in a country where over a quarter of Americans (28%) believe that the Bible should take precedence over the will of the people, according the Pew Center.  So, it is important to note that the Constitution allows Americans to disagree about the Bible.

The Bible is not a useful guide on the question of guns anyway. There is nothing in the Good Book about guns, which didn’t exist back then.  The Bible talks a lot about swords.  But to say that the Bible is pro-sword ignores those passages that suggest turning swords into plowshares (Isaiah 2:4).  I’ve pointed out in my book on the Bible that for many issues, ancient Biblical texts are indeterminate and uninformative.

Of course, guns and swords are part of a larger question of self-defense.  But the Bible is not a useful guide here either.  Some texts show the Jewish people fighting for their survival.  Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans that the political authorities use the sword to execute justice.  But Jesus told Peter to put away his sword.  And Christian martyrs often followed Jesus’s model and submitted to execution.

Some Christians are pacifists.  Others are not.  And the Bible is ambiguous.

A recent book by Michael Austin, God and Guns in America, reminds us of the diversity of Christian belief about guns.  Austin suggest that some Christians hate guns and love God.  But others love guns and love God.  I would add that even atheists disagree: some hate guns others don’t.

That’s why we ought to keep these issues separated, just as the First and Second Amendments are distinct.  On the one hand, religious liberty permits us to interpret the Bible any way we want.  On the other hand, there is the question of self-defense and the “well-regulated militia.”  The issues of legal self-defense and justified violence are complicated enough on their own, without conflating them with unanswerable questions about the Bible. 

But most public argument about this stuff lacks subtlety.  Political slogans, popular music, and prophetic preaching are typically not bastions of critical thinking.  Art and politics pull emotional levers by using affective language and making vague gestures.  Religion does that too, much of the time.  But critical thinking asks us to analyze arguments and carefully excavate the historical sources. 

Smart people continue to debate the Bible and the Constitution while reaching divergent conclusions.  That’s why it is hard to take Trump seriously when he says Biden will hurt God and the Bible.  The Constitution prevents any President—whether Trump or Biden—from taking unilateral action on any of these issues.  And if there is a God, He can probably take care of Himself. 

Recent Violence Raises Questions About Men

Recent violence raises questions about men

Andrew Fiala

Fresno Bee, 2012-12-29

The Newtown gunman killed his own mother before opening fire at Sandy Hook elementary school. Another gunman, near Rochester, N.Y., killed firefighters who responded to a fire he had set. He had previously killed his grandmother and most likely began his rampage by killing his sister. In both cases the gunmen killed themselves.

These stories have an obvious gender component. Mass murderers are almost always men. According to Mother Jones magazine, of the 62 mass murders committed since 1982, only one was done by a woman. The rest of the shooters were men.

It might be that mental illness has a gender component. But why do mentally ill men shoot their mothers and random strangers, while mentally ill women do not? Mental illness manifests itself in culturally specific and gender specific ways. Killing, brutality, and suicide are associated with masculinity.

Men are, in general, about 10 times more likely to commit murder than women. Suicide also has a gender component, with a ratio of four male suicides for every female suicide. We might also note that domestic violence is gendered, with incest, partner rape, battery, and honor killing usually perpetrated by men.

Some might blame biology. The “demonic male” thesis popularized by Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson holds that male violence is a common trait among male dominant apes such as humans and chimpanzees. According to this idea, male dominance is a useful tool for social organization, even though it results in occasional atrocity.

But biology and evolution only explain so much. Culture also matters. Brutality, toughness, and fearlessness are deeply woven into cultural images of masculinity. We celebrate mean and ruthless men — on the sports field, in films, and in our military mythology.

The NRA’s Wayne LaPierre appeared to blame cultural images of violence in his remarks earlier this month. He deflected criticism of guns and called for armed guards in schools. He also blamed violent video games. Most interesting was his description of violent video games as pornography. He said, “Isn’t fantasizing about killing people to get your kicks really the filthiest form of pornography?”

The porn connection points toward the gender issue. American men grow up in a culture in which sex and violence have become vicarious events. It is easy to watch people have sex and to watch people kill. What kind of affect does this have on our relationships and our ideas about morality?

The larger problem is one of dehumanization. Pornography turns women into two-dimensional images to be observed and consumed. And violent games and movies turn killing into a thrilling spectator sport. The consumer is able to view other people as objects to be used, without consideration for the experience of the other person.

This problem of dehumanization may explain the connection between mass murder and suicide. The philosopher Immanuel Kant noted two hundred years ago that lack of respect for others is connected with lack of respect for self. Suicide and murder are two sides of the same inhuman coin. Like suicide terrorists (who are also almost always male), mass murderers have embraced death. The shooter wants to die. But he wants to take innocent people with him as he kills himself. This points toward a kind of rage against life, a hatred of everything.

Games and films are not to blame for deep moral nihilism. Most game players do not end up murdering strangers. And most porn-consumers do not become rapists. The causal story is complex. Nonetheless, the constant dehumanizing imagery of popular culture can have an insidious affect on the disaffected and mentally ill. Imagining murder in a game makes it that much easier to commit it, when life falls apart around you.

Rage and despair combine with images of masculinity and easy access to deadly weapons to create a deadly mix. Maybe that’s the price we pay for liberty: for the freedom to own guns, consume porn and enjoy violent entertainment. Gun control would make suicide and mass killing more difficult. Maybe censorship would help. But the problem is larger than the guns and the games. The deep question is why some men hate life enough to kill mothers, grandmothers, children, and themselves; and why women rarely do.