Friday, April 19, 2013

Points of Unity in These Turbulent Times: Hopelessnes, Alienation and Fear during Times of Tragedy

It is very easy to see no commonality between the rash of tragedies we are suddenly surrounded by. Numerous incidents ranging from unfortunate to fatal, all happening in roughly the same time and same geographical space, to people whose social experiences seem to be worlds apart. Some people respond by citing the random unpredictability of things. Others respond by quoting religious texts which tell us we are in the last days of this world. Still others react by drawing further into themselves and seeing every stranger as a potential threat. In our country this threat perception has and continues to take on racial and religious tone which further breeds separation and distrust.

How then do we avoid these unproductive coping tools, is the question I’ve been asking myself. Further, how do I present a reasonable and realistic manner of thinking to my students in our classroom conversations? Seeing our current condition through a materialist or scientific lens was my first answer. Also, to use sociological reasoning to draw different people, places, and incidents closer together to expose the appearance of the problem and get at a common essence. One of my main teaching objectives is to keep the interrelatedness of all things at the forefront of our conversations. But again, how exactly are we tying these events together? What could be common in the experiences of:

- a poor black youth in Chicago who makes the decision to run towards a crowd of other young people firing a gun
- a girl who decides that death by suicide is an acceptable alternative to vicious bullying due to pictures and videos of her unconscious being sexually assaulted by various boys
- a white man who enters a middle school and opens fire on children and their teachers
- an unknown person or persons who plants several bombs at a populated sporting and social event for the purpose of violently disrupting lives
- a man who sees a young black male walking down the street at night on a cell phone as enough of a threat that he hunts him down, kills him, and claims self-defense
- a segment of the country that believes this was a rational course of action
- several Indian men who use the rhetoric of morality as justification to beat and rape women, some to death, and a legal system that echoes that way of thinking
- a person from any demographic that uses drugs or alcohol to escape their reality

Recognizing that all these acts are nuanced and complex in ways very specific to their context, I’ve been thinking about the first few steps in the thought process that eventually materializes into action. What makes someone susceptible to ideas that result in taking lives, even one’s own? One probable rationalization is an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness. More than just having nothing to look forward to, this hopelessness produces a feeling that nothing, neither actions nor consequences, matters. Implicit in this feeling is alienation. Due to the impersonal make-up of social structures and economies, people feel separated from each other, separated from the things they do, separated from ambitions, and separated from their own lives. Whether we take a traditionally Durkeimian view of anomie (societal normlessness leading to a lack of social integration) or a Marxist view of alienation (people being estranged from each other, what is important to them, their work, etc.) on the matter, I believe that common threads can be found. What are the depths of these roots?

Can there be a common root in different societies or countries? What similarities in thinking can we draw between the “cherry petals” of Japanese student soldiers and other suicide bombers in the Middle East, US, and other places of different ages and genders?

As I’m fond of saying, these issues leave me with more questions than answers, but it is important to have these conversations. It is important to think about what can be done in our own lives to stay productive about finding these answers. I, too, an keeping feelings of crippling sadness and inactive resignation away. Writing and talking about these things are my outlets. Hopefully reading and responding to these thoughts can be part of yours.