Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Speaking of Norms: America and the "Gun Culture"

The headlines are hardly noteworthy anymore: "...shooting-leaves-1-student-dead-and-4-wounded." Why? Because in America, it happens all the time. School shootings have become a norm.

This time, however, I took note because the tragedy occurred in an Ohio high school. It was easy for me to imagine the cafeteria at 7am just before the shooting took place: kids coming in with thick winter coats and scarves on, having just arrived from homes nearby. Others sitting and talking with their friends, their coats hung on their chairs, hats and gloves piled in front of them, right beside the plates of scrambled eggs and glasses of orange juice. And still other kids dragging themselves up to the cafeteria line, waiting for some grub.

The place would have been lively, maybe with a song from Lady Gaga's latest album playing from one girl's laptop, noise from another being passed ear to ear as a group of boys checked out a new screamo number from a buddy's mp3 player. 

Then suddenly one lad, a boy that many people knew as a quiet guy who attended a different local school but who would occasionally stop in Chardon High to visit a friend, stands up, jostles with his coat and takes a pistol from his pocket. He brandishes the weapon for just a second, then takes aim at a group of dudes sitting at the next table over.

Before anyone can process what is happening, BAM! he shoots. BAM BAM!!! he shoots again. A couple boys slump immediately in their seats, slide to the floor. Simultaneously,  a heavy rain of screams and cries pours out from all directions. Hell is unleashed.

The scene might seem like that of a Hollywood flick, but it is all too real, all too common: Thanks to a combination of interpersonal issues (bullying and teenage angst) and America's "gun culture,"  a young problem child turns to violence to express himself. Others end up dead before their time.

For several days, maybe even a week, the media will focus on the school, the victims, the culprit, and the affected families and friends. There will be images of hospitals and funerals and the childhood home of all those involved. For another fortnight, there will be talk throughout Ohio about the shooting up in Chardon. For a year, maybe two, maybe three (until the kids who witnessed this incident have all graduated), there will be a ripple effect throughout scores, maybe hundreds of parent-teacher meetings, counseling sessions, and focused community discussions on the cause of violence in schools and the part that guns play in the equation.

And then, slowly but surely, the focus will turn away, turn to other events, turn to violence with other faces, in other places, while back in Chardon, like in Columbine (Colorado), like in Baton Rouge (Louisiana), like in Blacksburg (Virginia), things will have long returned to "normal."

But what is the norm? 

That a shooting can happen anytime, anywhere, and anyone can be a victim. Just wait and see.

For more information, check out this link.

I will never meet the Sentinelese

Have you ever imagined taking a sailing trip through the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal? I have. And though I hear the scuba diving is excellent and the sunsets are spectacular, my greatest interest is not in the water or on the horizon but for the little known island of North Sentinel. What would it be like to step ashore, I've wondered.

Welcome to a version of the Stone Age, where sure death is the answer. For on that tropical islet, among lush vegetation and behind a ring of white sandy beaches, resides a group of people for whom outsiders are unwelcome, and time has stood still --- meet the legendary Sentinelese.

In visiting North Sentinel, one has to move cautiously. In an article on the website AtlasObscura, it is reported that two fishermen who made the mistake of illegally casting their lines within the shadow of the island were killed in a barrage of arrows. Even the helicopter sent to retrieve the bodies nearly fell prey to the tribesmen's expert shots.

No, the Sentinelese don't take to strangers, and for that and other reasons, their idyllic speck of real estate has been declared off limits by the Indian government, which oversees the area --- and that has been the saving grace of their society and culture.

When we talk about culture, I like the definition set forth by Lederach (1995) in the book Preparing for peace: Conflict transformation across cultures: "Culture is the shared knowledge and schemes created by a set of people for perceiving, interpreting, expressing, and responding to the social realities around them" (p. 9). 

The social reality for the Sentinelese, we might surmise, is one in which the idea of in group and out group is very strong. If you are one of us, you look like we do, you act like we do, you speak like we do, and you live in the lean-to next door --- then you're safe. If you don't fulfill those criteria --- you are a danger for us, and if you get too close, you will die.

The Sentinelese "perception" of outsiders as dangerous aliens who merit a response of finely-crafted iron-tipped arrows has been corroborated by the experience of other islanders in the Andamans. Without the protection of the Indian government, the Jarawa, the Onde and others have been individually and collectively exploited, their social universes broken apart in much the same way as those of the native Americans from the 17th through 19th centuries: men forced into working as cheap laborers, women conscripted into the invaders' kitchens and beds, and children stripped of their sense of identity as the tsunami of outside influences rushes in.  

There are different perspectives, of course, on what action a government can and should take in this case. Some would argue that it is better for the inevitable to happen, that the assimilation/integration of "primitive" groups to the dominant, more "civilized" society is social evolution, a necessary stage in historical development, and the sooner the better. That argument gains strength when one considers, for example, the advantages of giving these people access to modern health care. 

Still, as the experience of the Penan in East Malaysia and countless other tribal groups from Borneo to West Papua shows us, forced assimilation -- with reneged upon promises of health care, housing and formal education -- can come at a high price: thwarted expectations, dire new living conditions and cultures in decay.

So India's current policy of enforced protection of the isolation of the Sentinelese stands, and my dream of visiting their island will never be realized. Good for them.

For more information on the culture of various tribes in the Andaman Islands, see this link.