Virtual dehumanization 10 years after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre
The lethal effects of social isolation, fear and living virtually
VIRTUAL KILLING FIELDS
In February 2013, after the December 2012 mass murder of 20 children and 7 adults by a deranged gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, I published an article on virtual dehumanization at Truthout that is reprinted below. The 20 year old shooter, whose last act before beginning his killing spree was to destroy the hard drive of his computer, ultimately took his own life, bringing the death toll to 28.
Following a recent $73 million legal victory by Sandy Hook parents against now bankrupt Remington Arms, forcing them, in a historic first, to accept responsibility for the reckless way they marketed the guns used in the killing, I had begun working on an updated version of the article.
Then the Uvalde, Texas school shooting happened on May 24, 2022, with 19 children and two adults killed in a rampage similar to Sandy Hook by a disturbed 18 year old who reportedly “spent most of his time alone in his room, playing video games.” The same arguments as in 2012 for and against tougher gun control laws emerged immediately, but more vitriolic and polarized than ever. Now as in 2012, I think the gun control debate is critically important but fails to address deeper root causes.
An exploration of root causes is also complicated by the impact of the Covid pandemic over the past two plus years. A September 2021 cross sectional report on pandemic mass shootings published by JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) concluded: “This study found large increases in mass shootings in the US with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Both gun sales and mass shootings spiked during the pandemic. Criminologists have pinned much of the blame for the recent increase in mass murders and homicides on pandemic isolation coupled with increased economic and social stress among already vulnerable populations.
Before the Covid pandemic, Brazilian philosopher Eduardo Giannetti (2:50 in the video) identified a “crisis in the psychic ecology” caused by “extremely aggressive and daring” attempts to impose wired market rationality on humanity’s “archaic psyche” through relentlessly intrusive 24/7 social and mobile media. This crisis has reached new levels of intensity during the pandemic and the series of interlinked crises that have followed in its wake.
Exacerbating already high levels of psychic disturbance, a March 2022 survey by the American Psychological Association reported that “69% of adults are worried the invasion of Ukraine is going to lead to nuclear war.” The same percentage of respondents agreed with the statement that Russia and the US are “at the beginning stages of World War III.”
Giannetti’s crisis of the psychic ecology has never been more acute. Outside of a universal ban, gun control alone is not going to address the root causes of nearly universal levels of anxiety, driven by what cultural writer Kat Kinsman calls “weaponized uncertainty,” nor reverse seemingly inexorable annual increases in mass gun violence. There is an urgent need to dig deeper into a tangled complex of root causes.
Regrettably, after nearly a decade, I believe the article republished below about the social, psychological and economic factors driving mass murders is still relevant.
Shooters Transformed by a New Era of Virtual Dehumanization?
After the mass murder of 20 children and 6 teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, by a disturbed 20-year-old on December 14, 2012, the dominant media narrative quickly turned into a national debate about gun control. As necessary and important as this debate is in a nation with over 270 million guns in private hands, we need to dig deeper for root causes. In the avalanche of reporting aimed at understanding the Newtown killer’s motive, little attention has been paid to the idea that the killer may be a harbinger of the corrosive effects of new underlying changes in human nature, and that these changes may be shaped by the dehumanizing tendencies of advanced capitalism in an age of abstract financialization and social media.
There are eerie similarities among the young killer of Newtown (age 20) and his predecessors in the Aurora theater massacre (age 24), the Virginia Tech killings (age 23), the Columbine murders (ages 17 and18), the Gabrielle Giffords mall killings (age 22) and at least a dozen others since 1982. While the average age of mass killers in the United States over the past three decades is 35 years, 10 of the worst mass murders in US history were committed by white males younger than 25. These mass murders often end in suicide and are typically carried out with a calculated indifference that indicates a complete absence not only of empathy, but of the passions historically associated with murder, such as jealousy, lust or greed. The seven deadly sins do not necessarily come into play.
The robotic nature of our premeditated, often suicidal mass murderers in the United States is doubtless telling us something important about the society that is producing this new breed of droid-like humans. The nation with the most advanced capitalist economy on earth is also leading the world in mass killings (4 or more fatalities), with an average of over three per year since 2003, and six incidents with 140 victims in 2012 alone.
In his seminal 1967 work of situationist philosophy, The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord described the historic arc of social life in capitalist societies as a slow descent from being into having and eventually into merely appearing. At this advanced stage of capitalist devolution, personal relationships are almost completely supplanted by impersonal commodity relationships that are mediated by images, while the citizen has devolved into a consumerist spectator. In Debord’s formulation, the ideology of spectacular society leads to “…the impoverishment, servitude and negation of real life.“
If we fast forward from 1967 to today’s society of ubiquitous social media, it seems that new, more dehumanizing forms of social relationship unimagined by Debord have taken hold. In his review of the movie The Social Network, David Denby of the New Yorker writes the following:
“From the first scene to the last, The Social Network hints at a psychological shift produced by the information age, a new impersonality that affects almost everyone. After all, Facebook . . . is a paradox: a web site that celebrates the aura of intimacy while providing the relief of distance, substituting bodiless sharing and the thrills of self-created celebrityhood for close encounters of the first kind. Karl Marx suggested that, in the capitalist age, we began to treat one another as commodities. The Social Network suggests that we now treat one another as packets of information.”
While Debord’s analysis stands the test of time, Denby highlights the possibility that we have now moved beyond the substitution of commodity relationships for personal relationships to something even more impersonal. What happens to a society in which human lives are routinely reduced to “packets of information?” The questions become even more interesting when we consider the ways in which a billion plus people on Facebook alone are actively participating to one degree or another in the process of “packeting.”
In his 2011 book, The Violence of Financial Capitalism, Italian economist Christian Marazzi discusses a new form of “cognitive capitalism” that has emerged from financialization’s invasion of daily life. In this new financialized capitalist milieu, living beings are transformed into fixed capital, while social relations are “put to work” to generate profit. Marazzi sees this as a fundamental shift that represents “the financialization of the reproductive sphere of life itself.“
Whatever commons we create in the era of social media, as we self-consciously reproduce ourselves as “packets of information,” are vulnerable to this financialized form of privatization and exploitation. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s infamous statement that the idea of privacy is “obsolete as a social norm” is exactly the point. We are beginning to lose control of the “libidinal substance” of our own subjective lives, to use a felicitous phrase coined by Slavoj Žižek.
Žižek talks about a change in subjectivity that began in the 20th century and has now created a new category of subject who has been so psychically destroyed that he or she has lost control over the “libidinal substance of their being.” This growing category of “living dead” are trapped in a vegetative state with no capacity for empathy or genuine engagement. The current popular fixation on vampires and zombies provides apt metaphors. Žižek, an unorthodox Marxist, calls them the new proletariat. In an age of cognitive capitalism, too many people are becoming mere physical forms deprived of control over their own subjective content.
The incapacity for empathy and engagement among a growing segment of society, particularly among young males addicted to the internet, leads not just to social breakdown, but to ecological breakdown. Packets of information do not relate to the biological web of life that surrounds and ultimately sustains us.
In Man for Himself, Erich Fromm warned of the spiritual peril inherent in a society dominated by what he called “the marketing principle,” which in turn gives us individuals whose personalities are shaped by “the marketing orientation” to life. Fromm notes that while “. . . equality [once] was conjunctive with difference, . . . it has [now] become synonymous with ‘in-difference’ and, indeed, indifference is what characterizes modern man’s relationship to himself and to others.”
The indifference to others inherent in the marketing orientation to life leads not to community, but to the tribalism of celebrity culture, with its narcissism, contempt for the weak and insistence on the commodification of self. In this cultural milieu, the goals of life are shifting. For many people, it is more important to be famous than to be loved, or the former is equated with the latter in ways that make it more important to have a connection with an audience than a family or community. And if this quasi-celebrity connection to an audience is slow in coming, it is a simple matter to get a gun and murder your way to virtual glory.
This abyss at the core of our pharmacologically-enhanced, celebrity-crazed culture is constantly inflamed by purposeless social media, violent interactive gaming, the ubiquity of degrading pornography and mindlessly violent movies (typically starring cooly hip male actors as emotionless killing machines), all aimed at driving profits by treating humans as packets of information irrespective of the social and ecological costs.
The spectacle that Debord described is more than mass media. It is a fusion of late stage capitalism and mass media empowered by forms of government that are deeply complicit in the incessant reduction of personal relationships to commodity market relationships, thus making the market ethic not only ubiquitous, but seemingly inevitable and incontrovertible. The resultant “spectacle” is more than a media phenomenon. Its inner logic is driven by a need to channel human volatility into predictable patterns of commodity exchange to maximize profit. Social media is quickly becoming another tool in this process, this time with our own alienated subjectivity as the product, a new kind of libidinal derivative to be packaged and marketed by financialized capitalism.
Facebook is an apt symbol of a major social shift that is beginning to make interpersonal communication and genuine emotional connection more and more difficult for many people. An increasing number of individuals raised in the daily reality of virtual culture are intellectually savvy in a purely ratiocinative way, yet are often so emotionally stunted they cannot tell a virtual lover from a flesh-and-blood lover. The episodic emergence of young male mass murderers, usually well-educated, affluent and wired, may be a first sign of the darker side of this new social milieu.
Any hope of stopping the kinds of violently psychotic breaks with reality that lead to mass murders will require us to understand more about the ways social media can help produce and sustain political movements such as the Arab Spring or Occupy on one hand, while fostering conditions that may contribute to violent dehumanization on the other.
In the end, our most urgent political imperative must be to break the current cycle of dehumanizing financialization that has begun to invade our daily lives. We need to take control of what Marazzi calls “the reproductive sphere of life.” This means that we can no longer settle for “the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship,” as MIT psychologist and social media expert Sherry Turkle states. It is up to each of us to consciously reinhabit and take responsibility for our emotional and spiritual lives together on the global commons.
The alternative is unthinkable.