Every once in a while there comes a time when we are jolted from our routine self-absorption. These moments are sudden—disorienting. They push us into a larger, more insecure reality, where the illusions of power and control break down. At times like this, our common humanity is made salient, and the socially constructed barriers (race, culture, class, etc.) that often regulate our interactions, irrelevant. Unfortunately, the catalyzing force behind these revelations can often be unthinkable tragedies, such as the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Personally, the horrific nature of the Sandy Hook incident left me in shock, overwhelmed with emotion, and unable to process beyond the ‘torches and pitchforks’ mind-frame. Nevertheless, closely following this tragedy, a relatively simpler incident involving similar issues of mental health, violence and marginalization transported me to a clearer appreciation for this unsettling space.
Although I felt largely helpless before her sorrow, I was reminded of the value of community and the sense of connectedness in the human experience.
During a regular afternoon of grocery shopping and bantering with my husband about which type of bread or yogurt to pick up, a petite middle-aged woman approached us. A bit anxious, she proceeded to complement my outfit and excitedly remark on my resemblance to a character in a foreign film. Although slightly uncomfortable, I paused nonetheless and acknowledged the unexpected but rather kind remarks.
Following the usual schema of ‘smile-node-and-move on,’ what psychologists refer to as civil indifference, we attempted to exit the conversation and proceed with our day. To our surprise, however, she utilized this brief opening in the interchange to speak of her loneliness, her loss of loved ones, her frustrating experiences with mental health institutions, her attempts to rekindle a relationship with God, her fear of a sudden and meaningless end… This was more existential than we’d expected from a stranger on a typical Saturday afternoon.
Although she was not always coherent, my husband and I were awestricken nonetheless. We listened quietly, mumbling what felt like pointless words of consolation at every pause, anxious not to overstep or offend her. The exchange lasted roughly 20 minutes and broke through all typical barriers of modern social engagement. As she related her desire for companionship, I became unexpectedly moved and more preoccupied with maintaining my composure than with choosing an appropriate response. Upon finally exiting the store, it felt like the air around us had become heavier, as if she pulled us out of the self-assured bubble we’d walked in with, into the foggy chaotic reality of the world. Although I felt largely helpless before her sorrow, I was reminded of the value of community and the sense of connectedness in the human experience.
One pattern evident from massacres like those at Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech or Columbine is that perpetuators are described as outcasts from their communities. They are marginalized from within, sometimes through bullying, other times through being made to feel invisible or insignificant. From a sociological perspective, the variables that come together to result in tragedies like that of Sandy Hook are complex and multi-dimensional.
Accordingly, action plans of prevention require a multi-dimensional approach. Gun regulations and early mental health treatment are definitely points of clear concern; nevertheless, what seems to be receiving inadequate attention is the role of regular citizens and community members in the mitigation process. Many of the young men responsible for these shootings seem to lack a sense of ‘home,’ which, according to experts, provides a cushion of psychological resilience. These men are typically characterized as socially awkward, disconnected from any social/institutional attachments, and prone to mental health issues. While it’s true no sense of ‘home’ is going to completely alleviate these challenges, studies do show that a strong support system can work as a socio-psychological buffer that lowers the risk of extremist behaviour.
As a woman of color that has come to understand the meaning of marginalization on an intuitive level, I believe we need to broaden our lens beyond issues of individual identity when examining social behaviour. The dialogue on tragedies perpetuated by white, upper-middle-class men, who target their own communities, tends to be framed either as an isolated psychopathic incident or, from the opposite end of the spectrum, as something almost endemic to white privilege. Gaining a more complete picture of these violent outbursts requires moving past identity-politics and an attitude that alienates the community involved. There seem to be systemic socio-psychological factors that are reproducing the Adam Lusizis of the modern world. Although the consequences may not be nearly as drastic every time, we are all susceptible to these same factors. Hence, for any type of broader action plan to take effect, the issue of marginalization needs to be understood from within the framework of modernity.
As many have pointed out, the likes of Jared Loughner, James Holmes and Adam Lusizi lived far from the typical conception of marginalized lifestyles. Nonetheless, what seems to be key with this demographic is the experience of internal marginalism: a type of in-group alienation occurring within a demographic that generally possesses significant power and authority.
Anthony Giddens, a British sociologist and an expert on the structuration of modern societies, asserts in his book Runaway World: How Globalization is Reshaping Our Lives, that although the “abstract systems of modernity create large areas of relative security for the continuance of day-to-day life, the increasing movement of goods, services, technology, borders, ideas, and people…” carry significant material and ideational consequences. The resulting “rapid reparation, de/reskilling of knowledge and power” tend to have a destabilizing effect.
This reorganization opens up new opportunities while creating and further deepening existing inequalities and marginalities. Giddens, in Modernity and Self-Identity. Self and Society in the Late Modern Age also posits that the theoretical framework and institutional configurations of modernity bring to life new mechanisms of identity formation and preservation. What is key to these processes is the pervasive sense of doubt and uncertainty that surrounds these new mechanisms, and results in a continuous need to revise and mediate one’s biographic narrative and sense of self.
In sum, the abstract system of modernity seems to have a contradictory and aggravating effect on the inequalities of wealth distribution, giving rise to the popular motto ‘the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.’ Interestingly, however, this framing seems to also apply to the socio-psychological sphere wherein the socially awkward and/or discursively marginalized are further alienated and the stars are made into demigods. The intense reflexivity of our time, juxtaposed with the bewildering level of information we are regularly bombarded with, allows us to be acutely aware of our station in this power grid. Although this line of reasoning may seem rather abstracted, it is nonetheless fitting in light of our highly detached era of social networking, virtual realities, and numbing simulated experiences.
As many have pointed out, the likes of Jared Loughner, James Holmes and Adam Lusizi lived far from the typical conception of marginalized lifestyles. Nonetheless, what seems to be key with this demographic is the experience of internal marginalism: a type of in-group alienation occurring within a demographic that generally possesses significant power and authority. This spatial-configuration seems to place the Lusizis’ of the world in a contradictory in-group vs. out-group power dynamic. A diminished sense of community is also said to be overrepresented within this same demographic, as most of these perpetuators come from highly nuclearized families with limited external engagements. Adding issues of mental illness to these feelings of alienation appears, to say the least, a potentially pernicious socio-psychological recipe. Although the state social welfare net is vital to a healthy society, it cannot replace the psychological cushion of community—and that cushion is fast losing its stuffing.
In a modern world that does not allow anything more than the ‘nod and pass’ routine, I thank that brave woman in the grocery store for attempting—and succeeding—to connect with me.