The horrendous attacks at the synagogue in Pittsburgh, the supermarket in Kentucky, and the Islamic Cultural Centre in Quebec City leave us asking the fifth journalistic question — Why did it happen?
It’s also worth noting that the apparent perpetrators in all these attacks were male. Is there something in the male psyche at play here?
A recent article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that a significant factor fuelling political or religious violence is looking for excitement in a humdrum existence.
Lead author Birga M. Schumpe of New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus says in a statement that “Although research has recently linked people’s search for meaning or significance with their willingness to use violence for a cause, our research suggests this is further advanced by a thirst for adventure.”
The scientists studied 460 men and women from Andalusia, Spain, and put them through some rather novel experiments. One involved having half the participants write a reflective essay about the legacy they hoped to leave behind. The control group was asked to write about “my favourite sport shoes.”
According to an American Psychological Association release on this study, “Those who wrote about leaving a legacy scored higher on feeling that their lives had meaning and subsequently lower in need for excitement and support of political violence than those who wrote about their shoes.”
In another experiment, participants were randomly assigned to one of two hypothetical animal rights organizations. The unexciting group used methods like formal statements, pray-ins and product boycotts. The exciting group took a more active approach with public marches, parades, humorous skits and pranks, and refusing to disperse.
The researchers found that the being in the exciting group “successfully reduced support for political violence in individuals high in sensation-seeking by presenting an exciting — yet peaceful — alternatives to a violent activist group.”
They conclude that “when individuals search for meaning, they look for novel and intense experiences, thereby making them more likely to adhere to violent ideologies or groups.” Perhaps finding purpose in life and peaceful outlets for thrill-seeking may reduce the urge for political and religious violence.
My personal experience on the front lines of violent political action dates back to the student protests on the Columbia University campus in 1968. While I didn’t personally occupy buildings, I was the news director of WKCR, the campus radio station, so I had a front-row seat. A few months ago, a hundred or so of veterans of those days returned to the Columbia campus for a conference called “50 Years After the Revolution: New Perspectives on 1968.”
I always thought the main 1968 violence was “the bust,” when members of New York City’s Tactical Patrol Force swarmed the campus to take control of the buildings, beating protesters with nightsticks and dragging some by the hair. In preparation for this, protesters had poured soapy water on the marble steps of Low Library at the centre of the campus, causing police in their riot gear to slip and fall.
At the conference, I learned that there were actually guns on campus, brought in by African-American students and their community supporters. Luckily, none were ever used. It was also clear that this group were far more radicalized than their white student co-occupiers.
In fact, many of the Columbia students viewed the protest as a kind of exciting Spring party with sex and drugs and the cancellation of classes and final exams. Because of their un-revolutionary attitude, they were told by the African-American students to “go take your own building” and unceremoniously ejected from Hamilton Hall.
Thrill-seeking behaviour also seemed to be a factor in the aggression of the police when they were sent in to evict and arrest the students. Paul Cronin, author of A Time to Stir, a book about Columbia 1968, quotes an NYPD officer saying “we were just very bored, we had been up there sitting in those police vans from Day 1. I was losing a lot of money playing poker and when the time came to let loose … we let loose.”
The storied leaders of the 1968 protests at Columbia were all male: Mark Rudd, Tom Hurwitz and Ted Gold come to mind, the latter killed in 1970 while trying to make a bomb for the Weatherman Underground. But women played a vital role in the demonstrations. Since the conference program didn’t have a session on this aspect, 1968 protester and then Barnard student Nancy Bieberman demanded that the program be changed, and it was.
What struck me most was how the 1968 experience permanently changed the life trajectories of who were closely involved. Many still became lawyers, but quite a few took up civil rights law or working for the poor. Nancy Bieberman now runs a low-income housing agency in the Bronx. Ray Gaspard produces socially conscious plays on Broadway.
The idea that political and religious violence stems, in part, from people seeking life meaning and excitement certainly rings true for me. Now it’s time to figure out ways to divert that energy in positive directions. Some of my 1968 classmates can certainly help show the way.
Dr. Tom Keenan is an award-winning journalist, public speaker, professor in the Faculty of Environmental Design at the University of Calgary, and author of the bestselling book, Technocreep: The Surrender of Privacy and the Capitalization of Intimacy.
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