Violence and the American Dream

It is often argued that the United States is an inherently violent country, more so than most other wealthy, stable democracies. From its birth following a revolutionary war, to the enduring mythos of the Wild West and the uniquely enshrined (though much contested) right to individual gun ownership, the U.S. does seem to have bravado intricately weaved into its history and culture.

In response to the question posed on Aeon, an ideas forum and  magazine, “Does inability to attain American Dream make people violent?” psychiatrist and writer Jean Kim argues that hyper-individualism bordering on narcissism, combined with personal and often political grievances, exacerbate the problem of violence in American culture. The whole piece is a quick and easy read, but the crux of its point is thus:

Recent limitations in socioeconomic mobility combined with increasing racial diversity might be threatening narcissistic personalities and provoking ever more violence in the US. The old-school 20th-century American Dream rewarded the Mad Men-type of society where the white men comfortably ran the workplace, the women stayed at home or did clerical work, and the minorities were invisible servants holed up in their own enclaves. This structure no longer works. On one side, consolidated money and power has led to an oligarchy driven by tech and finance, which in turn financially froze out the lower and middle classes via inflation, job dissolution and outsourcing. On the other side, social-media democracy has empowered many diverse groups to fight for change. Given these upheavals, the future is uncertain and we are all in flux.

Tragically, violence might seem like the easiest way to restore the old order, especially for past beneficiaries – white men who can catch quick fame through ready access to guns. Statistically, mass shooters are mainly white men, but, notoriously, several minorities have joined in as well. In one way or another, they may all feel threatened, destabilized and betrayed, unable to find solid ground. It could be that violence in America will subside when its narcissists accept that the old order and the old dreams are gone. To heal the injured narcissist to a state of self-worth, we need new dreams along with plenty of training and the right kind of jobs so the dreams can be fulfilled.

The rest of the conversation can be read here. One commentator extrapolated greatly on Kim’s thesis, namely its implications for humanity as a whole:

If the inability to attain the American Dream  makes people violent, we will have to get busy  drawing up all kinds of reasons people become violent in this world, because it is a violent one indeed.  The “reasons” are as  many as there are hairs on our heads, and not one nation is above reproach.  As for the increase of gun violence in America, I have some thoughts that are informed by 32 years of loving and counseling teens (I am an LCSW)  from various socioeconomic backgrounds, religions, ethnicities, and races- all “my” kids!

There is an overall unwillingness/inability for adults to sublimate personal appetites/proclivities- whatever they may be- in favor of what would be optimal for their children. This does not have a socioeconomic level, a race, a religion, or an ethnicity- its an “across the board” phenomena ,  and few allow their wills to be thwarted when it comes to  gratifying personal desires. After all, “don’t I deserve to be happy?” or , “Its my house, I can do/say what I want.”.  Its pretty shocking how those assumed truths can be lived out in various ways, children be damned.  This alone is not a cause, its vulnerability fodder, and its a popular enough meal…

The problem of violence is as old as humanity itself, and no society or culture has ever been foreign to it. But some places have clearly become less troubled by violence — whether via guns, domestic abuse, etc. — than others, and it is interesting to consider all the factors that may account for why that is. Do some cultures, ideas, and even economic systems encourage — or discourage — violence? Do highly competitive and individualized societies breed a greater willingness to resort to violence in order to achieve one’s ends? What are your thoughts?

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