The recent shooting at a high school near San Diego has Americans again examining their society. Is there something in our culture that provokes violent behavior among the young?
Nearly everyone has endured the teasing that the 15-year-old assailant experienced, and yet few have responded with a spree of murder and mayhem; Why now? Do this and Columbine and other similar incidents indicate some kind of a breakdown in our society? Or is the problem to be found in easily obtainable handguns? I contend that both factors bear on this problem, but while much has been written about the availability of handguns, little has been said about the role that popular culture plays in such incidents.
While it is true that the media, especially TV and movies, glorify violence, the young viewer sees few repercussions for thousands of movie and TV murders, giving the impression that violence can be a solution to interpersonal problems. Youth, who by definition have little life experience, sometimes take these portrayals at face value, particularly if they have little or no countervailing influences. However, I am not prepared to make the media the only scapegoat in this instance. There are other difficulties with American popular culture that contribute to incidents like those cited above.
Father Robert J. Spitzer, President of Gonzaga University, has made the case that American popular culture would have us look for happiness in the wrong places. He argues that American popular culture teaches us to look for happiness in the gratification of desires and the minimization of pain. While both are good goals, youth who perceive these as the only source of happiness are destined to be unfulfilled.
Seeking happiness solely or primarily in immediate gratification has fueled the recent spate of materialism. Americans buy each new toy thinking it will bring happiness. By the same token, efforts to achieve happiness only by minimization of pain, e.g., alcohol and drugs, have fueled an enormous tendency toward addiction and have ultimately proved unsatisfying. Self-absorbed youth who perceive that happiness is achieved only by immediate gratification are predisposed toward low self-esteem and boredom - a potentially deadly combination.
The culture reinforces a second level of happiness as well. Happiness, we are told, can be achieved through personal advancement. Our culture reminds us constantly that those who achieved success are happy, usually measured in earnings or influence, are happy and fulfilled. Thus highly paid sports figures or film stars are held up as models of happiness, no matter that their personal lives may be a mess. While pursuit of advancement is a worthy goal, if seen as the sole road to fulfillment, will ultimately lead to jealousy and fear or frustration. The youth for whom success is everything has two possibilities: He achieves but remains fearful and jealous of competition; he fails and becomes frustrated. There is a road to enduring happiness and fulfillment, that of self-giving.
While the culture holds up the value of self-giving as a positive thing, it does not have a sense that giving of self leads to happiness. On the contrary, people who work for the good of others are generally portrayed not as happy, but rather as engaged in some titanic struggle (and who wants to struggle all the time). And popular culture never refers to the even higher level of happiness to be found in the intangibles of love, justice, beauty or truth. In fact it tends to ridicule such notions. The notion that ultimate happiness can be found in truth, beauty, justice and love, a notion acknowledged by Western philosophy for most of the past 2400 years, is mostly ignored by American popular culture. Ignored as well is that notion that the embodiment of these perfect virtues in what we of the Christian tradition call God.
I suggest that the tendency toward killing in schools, as well as many other social ills, can be reduced if our popular culture would reflect the truth that happiness is attainable on levels above those of personal gratification and achievement. Only at those levels can we achieve our true dignity.
Rev. Michael Nash is the pastor of the Catholic Cathedral of the Nativity in downtown Juneau