Oct
19

“The high cost of being labeled a sissy”

By

Absolutely fascinating article by Malcolm Gladwell in New Yorker on the etiology of school shootings. They have become a ritualized behavior independent of the pathologies of individual perpetrators, he believes.

School shootings are not simply the isolated acts of a string of copycat psychotics who hear voices in their heads. They are perhaps a kind of slow-motion riot in which perpetrators downstream participate because they’ve been given a kind of permission by those who came before them. Four decades ago, Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter posited that riots develop in this way.

Citing sociologist Ralph Larkin, Gladwell asserts that Columbine’s Eric Harris (“a classic psychopath”) and Dylan Klebold “laid down the ‘cultural script’ for the next generation of shooters.” Gladwell introduces us to a foiled 2014 plot by a seventeen year-old Minnesotan from a loving family. He wasn’t
“someone who had been brutally abused by the world or someone who imagined that the world brutally abused him or someone who wanted to brutally abuse the world himself.” Unlike Harris, psychological testing revealed this kid “wasn’t violent or mentally ill,” but “simply a little off.” Plus, he thought Harris was “cool.” The account reads like a scene from Fargo.

Gladwell explains Granovetter’s theory:

In his view, a riot was not a collection of individuals, each of whom arrived independently at the decision to break windows. A riot was a social process, in which people did things in reaction to and in combination with those around them. Social processes are driven by our thresholds—which he defined as the number of people who need to be doing some activity before we agree to join them. In the elegant theoretical model Granovetter proposed, riots were started by people with a threshold of zero—instigators willing to throw a rock through a window at the slightest provocation. Then comes the person who will throw a rock if someone else goes first. He has a threshold of one. Next in is the person with the threshold of two. His qualms are overcome when he sees the instigator and the instigator’s accomplice. Next to him is someone with a threshold of three, who would never break windows and loot stores unless there were three people right in front of him who were already doing that—and so on up to the hundredth person, a righteous upstanding citizen who nonetheless could set his beliefs aside and grab a camera from the broken window of the electronics store if everyone around him was grabbing cameras from the electronics store.


Granovetter was most taken by the situations in which people did things for social reasons that went against everything they believed as individuals. “Most did not think it ‘right’ to commit illegal acts or even particularly want to do so,” he wrote, about the findings of a study of delinquent boys. “But group interaction was such that none could admit this without loss of status; in our terms, their threshold for stealing cars is low because daring masculine acts bring status, and reluctance to join, once others have, carries the high cost of being labeled a sissy.” You can’t just look at an individual’s norms and motives. You need to look at the group.

You are thinking what I’m thinking, right? Wall Street? Subprime mortgages? Collateralized Debt Obligation? Weapons of financial mass destruction a bit more sophisticated than a pressure-cooker bomb built in a teenager’s basement. Before the 2008 crash, it seemed all the delinquents on Wall Street were “looting the electronics store.” Jefferey Sachs described the pathology of that group in 2013:

I believe we have a crisis of values that is extremely deep, because the regulations and the legal structures need reform. But I meet a lot of these people on Wall Street on a regular basis right now. I’m going to put it very bluntly. I regard the moral environment as pathological. And I’m talking about the human interactions that I have. I’ve not seen anything like this, not felt it so palpably. These people are out to make billions of dollars and nothing should stop them from that. They have no responsibility to pay taxes. They have no responsibility to their clients. They have no responsibility to people, counterparties in transactions. They are tough, greedy, aggressive, and feel absolutely out of control, you know, in a quite literal sense.

The implications are that people who are not deeply disturbed or inherently criminal — and there are more of those than the criminally insane — can commit school shootings or other horrendous acts under the right circumstances. Abu Ghraib prison comes immediately to mind. Gladwell writes, “Granovetter thought that the threshold hypothesis could be used to describe everything from elections to strikes, and even matters as prosaic as how people decide it’s time to leave a party.” Or perhaps to describe suited elites defrauding investors of trillions of dollars and throwing millions of families into the streets. Somewhere, a high schooler must think that sounds pretty cool.

(Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.)

Comments are closed.