Friday, October 2, 2015

Sea Change and mass shootings

In general, I like idioms. They tend to liven up language, conversationally and in the written word. And they've been around for a long, long time. In my opinion, many—if not most—of the best idioms come primarily from two sources: the King James Bible and the works of William Shakespeare. One of my favorites from the latter is "sea change" (alternately "sea-change" or "seachange"). It is found in Shakespeare's The Tempest in "Ariel's Song":
    Come unto these yellow sands,
              And then take hands:
    Curtsied when you have, and kiss'd
              The wild waves whist,
    Foot it featly here and there;
    And, sweet sprites, the burthen bear.
              Hark, hark!
    Bow-wow.
              The watch-dogs bark.
    Bow-wow.
              Hark, hark! I hear
              The strain of strutting chanticleer
              Cry, Cock-a-diddle-dow.
 
    Full fathom five thy father lies;
              Of his bones are coral made;
    Those are pearls that were his eyes:
              Nothing of him that doth fade,
    But doth suffer a sea-change
    Into something rich and strange.
    Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
                              Ding-dong.
    Hark! now I hear them—Ding-dong, bell.
The Tempest by Claude-Joseph Vernet
The second stanza is known by itself as "Full Fathom Five" (from it's first line) and describes the supposed drowning of Ferdinand's father. The sea change he undergoes—"into something rich and strange"—is a lie, but the sense of the change is one that is transformative and the term has since been used in that sense: a large-scale change in fundamental nature(s).

In the wake of yet another mass shooting at yet another school—this time at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon—it's perhaps fair to wonder if the culture of the United States and maybe parts of Europe (let's not forget such tragedies there in recent years) is undergoing some sort of sea change. Because it is difficult to account for the proliferation of these incidents.

Certainly, when taken on a case by case basis, there are explanations. There are motives that have come to light for the different perpetrators, motives that are all different, if not unique. The perpetrators themselves are different, as well, as are specific circumstances. And I have no interest in compiling this data in search of commonalities, in search of an "aha!" moment. Rather, I'm wondering if there is something deeper, feeding this kind of anti-social behavior...and a lot of other kinds of the same.

Well okay, I'm not actually wondering. Because it occurs to me that we've passed into anther state of modernity, wherein specific kinds of marginalization are leading to such behavior, subject to varying cultural conditions of the "where." What I mean by the last is that this behavior can take different forms in different cultures based on other aspects of a given culture.

The proliferation of mass shootings mostly in the United States is, I think, dependent on the gun culture of the nation to some extent, coupled with the general increase in violent imagery. Rest assured I am most certainly not blaming the gun culture for these tragedies, nor am I blaming violence in Hollywood or in video games. Nonetheless, the specifics of any culture impact how anti-social impulses can be and are expressed. The fault still lies with the person or persons responsible, but it is valid and fair to wonder how different cultural norms would have impacted their choices in this regard.

But to me, the more important issue is what is driving the anti-social impulses, because I'm thinking that these same impulses are behind the rise in radicalization in the West, which is being used by ISIS and others, behind the ever-present yet seemingly increasing nastiness on the internet (trolling and the like), and even behind the general malaise and lack of joy that seems to have infected far too many in the current world.

To be fair here, the initial impetus for this piece was a comment made by someone on a messageboard I frequent (AbsoluteWrite, for those unaware). They suggested a sea change was needed with regard to the gun culture of the United States in order to prevent/minimize mass shootings like this one in Oregon. And while that might true (however close to impossible such a change might be), it occurred to me that the significant sea change was already underway or perhaps had already occurred.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt traces the rise of totalitarian ideologies in the twentieth century to the loneliness and isolation engendered by modernity, wherein people lack a defined place in the new world order and can feel uprooted and alone, despite the hustle and bustle all about them. This sea change, as it were, is a consequence of an Hobbesian vision becoming the dominate one in the modern world, for it was in this same book that Arendt noted Hobbes as "the only great philosopher to whom the bourgeoisie can rightly and exclusively lay claim." For Hobbes' philosophy provided the means through which political rights are delegated to the state, and then (from Origins, as well):
By assigning his political rights to the state the individual also delegates his social responsibilities to it: he asks the state to relieve him of the burden of caring for the poor precisely as he asks for protection against criminals. The difference between pauper and criminal disappears – both stand outside society. The unsuccessful are robbed of the virtue that classical civilization left them; the unfortunate can no longer appeal to Christian charity.
Bourgeoisie man is thus economic man; life is competition, is marked by winners and losers, and the traditional idea of community and the anchors to behavior it provides dissipates:
Thus membership in any form of community is for Hobbes a temporary and limited affair which essentially does not change the solitary and private character of the individual (who has “no pleasure, but on the contrary a great deale of griefe in keeping company, where there is no power to overawe them all”) or create permanent bonds between him and his fellow-men.
This was the modernity of the twentieth century, the rise of the bourgeoisie, of economic success, and of standards of living (unparalleled in history), but also the basis for the rise of totalitarianism, again because of the attendant isolation and loneliness produced and never really addressed. But totalitarianism was, in fact, defeated (for the moment, at least) within modernity.

The new sea change is, I think, largely an evolution of the last. For the same loneliness and isolation continues to exist, but has been accentuated by a culture that has become largely about recognition, not from communities one is a member of (which as above, are limited affairs and have decayed, regardless), but from the nameless, faceless world at large. Friends and family are not enough; those who feel marginalized and isolated seek recognition in the same sorts of ways as do those who inhabit the world of social media and aspire to accumulate "likes," followers," and what have you as a means of increasing their own perceived self-worth. Celebrity-status is no longer a fairy tale for many, it is something to be sought after and achieved.

Simultaneously, political and social obligations have become fewer and fewer for the typical individual. Those traditional structures that served to support a community are vanishing, leaving the individual with an empty plate, so to speak. And fair enough, this works for many, many people who make good use of this lack of constraints, often using the space to forge new and different ties. But for others, they are lost and flounder. Or even worse, they misread their situation and seek the afore-mentioned recognition.

And the truth...the truth is that it this a hollow, empty thing, both for those who achieve and those who fail. But the latter, they are in the same place as those who may have once turned to totalitarianism as a final outlet. Some still do so, others recede into themselves, but still other lash out in various ways.

And I think that's what we are seeing here. It's unfortunate that within the United States, there is this gun culture that conditions responses, but it's not the gun culture that is the driving element here. The driving element is the steady tearing-down of traditional social constructs under the auspices of "moving forward" while simultaneously looking to a nameless, faceless state to fill a void it is not equipped to fill.

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