The Remedy to our Cultural Malaise

by on April 20th, 2007

As is often the case in profound atrocities such as that in Virginia on Monday, the cultural aftershocks are only latently beginning to register. We now hear that mass murderer, Cho, may have had a mental illness to which authorities may not have appropriately responded. That he was a loner with a long list of festering hatreds is perhaps all we truly know.

But as we begin to perform the cultural forensics, something else is becoming apparent, and that is how we’ve become inured to the disproportionate response by people who harbor internal demons. Low on the seismic scale are the outbursts prompted by excessive alcohol in response to seething gender or ethnic hatreds. On the other end of the scale are the grotesque expressions of a person wholly consumed by anger, which, of course, is what our nation witnessed at Virginia Tech.

As we peel the layers of meaning back in a desperate search for a cause, we might consider the way in which our historical cultural consensus has been transformed into anarchy. As quaint as it would appear to many–which is only evidence of how far we’ve deviated–there was a time when children were inculcated with the expectation that it was incumbent upon them to assimilate into society. That their internal demons weren’t, in fact, unique, and that part of growing into an adult obliges us to reconcile values and beliefs that are manifestly at odds with the rest of the world.

The iconoclasm that was birthed during the 60s categorically rejected such notions as the product of an oppressive culture tacitly controlled by white cultural elitists bent upon maintaining their authoritarianism at any cost. In that argument, God was merely one of many mechanisms exploited to leverage desired behavior and to stifle freedom of thought. Their newly coined mantra might be aptly characterized by the 19th century German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche: “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.”

The result is that our public discourse has become coarsened, informed by the new rule that unexpressed thoughts are unhealthy, that every imagined right is a de facto right and any prohibition against its robust expression is nothing more than a societal convention born out of an obsolete set of patriarchal precepts.

Therefore, when someone has an unrequited grudge against real or imagined foes, he has been effectively enabled to have it heard in the court of his own choosing, be it on one of several television shows that are magnets for the bizarre or, in the extreme case, in savage, violent acts.

Our only hope to extricate ourselves from this self-wrought cultural maze is to reaffirm that there are, in fact, rules and guidelines to our public lives, and that we lose nothing by restraining our baser instincts–that, in truth, much is to be gained by doing so, in terms of beginning to understand the virtues of self-discipline and the value of delayed gratification.

Those lessons, originally taught by such brilliant, timeless minds as Aristotle and Socrates, are readily available, if only we have the wisdom to pursue them.

Philip Mella