Its been a long while since my last post on my blog, and a lot has changed in the realm of Norman Mu. As the first half of the semester has come and gone, I can say with a fair amount of certainty that I’ve learned more in the past 2 months than I have in any other 2 month period in my life. I decided to take on a heavier course load on account of my plan to double major, and that decision has proved to be a very good one, so far.
Linear algebra can get rather dry and uninspiring, but everyone talks about how powerful it is, and its not too difficult so whatever. Discrete math is pretty much what I hoped it would be, but with perhaps a bit less rigor than I would like to have in a math class. However, in case I ever get too confident in my mathematical abilities, I have the Putnam/problem-solving seminar to bash my head against. Finally, computer architecture has definitely exceeded my previous expectations of the class. I had always heard about how difficult and boring the class was, but I was pleasantly surprised to find its reputation not quite true. I’ll admit it, I’ve experienced few things more frustrating than trying to debug assembly code, but learning how this machine I’m typing on works has been really rewarding. As for difficulty, the Putnam seminar really dwarfs all of my other classes, so there’s not too much to complain about there.
With all of that narcissistic ego massaging out of the way, I wanted to jot down a few things about this really interesting article I read the other day, called “Thresholds of Violence”, by Malcolm Gladwell. It takes a more removed look at school shootings in recent history, and proposes an alternate explanation for gun violence than the ones you may see otherwise in the shamelessly partisan news media headlines. Gladwell points to the work of sociologist Mark Granovetter, who came up with a theory to explain “situations where outcomes do not seem intuitively consistent with the underlying individual preferences”, such as riots in which somehow the sum of otherwise peaceful individuals creates storm of violent destruction.
Other social theorists have put forward theories about how decision making or propensity toward violence becomes altered in a group setting, but Granovetter posited a different explanation, that everyone in a pre-riot crowd has an innate, predetermined threshold, beyond which point they are willing to take part in the violence. For instance, there are some individuals who need no motivation at all to smash windows and loot stores. Others may only participate in robbery only if they see 2 or 3 other people do it. There are still others who will throw bricks only if 5 or 6 other people before them have done so. And so it continues, a spectrum of various tipping points up to someone who may only join in the rioting if 100 people around her are rioting.
I may be losing some details in my summary here, but basically Gladwell argues that prior to Columbine, school shootings were very rare. Since Columbine, however, school shootings have become very ritualized. The shooters would often write manifestos in the style of Kebold and , explicitly referencing previous shooters who they identified with or idolized. Furthermore, the characterizations of the perpetrators have started to deviate from the Columbine shooters, all of which Gladwell attributes to the establishment of school shootings as a gruesome and perverse “fad” of sorts. As more school shootings occur, more potential perpetrators’ thresholds are met, and we see more “nonstandard” perpetrators, such as John LaDue, a foiled school shooter who wasn’t abused, wasn’t psychopathic, and wasn’t violent.
Anyway, I thought this theory was very interesting, and makes a lot of sense. If gun violence has really become a “fad”, it suggests that the issue of mass gun violence will be much harder to solve than either narrative put forward by the conservatives or the liberals.