Feature image by art_line
After each recent mass murder in this country, we tend to temporarily reengage in the same old conversations: gun control, security policies, desensitization to violence in the media, failures of the mental health system, and even the role of God in it all. Just as typical as these conversations are in the aftermath of each mass shooting, the descriptions of the killer that emerge from those acquainted with him are just as familiar. He kept to himself; he was socially awkward; he had a mental disorder; he was ‘really smart, gifted, genius.’
What does it mean to be a genius, or to be gifted? Compared to the average person, do gifted individuals see the world in ways average people do not? In ‘better’ ways? Are geniuses able to observe, interpret and comprehend information at a deeper level? Feelings and moods are not beyond human comprehension, so shouldn’t truly gifted thinkers be able to similarly rationally process the antecedents and consequences of their emotions? Like colors in a spectrum, there is a finite number of emotions that fall along a continuum and vary in intensity. There is no emotion one can feel that has not been felt by another human before. How smart is someone really if he cannot free himself from whatever undesirable trap his psychological construction of reality locks him in? The myth of the psychotic murderer as troubled genius needs to be abandoned.
Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand one’s feelings and resolve related conflicts, both internal conflicts and conflicts with others. I cannot help but think that our culture’s inattention to emotional intelligence is a growing part of many of our personal but also collective ills, including our violence problems–whether it be a middle-class White male shooting up an elementary school or a gang-related gunfight in the inner city. Over the course of our lifetime, we will have considerably more need to get along with other people and understand and resolve our own emotional upsets than we will ever have need to solve a quadratic equation or perform verbal analogies. When are we going to start giving emotional intelligence its due respect?
Mental Illness and Mass Murder: Not a Clear Link
Adam Lanza was said to have suffered from a form of Aspergers. Aurora shooter James Holmes sought psychiatric help for an unknown mental condition. Tucson shooter Jared Lee Loughner was believed to have schizophrenia. While it is easy to pathologize these individuals (and some of the behaviors they were known to exhibit, more generally), to say their homicidal actions were the result of a mental illness is misleading.
Some researchers claim the ‘crazed’ mass murderer profile is inaccurate. These researchers are supported by the idea that there are many individuals with mental illness and very few of whom commit crimes. Nearly one percent of the American adult population has been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Individuals with severe mental illness are significantly more likely to be victims of crime compared to the regular population. These researchers also note that many mass murderers in U.S. history have been relatively high-functioning, held jobs, had families and simply snapped in response to some insurmountable psychological stressor, like a threat or loss–perceived or real. This is where the profile of the American mass murder starts to grow clearer under a cultural lens as opposed to a psychological one.
Culture affects the expression of mental disorders, but some mental disorders and disordered thinking patterns are universally part of the human condition. In the 1700s, British Navy explorer Captain Cook, while traveling to the Pacific, observed and recorded a certain type of violent occurrence among the Malay people in which a seemingly unprovoked individual committed acts of violence against people and animals. It ended either in apprehension or being fatally subdued by tribesmen. This was termed “running amok.” Later in the 1800s and early 1900s, researchers examining the amok phenomenon suggested these attacks were not wholly unprovoked, and sometimes were able to trace amok episodes to upsets, death of loved ones or substance abuse. While the Malay described those running amok as being overtaken by an evil spirit, modern popular descriptions of mass shooters as being evil, or faithless, don’t seem so different. As privileged young White men, school, mall and theater shooters are demanding a public redress to their grievances–because they can. Today, the distraught male runs amok with a gun in a public space, similar to the tribesman with a knife in a village square. The setting and weapon are different, the root the same: emotional disturbance.
Men Are From Mars?
Again, if mental illness isn’t enough to account for mass murder, what is? What was the little extra something that pushed America’s recent mass murderers over the edge? Lanza supposedly got into a dispute with his mother prior to his rampage. In the days before the Aurora shooting, Holmes failed a comprehensive exam and then withdrew from his Ph.D. program. Friends of Loughner suggested his personality drastically changed after a breakup with his girlfriend. Notice a pattern? These men, more than likely mentally unstable (but perhaps no more unstable than other individuals with similar diagnoses), were unable to deal with their frustrations. Feeling threatened and seeking to restore their sense of self and sense of what is owed to them, they planned and took revenge in the sanctioned ways privileged men are allowed: violently and publicly with no regard for any other’s welfare.
I maintain that the inability to handle intraphysic dilemmas also figures centrally into the more common violence us inner city folk are familiar with. Young men looking to right perceived wrongs against them take to guns and violence. While I have written about gang violence from an intrapsychic perspective before, and have been criticized for downplaying socioeconomic factors in such violence (e.g., lack of employment and job opportunities, no clear ways to earn a living), I find it interesting that more women live under the poverty line than men–with children, often–and still women do not engage in gun violence to the same extent men do. With respect to greater demonstrations of violent behavior in comparison to women, there is something unique to the socialization of men that affects men of all colors and classes similarly. But the socialization of men is beyond the immediate scope of this post and is a topic for another post at another time. For now, suffice it to say it has something to do with our faulty narrative that our earthling men are actually from warlike Mars.
Increasing men’s access to mental health care is important but so too will be decreasing the stigma of seeking mental health care. In a world where men can’t even get themselves to a regular doctor for routine physicals, I would be interested to see how we would get troubled men to seek mental health care. Perhaps the sophomoric ad execs who created the uber-manly advertising for the assault rifle used by Lanza can be called in to develop a similarly masculine identity-affirming campaign for men seeking mental help. Man up: Pick up the phone and talk it out, bro.
IQ Versus EQ
There is nothing bright about sitting in a windowless basement all day playing first-person shooter games. Murder is not so bright. It’s actually quite dark. If, in the coming years, absolutely nothing changes policy-wise or in terms of the incidence of mass shootings, the least we can do is stop characterizing loner homicidal gunmen as highly intelligent. Emotional problems and problems socializing with other people are problems that can be solved through reasoning, behavioral modification and biochemical and medical interventions. Highly intelligent people solve problems, they don’t just rack up high scores on tests and computer games. Geniuses are able to go beyond calculating, rote memorization and book-learning to create a better life for themselves and the world. If we are to find a way to survive and thrive on this earth, no mass murderer of children can rightfully be called gifted.
Some claim that we are experiencing an empathy crisis. Our true nature is not rooted in aggression and dominance, but rather in a drive to belong. When we lack empathy, our drive to belong is interfered with, and we instead turn inward and isolate ourselves. We lose our ability to feel concern for others, in addition to ourselves. Our current institutions are severely threatening our ability to empathize with each other and thus, survive. This is especially the case for males, young and old. Until men can be taught that there is nothing more powerful and strong than controlling their own emotions and solving their own problems without having to do so in a public place using others’ bodies, we will continue to be beholden to their violent fantasies turned real. But, with increased attention toward the development of emotional intelligence, perhaps, over time, we will then see more emotional problem-solving and less violence.