Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Violence and Contagion: "We were bored"

The Cincinnati Enquirer reports today about a group of six young teenagers who "attacked and robbed" a man simply because they were bored.
The boys, ages 13 and 14, face felony charges of aggravated rioting and felonious assault, North COllege Hill police said today.
The sixth and final suspect was arrested Wednesday.
When police rounded most of the teens up, took them back to the police station and questioned them, they said they attacked the victim, identified as Pat Mahaney, because "they were just bored and were looking for something to do," the report states.
They also admitted he had done nothing to provoke being kicked and punched repeatedly in the face while he was helpless on the ground. 
One could take this as a rare one-off event, a freak moment of peculiar violence. Yet, if you think about it, there's something deeply troubling about this. Being bored can lead to a host of activities: a pick-up game of baseball, riding bikes, some form of video game tournament. What, then, would the thought-process had to have been in order to suggest randomly lynching a man walking home from the store? What did one child say that ignited the passions of his friends to go after this person? What words could have been shared so quickly to lead to such violence?

Teenage boys are, generally, thoughtless creatures. They are impulsive, they do no consider consequences, and they are often surprised that their spur-of-the-moment actions are met with disapproval. For many, their mantra could well be "well, it seemed like a good idea at the time." Yet it is hard to imagine how the idea to jump an innocent, even one born out of the most terrible boredom, could gain enough traction to lead to its actualization.

Over the last few weeks, our media has been saturated with stories of appalling violence and brutality. A cynic might say that things have always been this bad but we're just bathed in it thanks to 24/7 news coverage. I'm not so certain. There seems to be some sort of violent contagion circulating among the human race, one that is growing more virulent over time. This contagion enables unspeakable acts of violence while simultaneously secreting a toxin that dulls bystanders to the effects of this violence.

In short, there seems to be some sort of Violent Pathogen whose contagion (1) breeds violence and (2) anesthetize us from feeling its full effect. The irony of the whole disease should not be missed: it is violence that blinds us and numbs us to violence.

I wish I had an antidote for this, a ready-made inoculation against the violence and indifference, the Darkness, that seems to be be gaining strength in our world. Before we can reach for a cure, however, we have to acknowledge that there is a problem. We need to open our eyes now so that we can turn on the news and not find yet another story of ratings-grabbing, attention-holding violence that captures our attention. While our attention is held captive by the news, the contagion spreads ever further and insinuates itself ever deeper...and it's happening right before our eyes. 


Sofia Gonzalez said...

Ryan :) I am enjoying reading this blog of yours again! So, with the point being raised, and you did mention that you've yet to find an "anti-dote", what insights, (using the medical lingo, what sort of "research") have you gained regarding this being a high school teacher for 3 years?

Ryan G. Duns, SJ said...

Hi Sofia,

That's a great question. I have read Rene Girard for many years and I'm acutely aware that this is not a new problem...our human history is stained with the blood of victims. This said, I do think there has been a weakening of social structures that has held back the pathogen.

Perhaps it is the case that the enormous amount of time students spend behind screens, in virtual reality, has desensitized them to the needs of flesh-and-blood persons. We see how things can go viral and turn vicious on Twitter and Blogs -- the personal attacks on Olympians is only the latest of such examples. As a society - and this is goes far beyond the issues facing young people - we are increasingly susceptible to group-think. We are becoming so used to "instantaneous" action (posting, texting, etc.) that we forget that the power of "instantaneous" has long-lasting, if not permanent, consequences.

As I said, I'm not able to suggest an least not yet. I can, though, start to gesture feebly in a direction and to try to name the symptoms as I see them.