Monday, January 10, 2011

Pressure Cookers, Voices, and Violence

The buzz since the Tuscon shootings has surrounded the violent rhetoric that preceded last November's election.  While I fall on the side of believing that words hold enormous power (contrast "Nothing to fear but fear itself." with "War on Terror."), I wonder if there may be a more fundamental cause.

Doctor Anonymous' Blog notes the similarity between Columbine, Virginia Tech and the Tuscon shootings.  Perhaps you could add the Oklahoma City bombings.  Whoopi Goldberg speaking on "The View" before the last election also connected the World Trade Center attacks, 'People doing what other people told them to do.'

What seems fundamental to me is people's drive to have control over their lives.  They want a say in how they are made to live.  In the United States, we have the first amendment which guarantees free speech, but that doesn't necessarily ensure that citizen voices contribute to the debate in which solutions are crafted.

Our instruments of liberty have become devices of control.  We begin in school rewarding the compliant students and discouraging those that are "wild."  Perhaps these children are branded with the ADD or ADHD label and put on medication.  In contrast, Oliver and Rachelle DeMille describe the education of Thomas Jefferson.  The model acknowledges the developmental limitations of children.  When humans are very young, they can't sit still.  They are wired to be active.  At this stage, children are mentored in an environment that keeps this fact in mind.  As the children mature and are able to sit still, the education becomes increasingly intense and challenging commensurate with their biological self-control.  The lessons challenge students to think critically and creatively.  This is a process by which citizens are nurtured, leaders groomed.

In contrast, the education system today for the most part places children in detention centers and teaches them to follow instructions.  This turns out to be a good model for chugging out corporate employees, who will, as my friend Jack Ring points out, sit in adult detention centers for much of their careers.  Robert Kiyosaki, in his book Rich Dad Poor Dad describes an event where his teacher warns Kiyosaki and his friend that if they don't do better, they won't get a job.  They thought this was great; they didn't want jobs.  They wanted to be entrepreneurs.  In an information age, small businesses are more nimble and response in creating value than the large businesses which are a relic of the industrial revolution.  Inertia and the concept of being "too big to fail" sustains the big business model.

The decreasing ratio of representatives to citizens as the population grows also contributes to this feeling of helplessness.  People's voices are getting softer and softer as the crowd in which they are aggregated gets larger and larger.  The impact of an individual thoughts is diminished.  This is particularly true as the ideological polarization continues to strengthen.  We are not empowering an aggregate of individuals, we are defending inflexible ideals.  If you doubt the inflexibility, you need only look back to the pre-election rhetoric, or look forward to the activities of the new congress.

Individuals want their thoughts to be heard.  When this is not possible, people feel that their thoughts are being suppressed, their rights denied.  When people have thoughts in isolation they can imagine a supporting constituency that must share the same ideas.  The imagined group can become a cause.  Of course, the constituency could be real, but there is no way to be sure without a channel for individual expression.  Obviously elections and letters to representatives aren't doing the job.

As the population rises and our footprints increasingly overlap and impinge, more regulations and controls are being generated to control our activities.  This leads to increasing frustration that undermines self-efficacy.  It is to be expected that this frustration is easy to catalyze with evocative words.  We shouldn't be surprised when violent events occur.

I am a great admirer of the founding fathers and the work they did.  I wonder if they were addressing today's conditions, our institutions would be structured as they are today.  The people's needs, capabilities and expectations are very different; the constraints on participation have changed dramatically with modern transportation, telecommunication and information technology.  I can't help but think they would be mindful of the pressure cooker that we have built for ourselves and want to build in more relief valves.

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