Virginia Tech, Don Imus and America’s Seething Anger

There’s a seething anger not far below the surface of many people in America today. It’s ready to explode at the least feeling of being slighted.

You see it when someone gets cut off in traffic, someone doesn’t like how someone looks at them, a relationship breaks up, or the service in a restaurant is shoddy. It takes so little to set people off.

Recently, we’ve seen it again in a horrible tragedy at Virginia Tech and in listeners defending the anger and invective, sexism and racism of Don Imus’ radio persona that attracts them. Like walking through a minefield, you never know when you’ll be the next victim of such anger.

There are few institutions doing any more than punishing symptoms. Punishment hasn’t worked before to change any society – not even threatening eternal punishment. But we do it anyway.

Emphasizing punishment and fear is the knee-jerk reaction of many Americans, especially our politicians. We gravitate to it because punishing always reminds people who has the real power and who’s the “toughest.” The desire to increase punishment is a reaffirmation to the ones who set up and do the punishing that they are in control and standing over the ones they punish.

Mainstream media won’t seriously analyze the underlying problems or the systemic causes. Their emphasis on the economic bottom line keeps them part of the problem.

Few people seem to have the time, patience, insight, and emotional health to sit with the problems long enough to investigate and alleviate the causes of it all. And the punishers are there to criticize anyone who tries.

We’d like to believe that it’s just the individual perpetrator’s problem. To be able to dismiss them as just plain crazy means we don’t have to question the values and institutions that brought them to this place. It’s such a relief to know that they’re not like us.

It’s not that the causes haven’t been studied by social scientists. The studies are legion, but these causes are buried beneath and within, even crucial to, the very institutions we value just the way they are.

Our culture is profit-oriented, not human-oriented. It’s oriented to teach us how to cope with its problems as if they’re inevitable, not heal.

The demands of our “growth” economy, its emphasis on being in inevitable competition with almost every other human being on the planet, and its driven consumerism, are so out of touch with human needs that profits justify anything. People are always subordinated to stock values.

This anger is a crucial component of the “boy code” we teach to our little boys from day one to make them grow up to be warriors who beat other men, fierce competitors, and well-armored leaders. Boys learn that it’s a beat-or-be-beaten world of manhood out there, so they’ve got to be on the alert for other men’s anger.

Then men hear themselves being blamed for this code that’s put on them whether they like it or not. “Men are just testosterone driven, naturally out of touch with their real feelings, or naturally angry. Drug them. Lock them up. Execute them when they get bad enough.”

And shame them if they should ever decide to get in touch with an inborn humanity that’s not violent but nurturing. Make them prove they’re men when they feel shamed by responding with male violence. And use the gay slur to keep them in their place in a society where gay is still bad.

Make guns easy to get and close at hand. Then some, when they do blow up, will have up-to-date killing implements at hand.

American manhood training doesn’t take long. Even those who’ve spent only a few-years residency in our violent manhood culture internalize it.

I can’t forget the student from India who told me how American culture had changed him in just two years. Upon returning to India, and while walking with his best friend who tried to put his arm around him, he found himself automatically pulling back.

A normal expression of friendship to Indian culture, which he had accepted without thinking for his first eighteen years, had been conditioned out of him by American manhood’s intense homophobia. Such homophobia is a necessary US ingredient to keep men apart so they can be “real men.” In America you can get awards for killing another man and killed for loving another man.

Our country’s lingering treatment of women as lesser humans enforces an underlying anger in women, too. And they have much to be angry about.

April 24, 2007 was “Equal Pay Day,” the day when women’s earnings added to last year’s finally catch up to what men earned by December 31, 2006. The fact alone that women still make 76 cents to every man’s dollar is proof enough, using a measure that really counts in our economy, of how women are valued. The Fair Pay Act has been languishing in Congress since the early 1990s.

Women are more often conditioned to take this anger out on themselves, their bodies, their psyches, and their lives. It takes a lot more to get them to pick up a weapon against someone else. As one psychologist said: “Under all depression is rage.”

After the month is over we’ll have seen the usual suspects blame the victims of anger, the media turn events into tabloid moments, the usual pundits wax eloquent about gun control or the freedom to carry enough fire power to take out any classroom, and callers to talk shows go on about punishment, the good old days, or the need to force the Bible and prayer on everyone in every classroom.

We’ll await the next massacre, the next talk show host who will make racist, sexist, and homophobic remarks only to claim they’re really not prejudiced when they get caught, and the next round of stricter penalties from clueless legislators who need to show they are “tough” on something.

But will we ask why there is a seething anger within so many of us? Will we take the time to consider systemic causes? Will we be willing to change the institutions and values of a very sick system? We can, if we really want to change things.