The debate over more or less gun control completely misses the horrifying heart of the matter: the modern world breeds the nihilism behind mass shootings.
It's worth noting that there is a strong element of the suicidal among mass shooters, which is also a growing phenomenon and also a product of alienation and nihilism. As the modern world came into focus, Durkheim wrote about this in what may be called the first work of sociology, finding suicide more pronounced among the more industrially advanced, individualist, and protestant cultures within Europe.
I think the saddest part is that most of the people who "pull the levers" already know this. There is a gaping void in our culture, a constant tearing down of structures of meaning with nothing in sight to replace them. The task of deconstruction only feels as meaningful for as long as the orgiastic destruction is happening. When it's done and you're left with nothing but rubble, that empty feeling sets in again. You go from structure to structure, seeking and destroying over and over again until there is nothing but barren earth, nothing to tear down but yourself. And because it's all you know to do, you tear down that last thing as well.
They pull all the levers there are, but there is no lever for this. You can will people to do as you say, talk as you say, support what you say, but you cannot *make* people feel something. Even false consciousness only goes so far. The only way for a person to feel something is if they feel it. When you create a culture that does nothing but numb, people will come up with some crazy ways to "feel" to fight that.
We have to start creating things. We have to start cobbling together bits of space debris to build new things, new spaces, new frontiers that give hope and inspire creativity and imagination. We have almost completely run out of runway, our movies and tv shows have lost the ability to imagine anything exciting and new and "possible." Instead we are stuck on a treadmill of nostalgia, wishing things were "like they used to be." Complaining about how things are.
Substack, in a way, can be a meaningful frontier for us. It can be a place where we build possibility as often as we fight the hegemonic cultural hypnosis. We have to build, we have to think of what's next, we have to create a culture of the 2020s. Let's stop waiting for permission, stop begging to be "let into the room" of MSM and Hollywood. Let's make our own place.
Very powerful, grim, and yet also motivating article. Thank you @defaultfriend
The answer of course is Jesus Christ. He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. He loves humanity and wishes that all of us may join Him in heaven forever, but while we are here on earth we must take up our cross and follow Him. On earth we indeed will suffer, for this life is a valley of tears. However if we follow His commands and love Him with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength and love our neighbor(fellow man) as ourselves we have the great Hope of a life of eternal bliss after our life here on earth is over. This is the complete solution to the nihilism described in the well written article.
It's more than just nihilism. I think life is meaningless, but I never wanted to shoot people. What you are all missing from the equation is a necessary ingredient in nearly all, if not all, of these shootings: real love and kindness from a parent. These shooters are much more than missing meaning in life, THEY ARE ANGRY and have ZERO empathy. If they had a single parent or grandparent that showed them REAL LOVE, they wouldn't be able to do what they do. Believe it.
Yes. Nihilism. But how does one recapture meaning? In the materialist world that spits out the nihilist, we must rediscover the larger supernatural reality within which the natural is cradled. “Repent and believe because the kingdom of God is near”
Ernst Jünger: Prayer “possesses a conducive power.” Without prayer, “our freedom of will and powers of resistance diminish; the appeal of demonic powers becomes more compelling, and it’s imperatives more terrible.”
This isn't a problem of "individualism", we are individuals. One cannot have a relationship with "society", but only with other individuals. You can claim that Liberalism is at fault, but we haven't had actual Liberalism in America for a very long time. What we've had is the imposition of collectivism. We are each classified at an early age as a "type", nerd, jock, hoodlum, whatever, and ascribed a set of behavioral properties that are entirely dehumanizing. The person who can't be categorized and doesn't have solid family support becomes isolated and is dealt with contemptuously.
No one quotes Thomas Jefferson before committing mass murder.
1: "Sometimes, shooters are influenced... Lanza, by the antinatalist Gary Inmendham."
Gary's last name is Mosher. Inmendham is his online moniker. It means "In Mendham" NJ, where Gary was raised and lives.
- You refer to Mosher as an antinatalist, which to be fair Lanza also mentions in his Cultural Philistine videos. But that camouflages the real concern which is efilism. EF is marketed as an extension of AN by EFs using AN as a Trojan horse to leverage EF into public discourse. The goal is to muddy the waters and make them seem like the same thing, which they aren't. Your sentence describing Mosher as AN is a consequence of that.
- Lanza was influenced by the kinds of ideas floating around at that time in AN/EF circles. Mosher routinely advocates for brutality under the shield of compassion and ethics, eg killing pregnant women who refuse to have abortions to prevent them bringing beings with capacity for suffering into existence. He's also advocated for killing kids to 'save them', although the only examples I know of are after Sandy Hook. He's normalized such rhetoric in online AN/EF spaces and it's repeated by his followers as a matter of course. EF can be viewed as Mosher's post hoc way of recasting his rage as moral righteousness, so it's difficult to demarcate the idea from the man. I doubt that didn't rub off on Lanza. The more I think about it the more I think asking the extent to which he was influenced by EF isn't as important as asking the extent to which he was influenced by Mosher.
2 "shooters don’t know how to do any of that", referring to something internal obstructing them from being able to find meaning in life.
- It's also a matter of choosing to not find meaning, or external circumstances preventing them from finding what they need to give them meaning. Re the former, life not having objective meaning beyond what we ascribe to it, and anything we do ascribe is just playing pretend (cf Zapffe's Last Messiah) is a common trope in AN/EF circles. Rather than pretend, people in those spaces choose to follow that conclusion to wherever it leads. Re the latter, some people have been beaten down by life through no fault of their own and pulling themselves up by their bootstraps isn't enough to get back on their feet, even if that's what they want to do. Violence isn't inevitable in either case, but there aren't that many steps from there to a moral justification for violence, and it would take less to tip people in both groups over the edge.
Great article. Been mulling it for couple of days. Thanks for writing it.
I enjoyed your essay Katherine, and I think you are right to see that nihilistic philosophy underlies the despair and hopelessness that so many feel.
Important take. I think there is also overlap here with the proliferation of hardcore pornography that Katherine has written about. Everything seems tethered to the embrace of meaninglessness. Your body, your dignity, your life.
I have no brilliant comment to add, just that Katherine definitely invokes the ghost of TLP in that final paragraph; he had a lot to say about serial killers and narcissism, and the lethal combination of narcissistic rage that one can output when one's perferred identity is not accepted by society at large. Always a trigger, always a feeling of unacceptable shame, not guilt, that explodes outwards and consumes those in the blast radius.
Thank you the column, and of course, if one is happens by an article like this, it's for them.
Your point is powerful. But might I suggest some additional thoughts to consider. Because young men have always been at risk for adverse behaviors, not just in the face of the nihilism of the present moment which you describe so well. Weirdly, most societies seem to know this and can even find ways for those at-risk men to find a niche, including explicitly giving those most at-risk men the most violent outlets. An example: An analysis of suicide bombers in the Middle East a few years back found that they were most likely to be the 3rd, 4th, or 5th sons of their families. No inheritance available to them, little likelihood of a favorable marriage match, and therefore most likely to be a risk to the community (in terms of sexual violence or other locally directed misbehavior). The solution, apparently, is to raise them to glorify their families by becoming suicide bombers or other expendable agents of outward-directed violence. Similarly: Swiss villages were famous throughout the middle ages for producing an excess of healthy, strong men who, if they were also the 3rd, 4th, or 5th+ sons, would have no hope of inheriting land in the densely populated and intensively cultivated land of Switzerland. With a national policy of not expanding Swiss borders, the Swiss could not recruit these men to enforce Swiss colonial ambition in faraway lands but instead deployed these "excess" young men as mercenaries -- paid soldiers -- where they would either earn the wealth they couldn't get at home or simply never come home. Relatedly, Irish families for centuries prepared their "excess" sons to be priests, a more benign alternative, but high in purpose and status for the family (and prevented, typically, further offspring with even less inheritance potential). I've overly summarized for present purposes, but it seems clear that cultures intuitively recognize that they need to provide high-risk/high-reward options for their "excess" young men, at least when population is above a certain size. But you can only do that for a subset of your young men (and I'm obviously not endorsing even these).
Our problem comes to light when you consider that all of these cases, the society first provides a clear path for the 1st and 2nd sons in the family. Meaning the bulk of young men have a path for fulfilling their biological drives. Yes, those paths are overly determined, inflexible, and a burden to carry (at least as seen through the eyes of American pop culture), but those paths are also supported by the community, provide access to community resources, and channel the energy -- including dark energy -- of the young men involved. Today, our culture doesn't even offer 1st and 2nd sons a clear path. Marriage is for conservative fools, parenting should be put off if done at all, and continuing in the value and faith traditions of your community makes you look like Jon Lithgow in Footloose: You believe in nonsense and are thus shackling yourself to the past, unable to revel in your freedom, dancing through an abandoned barn a la Kevin Bacon.
So here we stand. Where prior societies have had to deal with the risks posed by a handful of "excess" sons, our culture has made all our sons "excess." Yes, nihilism abounds. But that nihilism may not just be a product of feeling like nothing matters, a haunting fear that I presume is a human universal, it is also the result of a deliberate campaign to stamp out the processes and patterns of culture that afford us the very things that our bodies evolved to prize: pair bonding, procreation, and providing for the next generation. Men and women alike are losing their connection to this urge. It's just that for a small percentage of these increasingly "excess" men, the only way out is to go out with an awful, terrible bang.
A really thoughtful and thought-provoking essay. When our roles in our families and our communities are diminished by the view that government is the go to resource, the ultimate problem solver, we lose even more of the cohesive, ‘serving something larger than ourselves’ purpose that gives life meaning. As long as government is seen as the one responsible for addressing problems, it corrodes our opportunities for, and need, to be a part of the type of service which gives life meaning. Without opportunities to make a difference, we see no purpose. Government cannot be the only ‘other’ in our lives - it is not a replacement for the genuine relationships constructed by individuals within a community. I’m reminded a bit of the ideas within Putnam’s valuable book ‘Bowling Alone’. Thanks for the great essay, Katherine.
Lack of meaning or lack of tribe?
It's true that individualism is a cause, but what is the cause of individualism? We once learned our culture through history, entered out community by service, but now statistics and money are enough.
If there is no truth, there is no meaning. The left in the US does not believe in any truths, only power.
That was an impressive list of causes in the forth paragraph, more than I've ever heard from a politician. You don't think those things are upstream from nihilism? Those things are both symptoms and causes. Great essay though.