The phenomenon of mass school shootings is, to date, predominantly an American one — but a deeper look shows that these tragic events may not be limited by culture or geography, and could increasingly be prevalent under certain conditions.
In a thought provoking piece titled Thresholds of Violence published in The New Yorker, Gladwell examines school shootings in the US since the late Nineties, noting that — against popular expectations — the young men who perpetrate these horrific crimes do not seem to look like what we’re expecting them to look like — that is, the profile of a dark and deeply disturbed, often traumatically abused, individual.
He observes that the young killers — from Evan Ramsey, a sixteen-year-old who, in 1997, walked into a classroom and killed two people with a shotgun; to Kip Kinkel, a fifteen-year-old who, in 1998, shot his parents, then killed two others and wounded twenty-five at his high school; through to Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the murderers of Columbine High in Littleton, Colorado in 1999; and further still to the hundreds of documented school shootings since the year 2000 — display remarkable homogeneity, with only the brutality, methodology, and choice of location that tie them together.
It is in fact the homogeneity of the killers, Gladwell notes, that is most disturbing, suggesting that:
The problem is not that there is an endless supply of deeply disturbed young men who are willing to contemplate horrific acts. It’s worse. It’s that young men no longer need to be deeply disturbed to contemplate horrific acts.
Modelling for Violence
The model Gladwell uses to reach this disturbing conclusion was originally proposed by Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter back in 1978 in a paper called Threshold Models of Collective Behavior, wherein Granovetter attempts to model collective behaviour ranging from why people join riots, to when people decide to leave boring dinner parties.
Put simply, the Granovetter model suggests that it is incorrect to assume that participants in an activity behave as they do necessarily because of identical beliefs or motivations — rather, individuals have differing thresholds that are triggered by the number of participants coming before them. In a riot, for example, the riot instigator would have a threshold of 0 (in effect they would be the first “to throw a rock through a shop window at the drop of a hat” so to speak, with 0 participants before him) — while the 1000th participant would have a threshold of 999 (needing 999 other rioters before they too decide to jump on the bandwagon.)
The fascinating takeaway from this is that if you look at the beliefs and motivations of the 1000 rioters as an example, popular perception would be to lump them together into a group of like-minded, possibly violent individuals, similar in nature to that of the first rioter (the rock thrower). Granovetter argues otherwise. Via the Granovetter model, those 1000 rioters exist on a curve — with the instigator (for whatever reason) prone to violent activity, and the 1000th participant a garden-variety pedestrian with (normally) zero tendency towards radical behaviour — that is, until 999 others have participated.
In other words: a homogenous group.
It is this Granovetterian progression of thresholds that Gladwell offers as a tentative explanation for the explosion in school shootings since the late Nineties, specifically since Columbine — with its intense media focus, and coinciding with the mainstream adoption of the Internet and subsequent prevalence of social media platforms.
It used to be that if a school shooting or riot was happening somewhere, unless one were to actually be at the scene, one might only hear about it on the evening news or in the papers the next day. Today, with 24-hour cable coverage, Youtube, Snapchat, Twitter and countless other channels, exposure to news in the community (especially in younger, social media savvy demographics) is all but guaranteed — speeding up the Granovetterian progression for any matter of activities that would once have taken exponentially longer.
This raises some interesting questions.
Why does the media highlight violence?
Yes, Ratings = Profits, but what makes violent acts so intrinsically watchable and fascinating to humans? The Ancient Romans had it institutionalized, the Spaniards codified it down to an art form. Do humans have a biologically-driven curiosity for both violence and witnessing violent acts? If so, should the media be morally obligated to refrain from reporting on things like gun violence, suicides, school shootings?
What other implications can we draw from the Granovetterian progression on school shootings?
For one, it appears to be gender specific — of the hundreds of documented cases of school shootings since the early 1800’s (including those outside of the US), only a literal handful were committed by females. Some have noted that women are “far less homicidal than men”, and yet this could merely be symptomatic that the ‘right’ thresholds have not been reached. Likewise, although the majority of school shootings to date have occurred in the US, the spreading of news across borders via any number of means nowadays suggests an increased likelihood of school shootings elsewhere.
What does the Granovetterian progression imply about the nature of man?
In Gladwell’s Thresholds of Violence we see an ugly side of human nature emerge via the parameters of school shootings in the US. At the risk of going off on a tangent, if we broaden our parameters for Granovetterian progressions we see that, for example, suicide incidences have also erupted over a similar period:
Source: U.S. Suicide Rate Surges to a 30-Year High, The New York Times
Suicide in the United States has surged to the highest levels in nearly 30 years, a federal data analysis has found, with increases in every age group except older adults.
The suicide rate for middle-aged women, ages 45 to 64 jumped by 63 percent over the period of the study. [1999 – 2014]
The overall suicide rate rose by 24 percent from 1999 to 2014.
Could this also be related to the rapid proliferation and increased exposure to suicide-related content (or rather, all types of content since the mainstreaming of the Internet), thereby creating a vicious Granovetterian cycle, and pushing larger numbers of individuals past their respective thresholds?
To rephrase the question, the Granovetterian threshold model accounts for certain increases in acts of violence or harm — but why don’t we see a clear manifestation of this kind of virality in remarkable acts of kindness in society?
Can we hijack the Granovetterian progression and use it for longterm positive change? That, I guess, will depend on our threshold for good.
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