Anomie in our Midst

America’s gun problem isn’t an isolated issue, but part of a larger malaise in the West.

In the wake of yet another series of brutal mass shootings, here we are again. Outpourings of grief from every corner of America are met with a tidal wave of unchecked rage directed at the policies that have allowed for such a state of affairs to endure and worsen over the last 20 years [1]. All the same talking points emerge: guns kill people, people kill people, it’s white supremacists, it’s mental health, we need better regulations of guns in America, restricting guns will only make things worse, etc. It’s time we face the facts: our government is hopelessly divided on the issue of gun regulation. And worse yet, gun regulation won’t fully solve the mass shooting epidemic. Action is needed on multiple fronts, and waiting any longer would be evil.

It’s not about the weapons of war, the bump stocks, or the number of bullets in a magazine. It’s not about the political affiliations of the shooters, their religion, or the cities they live in. And, though the NRA may hammer away at this particular talking point, it’s not about freedom, nor even the Second Amendment. 

The Western world has a problem, both  with its youth, specifically its male youth, and increasingly with its middle-aged male population [2]. In the US, this has manifested in a horrific ongoing surge of (mass) shootings, violence, and murder. In Europe, it’s been social unrest, terrorism and rising populism. We include Europe here not to divest us of our collective guilt, but instead to underline how deep the psychosis goes and how far the hysteria has spread.  Now more than ever, we need to recognize the significance of American political culture in its international context. The cultural hegemony of the United States since the collapse of the Nazi regime has led to, if not a shared voice, then a shared platform for open debate in the West; the spread of English across the world has given many the keys to access this ongoing conversation [3].

To paraphrase Bill Clinton: it’s the internet, stupid. 

The internet has spelled the end of effective management or regulation of the spread of ideas across international borders. In many ways, it’s the weapon that we craved during the Cold War, capable of fundamentally changing the way that an entire generation views the world and impossible to shut out. We dreamed of the people of the world hearing the whispers of a democratic society in their ears, day and night, and being drawn to the freedoms we could provide them, an inexorable march toward the much-debated End of History. But when the world tuned in, they instead heard exactly what we hoped to hide: a growing sense of unease and disaffection, a collective loss of purpose, our ever multiplying doubts and the celebrated cruelties we inflict on each other. They heard our Anomie. We will return to this concept shortly.

The result is a global forum for conversation in which the US is indisputably preeminent; any major occurrence in our country inevitably ends up on European broadband. As such, as baffling as the rise of populism in eastern Europe may seem to us, it’s intimately connected to our own domestic insecurities; not as a core cause necessarily, but as a resonance and a catalyst. This resonance has fostered online communities that amplify the intensity of feeling on political issues, resulting in such unprecedented situations as grassroots international comingling of nativist nationalisms [4], conversing (and memeing) openly in English. This in turn strengthens the resolve of each individual movement, and facilitates an increase in xenophobia at the local scale. As a consequence, social outcasts find communities which nevertheless fail to alleviate their disaffected state, instead strengthening their current perspectives, a self-reinforcing loop of despair.

We remember watching during the hours following President Donald Trump’s inauguration; that day, the internet was ablaze with populist support. This support came primarily from the US, but meme culture ensured that it was a victory felt individually and collectively by populists in Hungary, in the United Kingdom, in Romania, France, Italy, Greece, and Poland [5]. Much as we announced that President Obama’s election was the first step to listening to the international community, it can be said that Trump’s victory was felt more viscerally abroad than any other. That day was the day we realized how thin the veil that separates the world from the US truly is. President Trump’s “America First” slogan spoke to this shared sense of disillusionment and dissatisfaction with the policies and communities of post Cold War society; despite it being a blatantly exclusionary slogan, populists across the West viewed it as a stinging rebuke of the international order which had failed to bring any deep meaning or satisfaction despite the unending promises of the latter half of the 20th century.

Why are we talking about this? Because the disillusioned of the United States and Europe share a common affliction, one that the established political order has failed to alleviate [6]. In his seminal 1897 volume Suicide, sociologist Emile Durkheim underlined the significance of firm but fair social boundaries in effectively tying the disparate units of a modern society together. Failure to implement such connections (either by having norms that are too stringent, or norms that are too loose) was correlated with epidemics of helplessness, disaffection, despair, and violence, in this case towards the self – suicide.

In 1938, the American sociologist Robert K Merton built off of Durkheim’s concept of anomie and directly linked it to social deviance, evoking the generation of “an acute disjunction between the cultural norms and goals, and the socially structured capacities of members of the group to act in accord with them” (Merton, Robert K., “Social Structure and Anomie“, American Sociological Review, 1938). Put simply, anomie generates loss of purpose on a large scale and loss of social cohesion in the group. What we end up with for instance is an international community of decentralized national communitarians grasping for common notions upon which to justify their exclusion. Depending on which is closest to hand (race, religion, politics, sexuality, or gender, to name a few), this creates hyper targeted resentful loners with violent intentions and a large audience egging them on.

As such, it would be a mistake to consider this a local issue or one tied to any particular movement. In America, anomie has manifested in heightened political antagonisation between the left and the right, in gang violence, and in ever-increasing incidents of mass shootings, as well as suicide, drug abuse and despair. In Europe, anomie is felt through the seeming decay of social cohesion [8], the increasing sense of racial belonging, and youth radicalization in places like London, Brussels [9], Amsterdam, and Paris [10]; extreme cases of this lead not just to domestic outbursts, but also contribute to the appeal of anti-system movements abroad (for example, ISIS) [11]. Even Japan isn’t spared from this onslaught of purposelessness: the ongoing hikikomori phenomenon [13], as well as the pronounced sex [13] and dating dearth so severe as to threaten the demographic integrity of the country, paint a picture of generations no longer capable of establishing spontaneous ties to one another.

Given the widespread and cultural nature of this tentacular issue, it would be naive to assume that gun regulation (or mental health!) alone would be enough to resolve this crisis; in actuality, it would be a bandaid on a cannon wound. Anomie requires much more extensive action on a local scale, a national one, and an international one. An advantage to this is that it presents numerous avenues for beginning to tackle this multilevel multifaceted challenge. President Trump’s Monday address underlines some comprehension of this fact. 

Ultimately, it is necessary for America to get our house in order. Like it or not, we have created the conditions we desired when we yearned to be a “shining city on a hill”. Our internal affairs are bleeding over into the international webspace and our radicalization is fueling similar sentiments in the rest of the Western world. While we are not the cause of/for anomie in the West, our cultural influence and ongoing battles against the symptoms of it make us a megaphone and amplifier for similar problems in other Westernized nations. 

We need to envision solutions to mitigate the damage now and in the immediate future. Collectively, we have fallen prey to the fallacy of the single cause. However appealing, gun regulation can’t be our only answer to this issue. The primary objective of any government is to safeguard the lives and freedoms of its citizens, and the US Government’s continued failure to take any action to combat the climate of terror and fear that emerges after every rampage is glaringly unethical; but a serious estimation of the problem would recognize the systemic limitations to effective gun control in the US. The market is too large, the guns are too numerous, and opposition to regulation have too firm a position to stand on. America isn’t Switzerland or Australia, nor should it be.

Sensible gun regulation should be passed, there’s absolutely no doubt about that. And Congress absolutely has to be pushed through its nonsensical deadlock on the issue. However, nothing would be more tragic than significantly reforming gun legislation – only for a madman to drive a truck into a crowd of civilians in Minneapolis. Anomie must be addressed on a cultural scale.

1. Mark Follman; Gavin Aronsen; Jeanna Pan, “US Mass Shootings, 1982-2019: Data From Mother Jones’ Investigation”, Mother Jones, August 4 2019
2. Brian Smith, “Making sense of why Western men are so much more likely to kill themselves”, MEL Magazine, 2017
3. “Languages used on the Internet”, Wikipedia
4. Kemal Derviş; Caroline Conroy, “Nationalists of the world, unite?”, Brookings Institution, November 26 2018
5. “Europe and Right Wing Nationalism: A Country by Country Guide”, BBC, May 24 2019
6. Rachel Giese, “The Epidemic of Isolation Among Young Men”, The Walrus, April 23 2018
7. Robert K. Merton, “Social Structure and Anomie”, American Sociological Review, 1938
8. Vivienne Walt, “’There Is an Atmosphere of Civil War.’ France’s Yellow Jackets Are Driving Fury at Macron”, Time, November 30 2018
9. Ian Traynor, “Molenbeek: the Brussels borough becoming known as Europe’s jihadi central”, The Guardian, November 15 2015
10. Eleanor Beardsley, “Inside French Prisons, A Struggle To Combat Radicalization”, NPR, June 25 2017
11. Riva Kastoryano, “Radicalization in Europe”, Mediterranean Yearbook 2017, IEMED
12. Andrew McKirdy, “The Prison inside: Japan’s hikikomori lack relationships, not physical spaces”, Japan Times, June 1 2019
13. Kevin Wu, “Rise of the herbivore men”, Stony Brook Press, April 22 2019

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