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The horrific slaughter of innocent children in Connecticut has led many of us to moments of deep introspection. Many of us are re-considering our views on gun control. Does it make sense to have weapons accessible to so many of us? Others are asking questions about the social failings of our cultural institutions. Why is our society producing mass murderers who have so little regard for human life? These legitimate questions deserve careful evaluation.
Unfortunately, like so many problems in our complex modern times, in the search for solutions to our problems we unearth more questions than we answer. And so the moment requires that we adjust our focal point to a slightly broader perspective where we consider; how have we gotten to this point? The problem extends beyond episodic moments of horrific massacres. Globally the balance of power continues to swing further towards inequality. The global economy is beginning to fail. Our environment, the substrate of this great human experiment, is under assault as the anthropocene epoch drives the sixth great mass extinction event in the history of life on planet earth. What are the dominant forces manipulating our cultural evolution in such a way that our humanity itself seems to be called in to question.
Sadly, questions unearthed by asking questions from this broader perspective are not easily answered by creating new legislation controlling firearms, or by reallocating scarce resources into mental health programs, both of which propose ‘end of pipe’ solutions to underlying problems that require us to completely reconsider the pedagogy of our current perspective.
“Don’t hate the mirror because you are ugly”
More and more we are seeing reactionary solutions taped on to the festering wound of our cultural ills. We struggle to stamp out hate, violence, and perversion on the internet using filters and banning web sites. We move to ban weapons and incarcerate those who commit acts of violence while marveling at the success of violent movies and games. We rationalize and attempt to mitigate the environmental consequences of unsustainable lifestyles, never willing to change our excessive levels of consumption. Like gangrene under a band aid the decay continues.
Our inability to address the roots of our cultural sickness is not surprising. Just as a sword cannot cut itself, or a pen cannot write on itself, our minds swing wildly trying to draw a picture of another color, but the ink always appears the same.
Further complicating our accuracy in pinning down the problem is the dynamic moving target. In the proverbial game of ‘pin the tail’ our donkey is sprinting down the street on a crack-binge high. Fueled by explosive growth trends in technology and globalization the carpet under our feet is changing faster that we can even perceive it’s color.
The task of deconstructing our cultural influences is still possible, however, as many of the core elements to our storyline have not changed. Philosophers have, for centuries, made attempts to define constructs of the human mind. Frequently in the course of this examination we must also address our relationship to the ‘system’, and the discussion becomes closely tied to our economic circumstance.
In “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” Louis Althusser examines the connections between social structure, power and culture. Like Marx before him, Althusser began by examining our relationship to the economy either as workers or elites. All models of a functioning economies are seen to require both production as well as the perpetuation of the conditions for production.
Althusser divides the ‘machine of repression’ into the repressive state apparatus (RSA) and the ideological state apparatus (ISA). The RSA is easy to observe in the government of the state, the military, or the court system. The ISA, however, is more creeping. The ISA is found in the pedagogy of our schools, in our religious belief systems, and the media. The ideological state apparatus encompasses the elements of our cultural system that exhibit influences on our belief systems that are both subtle and extremely profound.
What does this have to do with the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School? Outbursts of violence and evil are not the cause of our problems; they are a symptom of deeper disease. As liberals and conservatives come together to condemn the tragic loss of innocent human life we have another opportunity. Simply passing legislation to keep guns away from the public or institute strict psychological profiling of our brothers and sisters would be an unfortunate waste of an opportunity to truly examine the mechanisms that are leading to record rates of suicide, self-medication, environmental destruction and economic inequality.
Across the globe, millions of humans are anxiously awaiting the ‘end’ of the Mayan Calendar. For some it represents a doomsday, for others a changing of ‘the age’. For most, Friday will likely just be another day in which we will wake and observe the world. We might even stare at ourselves in the mirror, for a moment, with thoughts of vanity or disgust. Less likely we will see the beauty of a genetic fractal, of environmental co-evolution, of the synergy possible with cooperation, compassion, and love. Our inability to escape this 21st century predicament is simply an error in our focus.
Here is hope that we observe more than just our reflection. The innocent sacrifice of 20 young souls demands that we see deeper into our cultural hegemony. While this moment is the culmination of an infinite number of variables, not all of them are as innocent or benign as they might originally be perceived to be.
Dan Wooden graduated from Humboldt State University in 2002 with a degree in Natural Resources Management. His background is in wildland fire and he works for a federal land management agency where he lives in Arcata, CA. He can be contacted at danwooden(at)hotmail.com.