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The Role of Shame in Firearm Massacres

The Shame of It All: Violence in A Culture of Disrespect

By David E. Roy. Ph.D.

In the context of the firearm massacre of first graders and the intense debate about guns and mental health that has followed, it is important to bring attention to the fact that the Judeo-Christian tradition lands heavily on the side of nonviolence.  This is the religious home of the vast majority of US citizens.

For Christians, whose roots are deep in Judaism, the Jewish Bible is known as the Old Testament.  The heart of this is the Torah where one can find a couple of versions of what’s known as the Ten Commandments.

About halfway down the list, we find a series of prohibitions, the first being against killing.  In what’s called the Beatitudes in the Christian Bible, Jesus as Rabbi takes this a step further, admonishing his followers not to return violence with more violence, but instead to turn the other cheek.

At Christmas time, many Christian church choirs and congregations sing excerpts from Handle’s Messiah, where Jesus is hailed as the “Prince of Peace!” – not the Prince of War.  The universal symbol for Christianity is the cross, connoting sacrifice, instead of a raised arm brandishing an automatic rifle.

We May Be Christians, But We Still Love Our Guns

Yet, while nearly 80 percent of US citizens identify themselves as Christian, very few are committed to any degree of nonviolence (assuming there is a range of nonviolent positions from unconditional to some use of limited force for protection).

A recent Time Magazine article (1/14/13) revealed we have the most guns per capita of any nation:  close to 90 per 100.  Compared to Canada, England, and western Europe, we also have a much higher rate of firearm homicides.  In 2007, the year these figures were put together by the United Nations, the 9,146 firearm homicides in the US were roughly 3 per 100,000 and accounted for 60% of all homicides.

By contrast, the firearm homicide rate per 100,000 for Canada was 0.51, 0.07 for England, 0.19 for Germany, 0.77 for Switzerland (which was 3rd for rate of gun ownership), and 0.45 for Finland (4th for gun ownership).  These and many other countries (but not all by any means) appear to have found ways to allow people to have weapons yet keep them under control.  This is not something we have been able to accomplish, hence Sandy Hook.

Somehow, Killing First Graders is the Worst of the Worst

The killing at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newton, Connecticut, was extraordinarily shocking because most of the victims were first graders.  All of the massacres have been and continue to be deeply unsettling, but it feels as though there is something even more primal about our responses to the murders of these children.   It touches something so basic, so universal, that it is difficult to find the words to express this sense of how wrong this was.  I am haunted by the ineffable feeling that this horrible act wounded the sacredness of Life itself.

What are We Going to Do?

Here is the question:  Now that we have come face to face with the worst mass murder most of us could imagine – first graders shot repeatedly with ultra-destructive bullets, adults gunned down trying to stop the killer and shield the children – now that this has been thrown at us, what are we going to do?

So far, the public’s response has included strong calls for stricter control of firearms, large ammunition clips, and the ammunition itself.  Strong voices also are calling for funding public mental health services at a much higher rate.

Others believe intensely that we should place (hopefully) well-trained armed guards at all schools.  And, in what seems to be a uniquely American response, gun dealers and those assigned to do background checks are reporting a huge rush to buy not just more guns but the same type of weapon used in the Sandy Hook killings, an automatic rifle, along with enough ammunition to keep those gun barrels red hot.

The cliché about people with hammers can only see nails to pound, if true, would mean there are an awful lot of Americans who can only see targets to shoot.

Again, We Must Ask, Why are these Massacres Happening?

Tragically, this soul-numbing slaughter is only the latest of an on-going series of these gruesome incidents.  We have to ask again, why are these massacres happening and what can we do about it?  As with previous incidents, many people will be analyzing details of the shooting and the shooter to try to answer these questions.

What kind of disturbed mind would conceive and then carry out such an awful act?  I have some thoughts about this, but first I want to speak to two misunderstandings that need to be cleared up.

Two Misunderstandings

1.  The first misunderstanding is that restricting gun ownership for people who are in some fashion mentally disturbed will help stop these massacres.  In reality, there is no guarantee that someone considering such a monstrous act would seek therapy.

I do believe that putting a lot more money toward public mental health services would be quite beneficial for all of us, however, and I really hope it happens no matter what.  This would reduce violence in general; and it would have the potential to keep huge numbers of people out of prison, saving enormous amounts of money and improve the quality of life for many as well.

2.  The second misunderstanding is the idea that there is some sort of similar underlying personality type or psychological disorder that leads to these murders.   In the latest round of rumors, for example, the Asperger’s condition has been mentioned as a possible cause and that simply is not true.  Nor is it because someone is depressed or bi-polar, or anything else.  It is unlikely these killers share a common diagnosis that could predict their actions.

DNA Analysis to the Rescue?

I also read that they are going to do DNA research associated with these killings.  This presupposes that something as unique and complex as this can be reduced to DNA.  While DNA at the level of eye and hair color is very straightforward, when it comes to something as multifaceted as this, it is highly unlikely that a highly unique pattern will be found.

The most that DNA analysis might do, if they were to find something that tied the killers together, would be to put a large number of people under extraordinary scrutiny; and they still would not begin to be able to predict who actually might act.   On the other hand, in the legal universe, I suppose this would open the door to the DNA defense:  My genes made me do it!

There are Common Factors, However …

A handful of shootings, including some of the massacres, have been done by people who are, clinically speaking, psychotic, namely paranoid schizophrenic.  This is where our society’s lack of support for more in depth and extensive community mental health becomes shockingly evident.

But this does not account for most of what we have been seeing.  These shooters are not psychotic but they are propelled by a most powerful motivation that is the same in all cases.  In these highly publicized shootings, as well as in a large number of less-publicized killings, there is one factor that seems to tie nearly all of these events together, a factor normally barely mentioned if discussed at all.

Here is what I can see:  In nearly all the past bloody tragedies when we learn about the killers, we can find the poison of the emotion shame hard at work, sometimes for years before the actual killings.

… and that is Shame-Driven Rage

I submit that the primary fuel for these massacres is shame-driven rage.

The depth, power, and pervasiveness of the emotion of shame is poorly understood in our society; and unfortunately, not well understood even in my profession (psychotherapy).

In its rawest, most intense form, shame is extraordinarily painful.  The automatic response to shame is to attack, to destroy the shamers with undiluted rage, thereby re-establishing the lost esteem.

Research psychologist Sylvan Tompkins named shame as one of nine innate emotions for all humans.  Shame has many names and a wide range of intensity from mild to intense.  It even has important positive functions (enforcing a group identity and deflating excess grandiosity).

What does shame feel like?  It is that experience of being exposed to others as inherently ugly, unacceptable, repulsive, humiliatingly flawed.  You stink, you are disgusting, no one is as stupid or as ugly as you are.

Important Resources

Retired Michigan State University staff psychologist and professor, Dr. Gershen Kaufmann, first introduced many of us who are practicing psychotherapists to this topic through his book, Shame:  The Power of Caring.  Not only is this a book that all professional psychotherapists should read, but at this point it should be assigned reading for all who are researching and creating policies to deal with these shootings.  In my own practice, in addition to Kaufmann’s book, I also have found that John Bradshaw’s self-help book, Healing the shame that Binds You is a valuable resource.

The Dynamics of Shame at Work

When people feel humiliated, it sets certain things in motion in them, namely a desire to level the playing field.  As they often feel powerless, however, they may not be able to do anything except brood.  This increases the intensity of shame; it becomes a static charge seeking to be grounded in order to restore a sense of worthiness.

When this rage is augmented by like-minded conspirators (as with Columbine) and reinforced by many hours of absorbing detailed violence from TV, radio and horrific games, the stage can be set for even harsher action.

Human beings in general are sensitive to being shamed and this is acutely so during most of childhood.  Unlike young children, however, teenagers are fully capable of a wide range of adult actions whether it is driving a car, using a computer, or shooting a firearm.

Much of what is referred to as bullying involves intense shaming by mocking and deriding others who are different, who may deviate to some degree from the accepted norm in dress, language, skin color, areas of interest, mannerisms, and all the other ways people can be see and experienced as different.  An unathletic brainy student often is a poor fit for a group of jocks; and vice versa:  “Hey, it’s the smartass computer geek.  Let’s throw him in the girl’s bathroom where he belongs!”  “Hey, there’s the stupid jock!  Don’t let your knuckles drag on the floor.d”

Teens and young adults who are Aspergers in their makeup are going to be different.  They often can come across as awkward, saying things in an odd manner, not tuning in to the emotional flow of a conversation and interjecting something that doesn’t fit the context and may even be jarring.  But like all human beings, people defined by Aspergers do experience shame (I’ve had this validated by several clients with Aspergers).  Their often flat affect can and does give the appearance that they don’t care, but that is not true.

If someone is extensively ridiculed and feels horribly out of it compared to the perceived norm due to Aspergers, this person may be just as likely to turn to violence as anyone else who has been intensely ridiculed for any other reason.  The Aspergers is not the cause; it is simply becomes the flaw that others pounce on for mockery.

A Tipping Point is Reached

Eventually, for some victims of extensive shaming, a tipping point has todd be reached.  It is payback time for all the slights and nasty words, all the red-hot moments of being made to look idiotic in front of one’s peers.

As many who are treated this way do not end up using a semi-automatic weapon to surprise and kill those who are defenseless, there is important work to be done to tease out the factors correlated with becoming a shooter.  In the meantime, there are definitely actions all of us can take to improve the situation, to dial down the potential for shame.

We Live in a Culture of Intense Disrespect

Our nation today is dominated by an atmosphere of disrespect, of name calling and egregious put downs of those whose options differ.  I would have to point to Rush Limbaugh as the contemporary master of the dark art of the supercharged sneer, the well-practiced (and highly rewarded) instinct to heap acid scorn on any and all with whom he disagrees.  Of course he is not the only one by far nor is his approach to commentary only practiced by right-wing Republicans on the Fox network.  But I would say, echoing others, that the Republicans today have by far the strongest voice in this battle of disrespect.

How does this relate to the shootings?  This shame-charged climate adds to a negative emotional load for all of us, in particular those who already see themselves as less than most others.  As such, this potentially this means it would take less additional input to reach the threshold for action.

This Disrespect Must End … or be Terminated

The most important step is to end the pervasive rhetoric of disgust and degradation in public and in private; and to communicate with respect for and toward those with whom we may strongly disagree.  This has to include the numerous media commentators who make their audience delight when someone else is called names, made out to be stupid, etc.

These commentators appeal to their audiences because they are implicitly saying that you, audience, are smart in direct proportion to how idiotic these others are made to look.  It seems that the most primitive form of self-esteem requires others to be idiots.  Unfortunately for the audience, but fortunately for the commentators, this type of esteem evaporates quickly and therefore needs repeated feedings.

Getting these commentators to stop the nasty putdowns or to request they be dropped from the public’s airwaves is crucial.  This is not an issue of free speech.  This is an issue of public safety as well as the quality of life in our nation.

The same is true for all of the rest of us.  Each of us must our part to help end the intensely charged atmosphere of shame that pervades our nation. In our efforts to get those in power to reign in their denigrations, their put downs, however, we must restrain our own tendencies to treat them in a similar manner.  As tempting as that might be, this would just perpetuate the problem.

Befriend Those Who are Marginalized

Finally, an essential act we all can do in our various roles as friends, parents, teachers, religious leaders, coaches, health care workers, and more, is to tune in more closely to those among us who may be or feel different, outside the norm; those who seem to draw a disproportionate amount of negative attention from peers, teachers or other leaders; those who clearly are struggling with intense self-hatred; and those who seem to be isolated, walled off, uncomfortable, ill at ease.  If they own or have access to firearms, monitoring this is essential.

We can make our society a more caring and accepting environment and we can gently befriend those who have been treated as outcasts.  If we do, we will reduce the potential for these horrible murders while creating an environment that augments Life at the most basic of levels.

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