And so, the overpaid pompous pseudo-sociologist tells us all that the perpetrators of mass killings are driven by psychological factors: mental illness, bruised pride or loss of job. Nothing sociological. Psychology explains it all (insert obligatory disclaimer that we can never really know for sure!).
So, here we go again. Just like Jack Douglas described years ago the mechanisms of the social construction of suicide, there are equally mechanisms of the social construction of mental illness. As I joked on Facebook, killings by blacks are ghetto warfare, killings by Latinos are related to drug cartels, but killings by whites are individual acts of mental illness (note how Brooks goes digging for a non-white case). And for those of us who have seen Tough Guise, we already know that when women kill, then it’s all feminism’s fault, unless the killers are obviously non-feminist women (Andrea Yates), in which case, they’re obviously crazy (rather than committing in Yates’s case religiously-based violence). Different social categories, different conceptualization and categorization of the same type of action.
Similarly, to declare an act to be the product of mental illness does not just absolve (somewhat) the perpetrator from full responsibility. It also shuts down the discussion by placing the act as outside the scope of rational explanation. The person was crazy. We may shake our heads and deplore the state of mental health care but since such an action, being crazy, is, by definition, unpredictable and unexplainable… nothing to see. Let’s all pray for the victims of this senseless (!!) act.
What is then never discussed is HOW we define and socially construct mental illness. The flip side of this is that mental illness is so perceived because it is fully embedded in the culture as deviation from it. As I said when I discussed the Gabby Gifford shooting, the perpetrator did not choose to run naked in the streets or do something similarly outside of the norms that would get him labeled as crazy. In both cases, the perpetrators tapped into cultural and social resources: the availability of weapons, the use of the Internet, the rational selection of equipment, the choice of target. And certainly, the Aurora shooter was rather well prepared, all geared up and picked a dark, closed place, and picked the ‘right’ moment in the movie to start shooting. And, of course, he picked just the right movie (because crazy people do keep track of the box office).
None of this is psychological.
And then, of course, there is the big elephant in the room that Brooks conveniently ignores:
“Many of the killers had an exaggerated sense of their own significance, which, they felt, was not properly recognized by the rest of the world. Many suffered a grievous blow to their self-esteem — a lost job, a divorce or a school failure — and decided to strike back in some showy way.”
And that, of course, is the gender thing. As is a major point in Tough Guise and is still true, in all these killings, the perpetrators are white males perceiving – and reacting to – the loss of privilege or dominant position and reclaiming it in a manly fashion. So, indeed, it may be a loss of control over one’s family with divorce or loss of custody (and in these cases, we see husbands / fathers killing their wives and children), the inability to get women (as the guy who shot women in an LA Gym after his implementation of pick-up artist techniques failed), loss of job (and therefore income and therefore ability to provide). And in the case of Breivik, the perceived loss of white supremacy to immigrants.
In all cases, the essential background is patriarchy. But somehow, this fact must never enter the discussion. Let’s just say these guys were crazy and move right along. The whole ” solving problems / satisfying fantasies through gun violence” cultural theme is gendered. This is the cultural background that these men tap into when they lash out.
And, of course, family / work / immigration are all social institutions and processes where we are embedded into a variety of social relations whose status determine our happiness / satisfaction / fulfillment (or the negative counterparts of these). Our emotions and feelings towards others (relative, co-workers, immigrants) are inherently social. It is in the “in-between” of these interactions between individuals that feelings are generated.
And, of course, Brooks makes the common mistake to assume that to look for sociological factors that have played a part in a killing means to excuse or justify the action. That is so profoundly stupid.
There is an intersection on my way to work where a lot of accidents happen. I can see why. It is a busy, yet poorly designed, intersection. To point out that the structure of this intersection may account for a generally higher level of accidents is not to exonerate the people who get into them. It simply means that the structure of this intersection (for which individual drivers are not responsible) makes accidents more likely than at other intersections when people cut it close at the light change (for which they are responsible). According to Brooks, people just happen to turn into bad drivers at this particular intersection. A proper sociologist would argue that it is the interaction between structural factors (the intersection) and certain drivers (careless ones) that explains the elevated accident rate.
Legitimately aggrieved according to mainstream media commentators like Brooks, but not crazy: