Anomie: the breakdown in the bond between the individual and community is evidenced when there is a discrepancy between the values and ideologies of society and what is achievable in normal life.
This term, popularized by French sociologist Emile Durkheim in his 19th century book Suicide, was referenced in a discussion of the recent school shootings across the country. Durkheim’s concept was in response to the counter theory that suicide was only generated by a person’s negative events or mental illness.
Over a century later, this gap between the individual and society may be crucial in understanding today’s tragedies as well.
Violence in our communities
As a mental health clinician, I have been trained to examine not only the internal symptoms a person manifests, but to also investigate the environment of the person in my care. This brings us to the quintessential concept of nature versus nurture, but inquisitive social scientists know it is never that simple. All layers of a person’s life must be taken into account before making a diagnosis and formulating a course of action. This assessment process is also applicable to comprehending community violence.
The 22-year old perpetrator of the Isla Vista shootings, Elliot Rodger, posted on social media sites his woes with race, gender and wealth. Wall Street Journal columnist Jeff Yang sifted through the postings and uncovered how Rodger’s exposure to the Hollywood lifestyle influenced his beliefs that money, sexuality and “whiteness” were the elements of success.
Of course, Rodger’s privileged upbringing was different than most, but his perceptions of success are not so rare. Despite advancements, the media still promotes a fairly heterosexual, masculine and white agenda. Several of this summer’s and “bro-themed” blockbusters could easily have all three criteria, and even though we know that they are not “real,” it is difficult to turn off some unconscious belief that you do not measure up. Because, at some point, we have allowed art to dictate real life.
The impact of failing to live up to perceived standards
This is where the dissonance exists – in the countless and failed attempts to match what our society portrays as acceptable. Every one of us can identify with feeling “left out” or feeling “less than” a perceived superior person. For most of us, the emotions of anger, sadness and anxiety are natural responses, but we’d would probably end up with a crummy day – not a suicide/murder.
Yet, it is not hard to imagine that a life of loneliness, neglect or abuse could create an intense urge to seek revenge and self-destruction. Are these events symptoms of mental illness or intensive acts of human frustration?
Whether or not Rodger and the other such perpetrators were mentally ill, prevention of community violence needs to occur within “the community.” In addition to quality mental health care and review of gun laws, there needs to be efforts to reformat a more inclusive society. This means demonstrating your morals and values in regards to race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality – not just saying that you believe in equality.
These demonstrations do not mean running for office, but treating others well and speaking up when something doesn’t feel “right.” Change is essential at all levels, and, in this case, the responsibility also lies within us.