Relevance. Mass shootings. What do they have in common?
In this world where we are more and more digitally defined, I find myself semi-fuming at the burgeoning concept of ‘relevance’. It means, loosely, “how many views and reposts and shares do your blogs/facebook posts/tweets get”. Your digital importance is defined by it.
Relevance is at once two kinds of nouns: the quality of being relevant and your relevance matters.
Facebook, of course, manipulates relevance. And having relevance (i.e., being relevant) is like being rich: the more you have, the easier it is to get more. Ever log onto Facebook and see the same person’s posts over and over and over? For me, it’s a guy who graduated from my high school. You’d think no one else in my friends list ever does anything. The more he posts, the more people leave comments, the more his relevance gets upped, the more I see him. My feed is ALLLLL about this guy. Nobody else can get a peep in edgewise, thanks to Facebook’s algorithms. Kinda bummer.
Facebook also offers you the ability to pay to escalate the visibility of your post, thereby artificially upping its relevance. Yuck. Turns out you can buy popularity…until everybody else starts buying popularity, too.
I kinda hate relevance, at least in the digital sense.
But as I struggled with the question how can our society put an end to mass shootings, I found myself thinking about it differently about relevance. Hold that thought for a moment while we talk about what doesn’t work.
People used to think that women showing their ankles caused immoral behavior. Women showing their ankles, it turns out, is something society can handle. Having guns does not cause immoral behavior either.
Likewise, getting rid of guns isn’t going to fix things. A person intent upon hurting people will find ways to hurt them.
Gun control, is of course,always the knee-jerk reaction. But trust me: it’s a blind alley. Take away the ability for a mentally-unbalanced person to get guns, and they will search the internet for how to make pipe bombs. Legislate against automatic weapons? Do you know how fast someone can unload a pistol clip and pop in a new clip? Fast enough to kill a bunch of children in a matter of minutes.
Crazy will find a way. And gun-control measures in the past have never diminished crime.
No, despite all the hope for an easy solution, I don’t believe that gun control is the answer. And I’m a sometimes-vegan.
Better mental health programs are also only a partial solution. We can offer all the wonderful clinics and therapists in the world—but too often, the people most in need of psychological healing are the least likely to seek it. By the time a person is really ill mentally, how often do we see an inverse ratio between their need for treatment and their likelihood of accepting it? So better mental health programs, at least for adults, is an awesome thing for our society…but won’t stop mass murders.
The trick is to prevent the intersection of guns and crazy people. To do that, we have forms and waiting periods. But at this point, you can’t legislate, background check or block effectively the intersection of guns and crazy people.
Think we don’t have adequate emergency-management systems in place, yet, a decade post-9/11 post-Katrina and now post-Sandy? Gun licensing controls are still in the comparative dark ages. The gun form in Maryland asks if you’ve ever been treated for mental illness. If you have been frickin’ committed for burning down your house and skinning the neighbor’s cows, you can simply check the NO box. They don’t talk to one another, the gun license people and the mental health system. HIPPA, my friends. Information silos, my friends.
And what if you’re good to go mental-wise, a mom who’s a respected member of the community, but have a son who is on a slippery slope, emotionally? Sandy Hook’s Nancy Lanza might have considered getting a gun safe and locking up her weapons, with a kid in the house who was sliding badly. But hope blinds us to facts.
Besides, if the form said “does anyone in your family show signs of mental imbalance?” who would answer yes, knowing they would now never get the very gun they dropped by to buy?
As they say, guns don’t kill people; people kill people. And forms don’t stop them.
I believe that to find the answer buried in the politics and anger and fear and complexity, we have to go to a simple, small, early place: we have to figure out how to identify and pull back to health those on the track to mental illness…but early, early, early.
It has to be a program that’s affordable, and effective.
Which takes us to relevance.
Google Circles are like Facebook relevance: it’s all about who’s reading about who, who’s connected with who, and how many circles you’re in. It feels…frenetic…to those who aren’t social media mavens. And all that SMing…jeez, how many companies are really actually making money from their social media marketing? Who knows? The concept is still evolving. It’s a matter of making time, jumping in, learning to swim so you don’t sink. It’s wild and evolving and uber-now.
It’s also the biggest, most glaring diagnostic of people who become mass shooters: they are not relevant, in the social-media sense of the term.
Stay with me here.
How many mass shooters are described as likeable, sociable, engaged folks? How many are thought leaders?
No. They’re not, are they? Ever.
No, the words we hear—-besides the standard “he seemed like a nice guy…quiet…kept to himself a lot” are that they are lonely loners, withdrawn, unconnected, etc, etc, etc. The folks who stockpile bullets, planning shooting sprees, are angry at someone. Angry at society, at a mother, at schoolmates, at a lover. They’re angry and they don’t have any friends to talk to. And they don’t talk, to anybody. They have made themselves non-relevant in society by withdrawing from it. Many of them live marginal lives…but for a critical few, their lack of relevance suddenly explodes into horrifying relevance.
When does it start, the being disconnected? When does it start, feeling as if you don’t fit in? I believe it starts early. I believe that what we might need is not a big national band-aid, not endless legislation about guns, but a simple, consistent, real, effective and gentle intervention at the earliest stages of social interaction.
That’s right. I’m talking kindergarten.
I’ve seen kids become disenfranchised in the very earliest grades. It’s not necessarily in-your-face bullying that creates deep problems. Doesn’t just daily exclusion and mocking take a toll? I’ve seen how deep that kind of sinister damage goes, how pervasive it is, how long it takes to root it out.
Teachers see it too, mostly. They know what’s going on. But what do they do? What can they do?
And what don’t they do, that they could? I’ve seen teachers turn a blind eye to bullying…and worse, subtly support it. The affected child pays dearly for his or her entire life…and sometimes, so do the rest of us.
I want our society to seriously consider this question: what if we have programs in school—simple, fun, effective social-reparations programs—to identify kids that are being excluded by their peers, and to get them re-engaged?
Might we finally stop seeing the heartbreak of Sandy Hook?
What was inside that young man, who shot his own mother in the face and then went out with the intention of destroying the most defenseless among us? What demons plagued him?
What if we saw, and consciously worked to thwart those demons while the child’s heart was still young and fresh and salvageable?
It might solve nothing. But then again, far more than gun legislation or adult incarceration, it might just solve almost everything.
I propose that we use the power of Sandy Hook to do something revolutionary: to have elementary teachers across the country take a pledge to stop turning a blind eye to difficult classroom relationships, and instead to defiantly and determinedly work to implement programs that make it impossible for a group of children to exclude one of their peers.
I challenge teachers—not lawmakers and not parents–to change the world this way.
What can they do? That’s where the bigger dialogue needs to come in. We need ideas for programs relevant to the kids needing help—both those broken by bullies and those broken enough to bully.
It won’t fix things right now. But I believe that deliberate kindness, applied young and starting immediately, will fix a lot in the long run.
Let’s make relevance truly relevant; please?