Surviving the System, and Other Unmentionable Lessons of the Virginia Tech Massacre

Taking Responsibility From Within the System

There was a time when I didn't just dislike cops; I was actively prejudiced towards them. I stated to friends that when it came to law enforcement, I was completely, irrationally disposed towards hating them, regardless of individual merits. Of course, even now I'm not very warm towards law enforcement as a group. However, I've learned to distinguish between the group and the constituents. There are good, community-oriented, genuinely friendly police officers, and it's wrong to lump them in with the bad ones. For to do so is to practice the very same dehumanizing collectivism that the system practices on us.

However, I have always held one caveat towards law enforcement professionals: when they see fellow cops act wrongly and cover up or defend those actions, they are part of the problem. Good police doesn't let bad police - however trivial or seemingly just their illegal and immoral actions may seem - get away with doing the wrong thing. I make a point whenever the subject of policing comes up to address this issue because it demonstrates that the system doesn't have to be totally awful if the member individuals take initiative. The so-called "Blue Wall of Silence" is what prevents people from trusting police far more than outwardly acknowledged police brutality and corruption.

Of course, the whole point of the system is to reduce the initiative of individuals, make them compliant and complacent, and socialize values among the group to insulate individuals from the full consequences of their activities. People act like a herd when treated as a herd, and there are so many institutions among us that promote such a mentality, ossifying one's own inner guide and promoting dependence on authority. In such an environment, isn't the most subversive act to be an individual, to act on one's own values, and most of all to be one's own, unmediated moral agent?

Bullying as the Breakdown of Authentic Solidarity

The education system is another example of a potentially dehumanizing, collectivizing institution. We are compelled from an early, impressionable age to deal with many types of people for no other reason than that they are roughly the same age as us. The system believes this "socialization" helps us learn to make friends and interact in a healthy manner. Yet we all know of instances where some were made special victims of that system, since in any large, involuntarily constituted body there will be those who take advantage of some people's inability to exit. I'm talking, of course, of bullies.

Now, I'm not saying that we didn't all get picked on from time to time. I'm not saying bullying justifies any particular act. But we all know that in our classes there were certain people who, for whatever reason, had some sort of mark on them that singled them out for harsher treatment from those junior thugs that always exist in schools. And we all know that for better or worse, persistent intimidation and harassment takes a toll on people.

We've probably seen it a million times, and rarely do we speak up out of concern for being targeted ourselves. But such experiences are actually opportunities for solidarity, where common interests of the group can authentically be tapped. Bullies thrive on fear, and all it would take would be the rest of the class standing up to them together to avert such treatment. This kind of mutual aid can be used for good, but all too often the class ends up aligning against the victim, the kid being picked on. I know that's what happened in my school, and I rarely if ever did anything.

The Real Lessons from Virginia Tech

The recent Virginia Tech massacre shows that bullying, marginalization, and alienation can be tragic for others than just the original victim. True, Cho Seung-hui had mental problems. True, no amount of classroom bullying can justify what he did. But we can now see that when bullying occurs in the system, it doesn't just hurt the one kid. Indeed, it's telling that the bullies weren't even the ones targeted; Cho saw the body of students as the enemy, and it was the innocent who were massacred, not the bullies.

The lesson to learn from this tragedy is that the system - educational, law enforcement, even psychiatric - is deadly. It puts individuals into a position of conforming or suffering, and the suffering can be corrosive to those whose grip on reason is not as firm as normal. These individuals then use the system to destroy other individuals, in this case by choosing an area where many were congregated and opening fire. If the massacre is seen as some sort of failure of the larger system - if, for example, gun laws or the mental health system take the blame - then we miss the fact that the system is actually doing what it's supposed to do: keep people corralled, helpless, dependent on authority, and completely defenseless. That's how Cho was victimized, and in a way it's how his victims were as well.

The solution is not to reform the system, but for individuals to act directly and morally. The answers are not the pithy ones suggested by the bureaucrats: wearing maroon and yellow, pledging $32 to your local public radio station (as I heard people doing this morning in the car), and holding "days of mourning" do nothing to help. The way to help is to stand up to bullies, to encourage your fellow humans and your children to stand up to systemic intimidation, and to help the weakest among us to endure the system without losing our caring and compassion. Sure, there will be those who suggest new policies about intervening in bullying situations, but these are rarely effective because they're just another coercive apparatus of the system. There is no psychological treatment like having friends who will stand up for you.

Solidarity among students for mutual aid promotes the concept of society as a voluntary association of responsible, self-directed individuals rather than as a forced collective. And it helps save at least the life and dignity of the unpopular kid - and maybe the lives of a few others. But since students are to obey central authority and not organize among themselves for protection and comfort, we'll probably continue to see these kinds of unbelievably tragic events in schools.

Just remember, though, that it doesn't have to be this way.

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Written on Friday, April 20, 2007