by John Jensen, PhD
The killing of schoolchildren and adults by Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, last week stimulated a national discussion. Issues treated have been largely tangible, however, such as gun safety, gun control, school guards, training of school personnel, carry of concealed weapons, size of weapons and their magazines, access to firearms, and police visits.
An aspect we might regard as more fundamental is also less tangible. It lies in a cultural stance acceptant of alienation, marginalization, rejection, and resentment. Mass murderers—Klebold, Harris, McVey, Kazinski, Lanza and the like–have typically been disconnected people who were, as best we can tell, unhappy and angry. Their typical state has not become a social concern, however, as society either dismisses them as “Crazies” or blames them as evil.
Hard for us even to grasp is our collective complicity in their condition. A fundamental requirement for human existence is interdependence. We have evolved to need other people, enough of them at least to constitute a tribe where everyone has a place.
But examine the relationship to society of Lanza and others. A universal social tendency is to gauge our relationship to others according to our similarity to them. Those we view as very different we classify as other, which carried out as social pattern becomes otherism.
We set others off at a greater emotional distance, trust them less, consider their needs less, and count them as less significant in our social computations. Mainly we just want them to leave us alone, not injure us. If they do that much, we are usually content to dismiss them, to zero them out of the world we feel we must pay attention to. And since we can find differences with almost anyone, our tendency is to think “we” about a limited set of faces and assign everyone else in the world to an impersonal “other.”
With the disintegration of our natural tribes in mass society, otherism leaves a considerable number of people vulnerable to discard. Most by luck and a little activity can find at least a few to claim as theirs, to whom they are not ‘other.’ But the pervasive application of otherism in family structure, zoning regulations, law, education, finance, political influence, and social status welcomes some under specified conditions and excludes others.
People have been discarded by their society for all of history, of course, but only recently have the few on the margins become so potent. As the lethality, portability, and availability of weapons has increased, individuals can impact the public good more when set against it. Single individuals alienated from society can obtain the means to inflict great harm. And our instinct to protect our children by turning schools into fortresses does not neutralize the threat. Next come amusement parks, sporting events, parades, shopping malls, buses, and subways. Gun control is not likely to solve the problem of alienation.
What has often prevented harm is also a natural human tendency. Other people use their eyes and ears to notice something out of place and act responsibly about it. A relative seeks help, an onlooker notifies law enforcement. Though this may avert a specific danger, the Sandy Hook tragedy invites a broader remedy. Apart from choices to make about hardware, the design needs to incorporate a legitimate, satisfying place for all within a social bond, where inside a supportive atmosphere everyone is taken account of, and it matters to all that each prospers, experiences well-being. We notice their needs long before they become “cases,” and we consciously counteract our tendency to otherism so that natural, protective, responsible, timely, caring actions occur.
Simply the capacity to be personal can open a crucial bridge. Some years ago, police stopped a motorist for a minor infraction. Noticing a quantity of weapons and ammunition in the back seat, they brought him to the police station for questioning. Shortly, he confessed that he had planned to go out that day and kill as many people as he could, but first he stopped at a diner for a cup of coffee. There, because the waitress smiled at him, he decided not to go on his killing spree.
A problem with schools is that they mirror the social tendency to otherism. Society draws a circle around a set of people and declares, “This is us,” while everyone outside the circle is “other.” Schools in fact may present this separation more acutely by their symbolic weight. People are drawn to symbols, like the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon. Schools represent growth, well-being, happiness, progress, hope, and optimism for the future.
But turn the symbol around as seen by one who is static, frozen, discouraged, and depressed. It could easily be viewed as a rebuke — “See? This isn’t you.” It could remind them that their life is stalemated, that they do not know how to be happy, that they have been set apart, that they are alone on the outskirts of meaning in their community. We cannot question Adam Lanza now about his perceptions, but a school could represent an affront to an outsider, particularly if seen as the setting of a grievance or injustice.
But schools are an appropriate starting point. It is not difficult to teach children essential life skills of supporting and drawing the best from each other, and becoming a team with a place for all. We lead children through the practice of such skills, and provide an environment where their expression is welcome. Those relegated to the margins of society have their best chance of prospering when incorporated into a group that is personal and connected.
As children peer out the windows of their school-fortress, think if this is the message we teachers telling them: “Out there are lots of people who can hurt you. Stay away from everyone if your parents haven’t specifically told you they are okay.” Or should they hear, “Everyone needs to be treated well, so we are going to practice how to be with each other even when we are unhappy or need something. We want you to notice others, understand them, and know how to treat them safely and happily.” Children need to learn how their actions affect others, and extend those lessons to the most marginal among them.
If we only teach children to avoid anyone who is “other” while ignoring their needs and feelings, we gradually fracture society. And as we make destructive means available to all, eventually we discover them aimed at ourselves. Either we include others in our social world and take account of their needs when it is easy to do so, or we wait till they assault us and then apply ourselves to treating our own discomfort about what they have done.
John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and author of the three-volume Practice Makes Permanent series (Rowman and Littlefield). He will send a proof copy of the volumes to anyone on request: firstname.lastname@example.org