On Community, Part I

I would like to propose that the primary reason school shootings happen so frequently in America is not because of guns or mental health, but because the US, by and large, lacks a cohesive social fabric and a sense of community. That’s not to say that guns and mental health don’t play a role, only that they are secondary to the issue of social cohesion. My claims will be largely based on anecdotal evidence, but one piece of systemic evidence is that the US’ situation with guns and mental health is similar to many other countries’, particularly countries in the Middle East where guns (and heavier grade weaponry) are abundant and access to mental health is even more restricted than it is in the US. Yet, crimes of the sort perpetrated by Adam Lanza are almost entirely unheard of in the Middle East. Violence in schools and against children does occur, as evidenced by the frequent brutality of the Taliban against girls for example, but such crimes represent a distinct phenomenon from that of the lone gunman with little ideological or political motivation. But I am getting ahead of myself. I would first like to begin with issues regarding community in the United States.

The basic problem as I see it is the following: in much of the United States, people lack access to a large community (100s to 1000s) of physically proximal individuals from which they can draw material and psychological support. Most Americans have an extended family, numbering in the dozens of individuals. Most also have friends, perhaps a dozen or so close ones, and a larger set of a few dozen with whom they have reasonably close bonds. But that’s about it. The average American may have hundreds to thousands of acquaintances, but in practice this extended network provides minimal tangible support.

A “community” has the potential to be something entirely different. The reason I know this is because I grew up in a country (Iraq) and a region (the Middle East) that, despite its numerous problems, has a remarkably strong social fabric and a very strong sense of community. By this I mean that people are able to depend on, e.g. ask for material support (money), soft support (watch the kids for an afternoon), and psychological support (my kid is a maniac what do I do?), a very large extended network of people, easily in the hundreds and perhaps thousands. This is the average, not the exception. It is not necessary for a person to be highly extroverted to know that many people or be able to depend on them. When someone loses a home or a job, dozens to hundreds of people pitch in to help. When someone loses a loved one, dozens to hundreds of people visit, console, cook for and help in supporting the everyday needs of the relatives of the deceased. And this is true in difficult and in joyous times. It is quite common for marriages in the Middle East to have hundreds to thousands of guests, very few of which are actual family or friends of the newlyweds. They are simply part of the community, which is typically highly geographically localized, i.e. it is the set of people who happen to live where you live.

Now it also happens to be the case that in countries where such a strong sense of community exists, some of which are the poorest and most war-stricken regions in the world, you find remarkably little homelessness, and few if any crimes committed by mentally-ill individuals. This is based on my anecdotal experience of countries in the Middle East, but I suspect someone has collected rigorous data. My claim is that the two are related, that in fact a strong social fabric acts as a great safeguard against crimes like those of Adam Lanza’s. Here are a few possibilities as to why. First, having a strong support network relieves the pressure of having two parents or worse yet a single parent to care for a mentally disturbed child. In the past few days there have been many cries for help from parents of children like Adam Lanza, to the effect of “this is too big a problem for me to handle alone”. Mental health professionals are obviously one way to deal with the problem. But a strong community can also provide that support, by distributing the workload among a large number of people so that no one person feels overwhelmed. Second, a strong social fabric also acts to prevent extreme isolation and introversion. This may or may not be a good thing depending on your perspective, but in countries with very strong communities it’s basically impossible to be left alone. Privacy is devalued, and thus no matter how shy a person is, they are repeatedly subjected to social interactions. Third, strong communities cultivate social stigma. This may be the most contentious, because social stigma can have very negative consequences as well. Divorce, unconventional religious beliefs, and homosexuality are few of the numerous examples of socially stigmatized behavior, and this stigma can have devastating consequences on the stigmatized individuals. In many instances, social stigma is a bad thing. But in other instances, it can also be a good thing, in the sense that it acts to regulate extreme behavior. Of course in the cases of mass murder, social stigma is likely to have little effect. But what it does do is prevent the series of behaviors that precede reaching the state of Adam Lanza. I.e. Adam Lanza didn’t become Adam Lanza overnight. It took years of (presumably) mental anguish until he reached the state he did, and it’s possible that if some of his earlier behaviors were more stigmatized, he would not have sunk so deeply into the abyss.

All of the above is of course idle speculation. We will never know for certain what would have or could have happened. My aim is to point out that another significant factor may be at work, beyond the two issues of guns and mental health, and that the problems we have in the US may be more cultural and more systemic.

The above naturally raises the question of why we lack a strong sense of community in the US, and how to fix it. A topic that I will leave for subsequent posts.


9 comments

  1. Pingback: On Community, Part II « Some Thoughts on a Mysterious Universe

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  3. Well put Mo, agree completely. I would add that as part of a community one feels ‘watched’, in the sense that a broad collection of people are cheering your triumphs, concerned about your downfalls and generally keeping tabs, like a large set of concerned secondary parents with different degrees of involvement and closeness. Growing up in this scenario, your life is not merely your own, and, with the borader community watching and guiding, you perhaps tend to be more careful about messing up, and have more people to be proud of you when you do well. This is a generalization of what you present above as social stigma, in that the society guides you towards successes and away from mishaps.

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