“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
- Edmund Burke
We must do something about mass-shootings in our country. So far this year, there have been 148 mass-shootings, killing 149 and wounding 585 people. Second Amendment folks, don’t fret — this blog is not about gun control. I do believe that some level of gun control is both necessary and appropriate. But the mass-shootings that plague our country are not just about guns. They're also about anger, resentment and the normalization of violence.
A little more than one week ago, twelve people were killed at the hands of a just-resigned municipal government employee in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Regrettably, amid the loss of life, killings have become so normalized that the Virginia Beach story was on A-6 of a major daily paper. The dead, wounded and those who are grieving deserve better.
Twenty years ago, just after the shooting at Columbine High School, I was invited to start Project Love programming within the Los Angeles Unified School District. I was in my hotel room when I got a phone call from a prominent Hollywood producer and movie studio executive who had been asked by friends to support our cause.
Instead of agreeing to participate, the studio executive lambasted me for implying that the movie and television industries have some responsibility for school shootings, meanness and other acts of violence in our country. I never heard from her again, but on the 20th anniversary of Columbine this past April 19th, I remembered her caustic words. And I wondered.
I wondered what would have happened if the entertainment industry as well as news media, schools and people in general, had seen Columbine as a leading indicator that something was seriously awry in the culture of our country. What if, then and there, they had realized that what we see, hear, watch, read and listen to impacts our thoughts and actions, sparking negative behavior and even mass-shootings? What if we all had spoken out and they had responded and adapted their products appropriately? Where would we be today?
How is it possible for the spate of current mass-shootings as well as acts of incivility, meanness, anti-Semitism and racism to be unleashed within a country that aspires to stand for “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Where have our values gone?
I wondered just that one week ago, as a Jewish friend who lives in Chicago called to tell me that her synagogue had been attacked by people throwing Molotov cocktails (fortunately they didn’t ignite) and that thugs broke car windows outside another Chicago synagogue. How is this possible? How did we get to this point?
I have concluded our toxic culture, which validates negativity and aggression, is responsible. Ultimately, we all are culpable because we have bought into this culture and we are the consumers of demeaning and aggressive media.
First some background. Psychologists claim that we each are born with capacities for empathy, kindness and caring and capacities for narcissism, meanness and cruelty. These behaviors are reflected in both our words and deeds. Many researchers have linked the negative to an ingrained fight or flight instinct and the positive to an ingrained capacity to nurture and seek justice. Yale Professor of Psychology Paul Bloom, author of “Just Babies: The Origin of Good and Evil,” writes that “We are by nature indifferent, even hostile to strangers; we are prone towards parochialism and bigotry. Some of our instinctual emotional responses, most notably disgust, spur us to do terrible things, including acts of genocide.” But researchers have also revealed that this instinct can be reversed through exposure and education, values and culture. From whom we learn, what we learn and the truths, paradigms and values we adopt can tip the balance between decent and indecent, good and evil.
That’s where the media and its influential megaphones play a role. The picture that gets projected onto our social dynamic and minds can be one of positivity or one of negativity, one of opportunity or one of conspiracy. Just take a look at Breitbart, InfoWars or The Daily Stormer, and you will see the power that stories and pictures can have on undiscerning minds.
But even in the more mainstream media, the pictures that get reported as news depict a society and culture of meanness. People killing each other, bashing each other, cutting each other off in traffic; even using humor to cut each other down. These images seep into our culture and shape our life perspectives as well as our actions.
In 2007, the Federal Communications Commission Issued an alert about violent programming in television, stating that there is “strong evidence” that links aggressive actions to exposure to violence through the media. The American Academy of Family Physicians has reported that the effects of exposure to violence in media “include increases in aggressive behavior, desensitization to violence, bullying, fear, depression, nightmares and sleep disturbances.”
The American Psychological Association Commission on Violence and Youth estimates that American children see 200,000 acts of violence on television before age 18. In video games, children revel in killing, maiming, looting and burning their opponents. On reality, talk and sitcom TV shows, we often see people cutting down others. On Twitter and Facebook, we see rudeness, crudeness and meanness. And then there’s Washington — need I say more?
These reels represent the daily “truths” that many of us accept, but the reality of the United States is that we are a country of kindness. Every day, millions of people deliver meals on wheels, help their neighbors, volunteer in schools and soup kitchens and take grieving friends out for coffee. Every day, neighbors help neighbors. These acts of kindness and goodness don’t get reported, and we are relegated to iconoclastic commentaries of doom and gloom.
A foundational principle is that negativity breeds negativity and positivity breeds positivity. Research has shown that being around positive people, seeing positive actions, witnessing acts of kindness, showing gratitude and resolving conflict have a physical and cultural impact on both the actors and the witnesses. Positivity can build the positive culture that we Americans sorely need.
Recently, David Brooks scolded his peer reporters and media companies for painting negative pictures and creating negative perceptions. In a New York Times op-ed, he states that for years his colleagues have embraced the principle that good news is not news. For it to be news, it had to be edgy or controversial. “If it bleeds, it leads,” has been a longtime slogan in the news business. If indeed perception shapes our reality, we have created a mean, edgy and often controversial country that we believe is real. Unless our peer group encourages positivity and positive behaviors, we and our children likely will not see or even recognize the many role models who demonstrate collaboration, conciliation, resolution, compromise and kindness.
But this kind of culture can happen. Here is one example. In 2017, Values-in-Action’s Project Love character-education program embarked on a three year project called the “School of Character, Values and Community.” We embedded social-emotional learning, core values and kindness principles and activities systematically and systemically within one of the most challenging high schools in Cleveland. After two years, fighting stopped, learning increased and the graduation rate jumped by 20 percent to 85 percent. Faculty members now state that they feel like family. A culture of kindness, caring, respect and success has emerged.
The roots of school shootings, workplace shootings, urban shootings, anti-Semitism, racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, road rage, political fighting, violence and negativity are cultural and learned. America needs a cultural makeover, enabling us to morph into a country that spreads positivity and kindness more than we do negativity and meanness. When this happens, the mass-shootings and rampant acts of hate that are fueled by anger, meanness and resentment will cease. I’m not yet prepared to say that the lion will lie down with the lamb, but we will have a better America. Let’s start this positivity movement now.
Stuart Muszynski is President and CEO of Values-in-Action Foundation, which through its Project Love®, VIA® Workforce Training, Purple America® and Be Kind® Stick Together® character-education programs, has 400,000 students participating in more than 1,500 schools in all 50 states. Values-in-Action® empowers students and adults to build communities of kindness, caring and respect through programs that teach, promote and provide skills and tools than enable individuals to make positive values-based decisions every day. www.viafdn.org