Another mass shooting and it’s inescapable: The medium is the message
Photo courtesy of Brandon Jasper of Flickr via Creative Commons license
Another mass shooting.
Ten people dead this time in what has become a depressing affront to human decency.
We will react the way we always react – with declarations of “thoughts and prayers,” angry remonstrations over gun control or mental health funding, vows to vote out the politicians who don’t act on behalf of our beliefs … and do nothing.
And you know what? Nothing will change. It will happen again. We will react the same way, and again, nothing will change.
Change involves risk. As a culture, we’ve become risk-averse in everything from fighting wars to having dinner at a locally owned restaurant. We don’t like risk because it’s … risky.
Meanwhile, some of us will become a little more afraid. When we go out in public we’ll look for places to take cover. We’ll make sure we know where the exits are.
Some of us will become more cynical. We’ll throw up our hands in defeat, ask a rhetorical question about the fundamental nature of society, then move along.
Many of us – far, far too many of us – will become more hardened and extreme in our political beliefs until any kind of action, for better or worse, becomes impossible.
All of us will be asking: Why?
What compels a young man – and many of these mass shooters are young men – to pick up a gun, go to a public place and open fire on innocent people?
It’s trite and dismissive to brand them as “mentally ill” and let it go at that, as if no further explanation is necessary. Of course they’re mentally ill. It could be argued that anybody who commits premeditated murder is mentally ill, and these horrible acts are premeditated. They are not impulse killings or spree killings. They are planned and prepared for, a process that occurs only when a person’s grasp of reality has been seized by infection and rots and dies.
But what caused them to become mentally ill?
Some might say their home environment. Others blame video games and violent movies, while others say we have too many guns floating around out there.
I’ve been thinking about this question for a long time.
I’m afraid I don’t have an answer.
But I do have suspicions.
When I was a kid, most households consisted of two parents. Typically it was the mother who kept the family running and the father who went off to earn a paycheck. These days, far too many households consist of only a single parent, somebody who must work to support the family and is therefore absent a good deal of the time. Many children are raising themselves or worse, they are being raised by television and the internet. While I have known single parents who did a good job bringing up their kids, I suspect having one parent at home results in a more stable family environment. It allows children time to be children, not miniature adults with adult responsibilities. Childhood is an essential ingredient of a well balanced individual, I would say. I make no judgments about the gender, race, politics or religious persuasions of the parents. And I acknowledge that even in two-parent households, the cost of living often requires both parents to work outside the house.
Marriage, it seems, is treated as a disposable commodity. I suspect that’s a symptom of our overall attitude toward the concept of disposability. Whether you agree or not, here in the United States we live in a throw-away world. We throw away everything – small appliances, food packaging, furniture, and yes, even people. We perceive something that’s broken as replaceable, and we throw it away, because it’s cheaper than trying to fix the original.
That was not the case when I was a kid. We fixed things. If the electric can-opener broke we took it to a repairman. If a clock broke we took it to a clock shop. Soft drink bottles carried deposits, and with a bicycle basket full of Coke, Pepsi and RC Cola bottles you could earn enough money to buy a box of frozen shrimp to use as fish bait. Fixing things took time and cost money, yes. But often, the thing that was fixed was better than the original. And guess what? All those clock fixers and can opener surgeons had jobs.
Back then, couples who were having problems with their relationships tended to stay together and try to fix them. They didn’t always succeed but they seemed more likely to try. Your mother was right – marriage is hard work. Not all times are good times. But in today’s throw-away culture we treat marriage and relationships as disposable, just like that clock you bought at Big Lots that stopped working three days after you hung it on the living room wall. We place less value on marriage and relationships because we know if they are not instantly gratifying, we can simply throw them away and find another one.
Gratification. That’s another ingredient in this toxic stew of cultural rot. Our technology has given us the ability to be instantly gratified in just about everything we do. Want something right now? Buy it online and have it delivered. Don’t have the money to pay for it? Put it on credit. Want attention right now? Find it online. Want to be distracted or entertained right now? Lose yourself in a mobile phone screen.
Once, anything worth having was worth working and sacrificing for. A person did without, delayed gratification and scrimped on time or money to eventually acquire that magical thing. Once they had it, they worked like hell to keep it in great shape, which is why Dad spent Saturday morning washing and waxing the car, and Mom spent so much time cleaning the house and yelling at kids who didn’t wipe their feet before they came inside. A certain pride of ownership came with every new and great thing, and that was partly because it represented, to borrow a cliché, all the blood, sweat and yes, even a few tears, to get it in the first place.
The work it took to get those things – not just material possessions but marriages, relationships and children – was instructional in and of itself. It taught us the value of hard work, gave us patience, and made us appreciative for what we had.
I guess what I’m talking about are old-fashioned values.
Life was more difficult. Everything from washing clothes to fixing the car, cooking dinner and making sure the kids toed the line, took more effort. People didn’t have time to feel sorry for themselves, spread poison on the internet or immerse themselves in screed and demented jingoism. They were too busy trying to get by.
People tended to communicate by actually talking to other people. That was partly due to necessity – there were few alternatives – and partly because it was pleasurable. People invented reasons to socialize with other people, from parties to bridge club meetings, social work, scouting or just hanging out at local restaurants. When you speak to somebody in the flesh, a magical thing happens. You engage in not only verbal communication but interpersonal communication. You see the arch of their eyebrows; you hear the tone of their voice. You know instantly when they are joking, being sarcastic, or feeling grief.
You develop empathy.
That’s a quality sadly lacking in today’s environment of text messages, email, online comments and social media posts. We communicate, yes. More than at any previous time in human history. But the quality of our communication is lacking. It is disposable, just like everything else in our culture. We treat others online in ways we would never do in person – as a person who grew up before the arrival of the internet, I would say we rarely treated people as savagely as we do now in comments and social media posts. The lack of immediate physical presence has exerted a profound influence on not only what we say to others but how we say it. The dearth of empathy has turned many of us into sociopaths.
The internet has been a boon to mankind. Commerce, communication, the availability of knowledge – all of these activities have been revolutionized by the invention of the world wide web. Just today, for instance, I went online to search for a way to replace the batteries in an LED lantern. When I found the instructions in a PDF, I had to search for a way to mirror an image in Photoshop because the text was backwards. It would have taken me weeks to get those answers 50 years ago, and the Photoshop question would have been moot, because it didn’t exist 50 years ago.
I spend a great deal of my time online, from posting my ramblings on social media to checking weather models for hurricane development, watching movies, and offering my fiction for sale to readers directly.
But the digital world is a double-edged sword. I have an advantage over younger people in that I grew up with and learned a tradition of study and contemplation. I read quite a few books per year – some by excellent writers, others throw-away trash designed to entertain, not inform (I do not throw them away! I donate them to the SOCKS thrift shop to support their mission of saving and finding homes for abandoned cats and kittens in the Fort Walton Beach area.)
But for every online opportunity to learn, share information or spread kindness, there are a thousand ways to waste time, indulge in trash or even poison, and be cruel to other people. Pornography is rampant, for instance. While I personally don’t have a problem with porn, its easy availability means children are seeing it, and it is shaping their views about sex, romance, and relationships. Jingoism, political dogma and the echo chambers of extremism are also only a few clicks away. Nazis, racists, left- and right-wing extremists and others who never, ever would have received much of an audience in the past now make their voices as loud or louder than the mainstream.
The result is a skewed perception of reality. Marshall McLuhan told us that the medium is the message. If that’s the case, the message is that the United States is awash in rage, from angry comments to political extremism and violence. A kind of cultural lawlessness is at work in the absence of everything that leavened our behavior – hard work, struggle, delay of gratification, studiousness, and the consideration of others. These days it seems even acts of kindness we hear about are freighted with an expectation of reward other than the mere satisfaction of having done something nice.
It must sound as if I’m demonizing the present and deifying the past. I suppose I am, to an extent. I acknowledge life today, in many ways, is vastly superior to what it was 50 years ago. I can communicate instantly with people halfway around the world; in the past that would have required a costly telephone call. I take a pill that keeps my blood pressure down; in the past I would probably be dead of a stroke already. I underwent a laser iridotomy to treat my acute-angle glaucoma. It was an office procedure and I drove myself home. In the past it would have required major surgery. And it’s not just things – attitudes have changed. Although we are still struggling, we are making progress in eliminating racial discrimination. It is no longer an automatic death sentence for a man to admit he loves another man. We care about the environment (except for President Imbecile). We can build a device and send it out of the solar system to capture fantastic photos of objects we will not, in our lifetime, see for ourselves.
Life is so much better in so many ways.
But in other ways it is worse.
Families are fractured and kids are left to fend for themselves. People communicate vicariously, and much is lost in translation. Technology is a dehumanizing wall that is transforming us into misanthropes and sociopaths. Our obsession with disposability has extended to our relationships and how we treat others. Our technology has created a vast laziness that affects not only what we think but how we think it, corrupting both the medium and the message.
The medium and the message.
I would say many of these mass shootings represent a reservoir of anger generated by the way we live, coupled with a cry for attention from a generation of kids who desperately need some stability and love in their lives.
In the balance of things, our efforts to make life easier have not done us many favors.
Calls for additional gun controls, or more guns carried by more people, or more mental health funding, or any of the knee-jerk solutions offered by angry and frightened people in the wake of a mass shooting, are probably not going to work. Simple solutions to complex problems never do. The problem is a hydra, with many, many faces. One answer does not fit all.
So how do we fix this? I have some ideas, but because my analysis of the problem is made up of suspicions, so is my answer. Bear that in mind as you read this, if you are still with me.
I think the only answer is to re-establish certain values. People need to put down their phones and spend time with their kids. They need to get involved in their communities on a face-to-face basis and meet their neighbors. They need to make time for the important things in life – family and community – and stop throwing it away on self-indulgence and comfort. They need to make time for contemplation, thoughtfulness, and at least a small measure of scholarship. Sacrifice. Work hard. Delay gratification. Be nice.
And again, for God’s sake, spend time with your kids.
Those things won’t happen, but if they did, mass shootings might become a thing of the past.
Author’s note: Contact me at [email protected]. To read more of my opinion and humor pieces, visit delstonejr.com . In addition to my humor columns and opinion pieces, I write fiction – horror, science fiction and contemporary fantasy. If you’re a fan of such genres please check out my Amazon author’s page. Print and e-books are both available, and remember: You don’t need a Kindle device to read a Kindle e-book. Simply download the free Kindle app for your smart phone or tablet.
I’ve been a gun owner for many years. I believe a gun is a tool, and like any tool it can be used for good or for ill. But I wonder if the time has come when maybe we should consider restricting access to this particular tool.
First, a bit of background. When I was a kid I had a pellet rifle, a Crosman .22 pump. I used it for target practice and shooting the occasional bird (which, by the way, I now regret). When I was 14 my parents bought me a 20-gauge bolt action shotgun so I could dove hunt with my dad. Later, I graduated to a Remington Model 870 pump action 12-gauge, and finally a beautiful Belgian-made Browning with a ventilated rib. I killed many a duck and dove with that gun.
(By the way. We didn’t hunt for “sport.” We ate everything we shot and didn’t shoot anything we couldn’t eat.)
Dad was a stickler for gun safety, and he would not let me handle a gun until after he had drilled into my head the fundamentals of gun safety: Never keep the gun loaded; always treat a gun as if it were loaded; never point a gun at a person; keep the barrel pointed at the sky; after firing a gun, always make sure the safety is on.
I now own a 9mm semi-auto. I keep it strictly for home defense. Once every couple of years my friend Ray and I go to a gun range and use up our old ammo. He has an arsenal of rifles, shotguns and pistols. My favorite is the SKS, a fine shooting weapon with manageable recoil and an accurate barrel sight. I really do like that gun.
When Dad and I hunted we saw many people handling guns in an unsafe manner – pickup trucks full of beer-swilling teenagers with shotguns laid casually across their laps, pointing at their friends. We stayed as far away from those people as possible. Clearly their irresponsibility represented a hazard to us. We also stayed away from people who let children handle guns. I suppose it was OK in the 1800s, when America was still wild, to let a 12-year-old have a rifle to shoot the main course for dinner. But today? Not only unnecessary but downright dangerous.
My long-winded point is this: Guns are a tool, yes, but a tool of immense power. With that power comes immense responsibility. Drunk teenagers and 12-year-olds notwithstanding, I believe many adults in 21st century America are not capable of dealing with the responsibility such a powerful tool incurs.
Before I continue I hope you’ll forgive me if it seems this conversation is veering into a tangent beyond the pale. I have a theory about our culture, one I’ve been cultivating since 1995, when I was first exposed to the Internet. I’ve touched on it before but I don’t think I’ve ever tried to articulate it as thesis statement, one that my 12th-grade composition teacher, Mrs. Davis, would have granted a passing grade.
When gun advocates and gun control proponents debate the merits of gun ownership restrictions, many different arguments emerge. Invariably these arguments center around the Second Amendment, and conversely, the incidence of gun-related crimes in parts of the world with more restrictive gun-control laws, such as Europe. The Second Amendment does guarantee the right of gun ownership, and that right was recently affirmed by the Supreme Court. Gun-related crimes are lower in Europe, where gun ownership is more tightly controlled than here in the United States. The arguments are circular and nobody ever wins.
What I am about to suggest is that because of a cultural development over the recent past, starting in the mid-1990s, Americans are no longer capable of shouldering the immense responsibilities that gun ownership requires.
Authors such as Nicholas Carr and Neil Postman have chronicled the diminishing attention span, intelligence, and social interactivity of Americans with the advent of digital media – and by media I don’t mean Fox News or MSNBC, but the web, video games and mobile phones. The pervasiveness of these media, and their isolating qualities, mean that people can to a greater extent than ever before live their lives without having to deal with others on a face-to-face, one-on-one basis.
Think about it. You no longer sit down at the dinner table with your family. You stare into a smart phone, or check your social media accounts. You no longer deal with bankers, utilities, or college instructors. You access your accounts via the web. Conflict resolution does not occur with a human face attached to it; rather, it’s an e-mail in your inbox or a snarky comment left online.
Meanwhile, you’re saturated with images and experiences of violence – video games, movies, music, nasty comments fomented by keyboard commandoes.
This isolation allows the weaker among us to objectify our fellow men and women. In simpler terms, people are no longer individuals with hopes, aspirations, and emotions. They become ciphers on a monitor, dealt with and dismissed with the stroke of a key.
Yet reality is much more complex – and difficult. For someone who is attenuated to the ease of interaction by proxy, reality may demand an unreal solution – like picking up a gun and settling the score in a paroxysm of violence, just like the resolutions they experience online.
I fear our digital universe is creating a culture of sociopaths who are not accustomed to dealing with others in the here and now. For those people, violence may be their only alternative. Mass shootings like the one at Sandy Hook may become more commonplace, as a nation of people rendered mentally ill by their media act without logic, reason or explanation. Saturated by violence and isolated from human interaction by technology, they act as they’ve been taught.
Which is why restricting their access to powerful tools may be a good idea.
Sorry, Mrs. Davis. I offered no supporting arguments for my thesis. Truth is there are no supporting arguments. It’s just a thesis, derived from my having spun around this globe for 57 years. I hope you’ll forgive me.
About the author:
Del Stone Jr. is a professional fiction writer. He is known primarily for his work in the contemporary dark fiction field, but has also published science fiction and contemporary fantasy. Stone’s stories, poetry and scripts have appeared in publications such as Amazing Stories, Eldritch Tales, and Bantam-Spectra’s Full Spectrum. His short fiction has been published in The Year’s Best Horror Stories XXII; Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine; the Pocket Books anthology More Phobias; the Barnes & Noble anthologies 100 Wicked Little Witch Stories, Horrors! 365 Scary Stories, and 100 Astounding Little Alien Stories; the HWA anthology Psychos; and other short fiction venues, like Blood Muse, Live Without a Net, Zombiesque and Sex Macabre. Stone’s comic book debut was in the Clive Barker series of books, Hellraiser, published by Marvel/Epic and reprinted in The Best of Hellraiser anthology. He has also published stories in Penthouse Comix, and worked with artist Dave Dorman on many projects, including the illustrated novella “Roadkill,” a short story for the Andrew Vachss anthology Underground from Dark Horse, an ashcan titled “December” for Hero Illustrated, and several of Dorman’s Wasted Lands novellas and comics, such as Rail from Image and “The Uninvited.” Stone’s novel, Dead Heat, won the 1996 International Horror Guild’s award for best first novel and was a runner-up for the Bram Stoker Award. Stone has also been a finalist for the IHG award for short fiction, the British Fantasy Award for best novella, and a semifinalist for the Nebula and Writers of the Future awards. His stories have appeared in anthologies that have won the Bram Stoker Award and the World Fantasy Award. Two of his works were optioned for film, the novella “Black Tide” and short story “Crisis Line.”
Stone recently retired after a 41-year career in journalism. He won numerous awards for his work, and in 1986 was named Florida’s best columnist in his circulation division by the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. In 2001 he received an honorable mention from the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association for his essay “When Freedom of Speech Ends” and in 2003 he was voted Best of the Best in the category of columnists by Emerald Coast Magazine. He participated in book signings and awareness campaigns, and was a guest on local television and radio programs.
As an addendum, Stone is single, kills tomatoes and morning glories with ruthless efficiency, once tied the stem of a cocktail cherry in a knot with his tongue, and carries a permanent scar on his chest after having been shot with a paintball gun. He’s in his 60s as of this writing but doesn’t look a day over 94.
Contact Del at [email protected]. He is also on Facebook, twitter, Pinterest, tumblr, TikTok, Ello and Instagram. Visit his website at delstonejr.com .