Isabelle Robinson describes sitting in the school cafeteria in seventh grade, when a boy threw an apple at her, striking her so hard that the wind was knocked out of her. The boy smirked, and his eyes “lit up with a sick, twisted joy as he watched me cry.”
Five years later, on February 14, 2018, Robinson was a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School when the same boy, Nikolas Cruz, rampaged through the school, killing seventeen of her classmates and teachers. One month later, young people organized a nationwide school walkout, lasting seventeen minutes to honor each of the dead. Other young people challenged the walkout, suggesting that students should “walk up” instead. If more students befriended the loners and the bullied, then there would be less school violence. Or so the #WalkUpNotOut organizers suggested.
American cultural debate today quickly breaks down along partisan lines. The students protesting school violence almost immediately aligned themselves with advocates of gun control, calling for a ban on assault rifles. Their #WalkUpNotOut adversaries soon affiliated with supporters of the National Rifle Association. But the debate about gun control is only part of the picture. The bigger question, which simmers beneath the surface warfare over gun control, is Why?
Why do a growing number of young people feel that they have, as R. R. Reno recently observed, “permission to kill”? Ever since Columbine, there has been a continuous stream of American commentary about “the root causes of teen violence.” Some blame school bullying. Others blame the high rate of gun ownership in the United States, or violent video games, or social media. Commentators on both left and right seem reluctant to blame the perpetrator. All parties appear to assume that humans, left to themselves, are good, and that acts of violence stem from conditions external to the self.
I am a family doctor and a psychologist. I have seen how trauma in childhood can create scars that never heal. But during more than a quarter-century of medical practice, I have been led by my clinical experience to reject the deterministic assumptions underlying the therapeutic worldview that now pervades American culture. I have seen survivors of child abuse and neglect grow up to be kind and gentle adults. I have seen children who had every possible advantage—two loving parents, a stable home, and a close-knit community—grow up to be cruel and violent.
“He who rules his own spirit is greater than he who takes a city” (Proverbs 16:32). The Jewish and Christian traditions understand the problem of violence differently than does our therapeutic culture. In the Jewish and Christian traditions, sin is a temptation. Before the first murder, God warned Cain, “Sin is crouching at your door … but you can rule over it” (Genesis 4:7). Cain chose to yield to the temptation, to indulge the sin: the unspeakable pleasure of killing his brother. But he had the ability to choose. B. F. Skinner was wrong: Humans are not the helpless products of their previous experience. By the grace of God, we can choose to do right and shun evil.
Contemporary American psychology largely ignores the possibility of moral choice rooted in a framework of transcendent values. “Grit” is among the latest fashions in American psychology. But grit without a moral framework quickly degenerates into a careerist looking-out-for-number-one mentality, as Jeffrey Aaron Snyder has observed. The assumptions underlying contemporary American psychology are now relentlessly materialistic and goal-oriented. Teach children that they will get in trouble if they hurt others, and they will behave better because they fear the bad outcomes of misbehavior. Work hard, always obtain affirmative consent before you engage in intimacy, and you will have a good life.
It doesn’t work. More than half of the mass shooters in the past fifty years committed suicide at the conclusion of their crimes. They wanted the unspeakable pleasure of taking human life; they were willing to sacrifice their own lives for it. No approach to such individuals, or to such acts of violence, can be empirically valid if it denies the reality of moral choice and of the temptation to do evil.
Culture has consequences. If a boy is raised in a culture that teaches “Do not murder” as a moral imperative, that culture may give him the tools to understand his evil impulses and, one hopes, to master them. If a boy is raised in a culture that teaches “If it feels good, do it,” he is less likely to understand himself, and less likely to master his evil impulses.
Part of the answer to the question Why? may be: The culture has changed. Elsewhere I present more detailed evidence that American popular culture fifty years ago communicated a strong and consistent message—in movies and TV shows, in books and magazines, in schools, and in churches and synagogues—that moral norms were absolutes which all good people obeyed. That is less true today. Contemporary American popular culture is now the culture of “If it feels good, do it,” “Whatever floats your boat,” and “You do you.”
There is nothing new about hate. The temptation to kill is as old as Cain. But today, moral absolutes have been undermined by a popular culture that celebrates individual fulfillment over self-sacrifice, the indulgence of personal pleasure over doing one’s duty. A corollary to “You do you” is “Haters gonna hate.” If my analysis has any merit, then the road ahead is clear, though it will be a long road. We must combat the culture of “You do you.” We must teach haters to love.
Leonard Sax is author of The Collapse of Parenting.