13 June 2016

Mass Violence and Teachable Moments

This past weekend, Orlando, Florida witnessed the worst mass shooting in America's recent history. This violent, planned attack in a public place is tragic, and our hearts go out to the victims and their families.

As the LA Times discussed after the 2015 mass shootings in San Bernardino, California, a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and in an English class at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, in the US such violence has become "often both stunningly senseless and paradoxically routine." We continue to be shocked each time that mass public violence happens, mourn for the victims, and look for answers. As social scientists, and as teachers, we should also recognize these as teachable moments to talk about these mass shootings not as exceptional instances, but as part of broader patterns and systems of violence in (North) American/ Western society.

Precisely because mass shootings and less sensational instances of gun violence in America are so prevalent, there are already a number of interesting discussions and reflections from an anthropological or social science perspective available, such as:

An important issue that has been little addressed in the days following Orlando, has been how such violence is part of a long history entangled with ideas of cultural and moral superiority. In my social media feed, I have been seeing many posts about how the headline that Orlando is the worst mass shooting in American history ignores an important part of that history. Many commentators point to Native American massacres, for instance, the massacre at Wounded Knee, where some 150 Lakota men, women and children were killed by the US government. While these deaths were distinctly connected to colonization and the systemic inequality this earlier history established, we continue to see such processes of systemic violence play out in many different encounters today (for instance, see our previous posts on Racist Mascots, or The Anthropology of Terrorism).

As a deliberate attack on LGBT+ people, Orlando shows us how homophobia is woven into these broader patterns, histories, and our cultural scripts in North America about belonging, violence, cultural difference, and masculinity. In America, the realities of how this structural violence is experienced is complicated by how easy it is for people to access a wide range of powerful firearms. In 2015, the connections between toxic masculinity and gun violence were explicit in the murder of female students in Roseburg, Oregon. In Canada, where gun violence is much less prevalent, we have nonetheless seen and remember these powerful connections in the 1989 Montreal Massacre. Homophobia is also intricately connected to these deeply held ideas of what it means to be a man in North America, and how homosexuality and non-normative gender expressions transgress and are thought to threaten such masculinities.

We see this not only in North America, but elsewere in the world as well. For instance, in Montenegro, the country's first Pride Parade (2013) ended in violence. Protesters focused on the parade's logo, the moustache, as a symbol of traditional Montenegrin masculinity. As the anthropologist Branko Banovic commented, in spite of the culturally contextual focus on the moustache, the discourse framing the controversy was "structured on the basis of a pattern with well-documented main elements ... : the centrality dichotomies of normal/abnormal, natural/unnatural, and moral/immoral; homosexuality regarded as an illness; religious institutions and officers that play an important role in the public debate on homosexuality; LGBT people who attack the core of national values; and the battle between the police and the right-wing groups."

Although these discursive themes are specific to the Montenegrin context, they resonate with what we've witnessed over the past few years in America -- for instance, in the recent and ongoing legislation regarding transgendered people and public toilets.

As social scientists, we can encourage our students to look for, debate, and dig into the cultural, historical, political, and economic factors that connect eruptions of violence like the Orlando shooting to broader processes of systemic violence and inequality in our societies.