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Mounties, Cowboys & Avengers: The Cultural Script of Gun Violence

A New Cultural Script

In recent decades, American culture has promoted a powerfully influential value system devoted to celebrity and fame. An instant aura of notoriety is often accorded the mass shooter, which only feeds his narcissistic needs.

Indeed, mass shooters have left writings explicitly stating their desire for infamy. Too little research has focused on how the “cultural script” of American mass shootings has been influenced by socio-cultural factors [6].

Using the analogy of a slowly evolving riot, Malcolm Gladwell notes that between the 1999 Columbine massacre and now, mass shootings have become more ritualized and self-referential, with perpetrators more strongly identifying with past shooters [7].

Thus, the evolving script appears to be rooted much more in narcissism and hero-worship than in serious mental illness—consistent with research showing that narcissism is on the rise in our culture [8].

As Gladwell astutely notes, “… young men no longer need to be deeply disturbed to contemplate horrific acts.” Worse still, the internet and social media have been playing an increasing role in propagating this script, as perpetrators often study and idolize those who have gone before them.

What Can We Do?

What can be done about mass shootings, from a mental health standpoint? In our fame-driven society, we believe that widespread publicity of mass shooters may inspire other would-be shooters.

News coverage of mass shootings must therefore avoid “glamorizing” the shooter. Our popular media must no longer lionize acts of bravado and brutality by making cultural icons out of mass killers. Even more urgently, we need a better understanding of how the mass shooter mentality evolves, and how it can be attenuated [9 ].

For example, in a detailed case study of five mass murderers, several common factors were discovered. [10 ]. The subjects had all been bullied or isolated as children; and, not surprisingly, viewed others as rejecting and uncaring.

Addressing childhood bullying and social isolation may help avert the development of would-be shooters, though research is sorely needed in this area. Such primary prevention will require a coordinated, multi-disciplinary effort, involving parents, teachers and clinicians.

Finally, as a society, we need to re-examine how our children are acculturated, with respect to violence. This is a complex matter, but at a minimum, we need to find ways of inculcating the values of compassion, nonviolence and personal responsibility in our children; for example, by teaching our youth to recognize, “own” and control their anger [11] Like everyone else, young people want freedom—but freedom is tolerable only when tempered by the virtue of self-restraint.

*Our citation of Kopel’s comments on American and Canadian culture should not be construed as agreement with Mr. Kopel’s positions on firearms regulations.

James L. Knoll IV, MD is Editor in Chief Emeritus of Psychiatric Times. He is Professor of Psychiatry at the SUNY Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse, where he is Director of Forensic Psychiatry, and Director of the Forensic Psychiatry Fellowship at Central New York Psychiatric Center.Ronald Pies, MD, is Professor of Psychiatry and Lecturer on Bioethics & Humanities at SUNY Upstate Medical University, Syracuse, NY; and Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston. He is the author of the essay collection, Psychiatry on the Edge (Nova Publishing); as well as the novel, The Director of Minor Tragedies (iUniverse). He is a regular contributor to Psych Central.

Mounties, Cowboys & Avengers: The Cultural Script of Gun Violence

This article originally appeared in:

Psychiatric Times

It is reprinted here with permission.