Is Inequality Behind America’s Plague of Mass Violence?

My colleague Daniel Luzer has a provocative hypothesis about America’s plague of gun violence:

The reality is that the American mass shooting probably has a lot to do with gun policy, a fair amount to do with mental health programs, and everything to do with the distribution of wealth in America.

He draws a connection between Newtown, Columbine, and the Nat Turner slave rebellion, concluding that:

The workplace and school shootings were motivated by similar things to slave uprisings, a sense of frustration in an essentially dehumanizing situation. Nat Turner’s slave army seemed to be motivated by base evil and ingratitude. Columbine’s murderers (the trench coat mafia) were said to be motivated by base evil and video games.

A culture that breeds revolt is one in which a vast army of ill-paid and largely miserable people toils in service to a soulless corporate institution or a few very wealthy people. The message this sends is that anyone outside of the top tier of American movers and shakers is not experiencing some temporary economic setback but, rather, is in some way fundamentally and irrevocably inferior. (“If you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself”) This is a trap from which the eventual perpetrators feel they have no way out. Confined by his lack of power, the “crazed” gunman fixates on exercising what little power he does have.

I think this goes a little too far; inequality is not always correlated with mass violence. Singapore, for example, is even more unequal than the US yet has almost no gun violence—last year saw sixteen homicides total. (Singapore has no right to gun ownership and brutally strict law enforcement.)

There is something to this, though. Daniel brings up the astoundingly violent Central American republics, but I think those countries’ numbers are inflated by being the battleground for drug cartels’ fights over the US drug market. A better example is South Africa, where I once lived. It is nearly the most unequal society on Earth and among the most violent, with nearly 16,000 murders in 2010, a per capita rate more than six times that of the US, itself a very violent country by developed world standards. Living there I did have a strong sense that the stupendous wealth gap—with unemployed slum-dwelling masses and small enclaves where the rich barricade themselves in behind concertina wire, dogs, and electric fences—leads to exactly this kind of alienation and hatred. As Daniel says:

As societies become more inequitable, they become more violent. That’s because gross inequities in wealth make people feel angry and impotent and irrelevant. Their sense of powerlessness is ratified and reinforced by a culture and economic system in which the small group of winners feels morally justified in dismissing the large and growing number of losers (“There are 47 percent who … who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims. … I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”)

Much like slave rebellions, mass shootings aren’t rational acts, but personal mutinies against a society that doesn’t make sense (“Shit is f*cked up and bullsh*t”), a culture in which people feel alienated and alone.

China has had a similar experience in the last two years, with ten mass stabbings at schools in the past three years. Joshua Miller, a psychology professor at Smith College, explained them thus: “The string of school attacks occur when society causes stress on people, like rapid social change, mass migrations, increasing disparities in wealth and weakening of traditions.”

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Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is currently the Washington correspondent for The Week.