School Shooters and Broken Homes

February 28, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Suzanne Venker knows what’s wrong with America’s boys – broken homes.

A few days after the massacre at the  Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, she wrote at Fox News (here)

Broken homes, or homes without a physically and emotionally present mother and father, are the cause of most of society’s ills. “Unstable homes produce unstable children,” writes Peter Hasson at The Federalist.

He adds, “On CNN’s list of the “27 Deadliest Mass Shootings In U.S. History,” seven of those shootings were committed by young males since 2005. Of the seven, only one—Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho — was raised by his biological father throughout childhood.”

I’ll get to the data in a minute. But I confess, my personal reaction was something resembling nostalgia. “Broken homes.” Reading that phrase was like turning on the radio and hearing The Mamas and the Papas — so popular back in the sixties, and then . . . What ever did become of them? To see if it was just my selective attention, I checked Google n-grams.

I don’t know why broken homes descended the charts so rapidly. Maybe because of its implicit moral condemnation. Broken things are no good. Either try to repair them or toss them out. Also, it was no longer just the poor who were vulnerable to having the finger of blame pointed at them. More middle-class people were getting divorced and breaking their homes. Or maybe the rising wave of feminism raised consciousness that the phrase blamed women. It was a slightly more subtle way of saying that a woman alone would raise children that were a menace to society.

Conservatives at Fox, The Federalist, and elsewhere were not swept up in this revisionist thinking. For them, broken homes remain the eternal bad guy.

As for those mass shootings, Philip Cohen tweeted this chart of the top ten – the most deadly.

Only Paddock and Huberty grew up in fatherless homes.

But what about the boys like Nikolas Cruz, the ones who are angry or resentful at their schools – the teachers who put them down, the students who bullied or rejected them – and come back armed with guns? It turns out we have some data, though it’s not up-to-date. After the Columbine shooting of 1999, the Secret Service and the Department of Education did an extensive study of school shooters. Their report covered 41 shooters involved in 37 school shootings from December 1974 to May 2000. There was a summary recently in The Conversation (here):

While most attackers – 96 percent – were male, the report found that there “is no accurate or useful ‘profile’ of students who engaged in targeted school violence.” . . . Most came from intact families, were doing well in school and were not loners. [emphasis added]
One problem with all these studies is sample size. Mass killing and school shootings are rare events. With Cohen’s sample of 10 or Hasson’s 27 or the Secret Services’s 41, only the widest differences (e.g, between males and females) gives us any ability to generalize. For other comparisons  (e.g., broken vs. unbroken homes), the sample, even in the US, is too small. This is one case where a too-small sample is, on the whole, a good thing. Let’s hope it stays that way.

Trump Gets One Right (Partly)

February 26, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s easy to make fun of Trump’s claim to heroism, and Andy Borowitz in the New Yorker does it very well.  Trump, speaking to a group of governors today, was criticizing the deputy who did not enter the Marjory Stoneman school during the shooting. Then Trump went on to say,

You don’t know until you're tested, but I really believe I’d run in there even if I didn’t have a weapon – and I think most of the people in this room would have done that, too, ’cause I know most of you.

This was remarkably similar to what Pam Bondi, the Florida Attorney General, had said on Fox News just a few hours earlier: “When you have a school full of students, and your duty is to protect those students, even if I didn’t have a firearm I would have gone into that scene.” Heroic minds think alike, I guess.

What’s ignored in most of the discussion about Trump’s comment is that he said something that was correct: “You don’t know until you’re tested.”

It’s pointless to argue whether Trump would or would not have charged weaponless into the building to confront the shooter. We don’t know. Neither does Trump.

If we’re asked what we would do, and the hypothetical situation is a familiar one, we can make a pretty good guess. Of course, we’d all like to think that we’ll do the right thing. But we can also look at how we’ve behaved in similar situations in the past, and guess that we’ll do something similar the next time. But when it comes to novel situations, our powers of prediction are just not very good, especially when that situation is stressful. When I show students the Milgram film, I ask if they would continue shocking the victim all the way to the end. Nobody ever raises their hand. Yet we can be fairly sure that about half of them are wrong. They’re not lying – saying something they know to be untrue. Neither is Trump.

The TV show “What Would You Do?” frequently concocts some morally questionable behavior and then focuses its hidden camera on a naive person who happens to be present. A shopper in a store sees a clerk being rude to a Black/overweight/transgender/whatever customer. Someone in a bar overhears two women planning to steal the money of man at the bar. What will the shopper or bargoer do? What would you do?

To the list of episodes we can now add: sounds of shooting coming from inside a school. What would you do?

For all these, the most accurate answer is, “I don’t know.”

Path Dependency and the Road Not Taken

February 23, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

In my Superbowl post earlier this month (“The Social Construction of Brutality”), I said, “We now have an institution that is seemingly unchangeable. Any other way of doing things is unimaginable.” Reality is constructed by people, but once constructed, it develops its own momentum, its own seemingly inevitable logic.

So now we have the President of the United States endorsing the idea that the solution to the problem of school shootings is to pay teachers to carry guns. It’s part of the strategy of “target hardening” – more guns, more guards, more metal detectors, more locks, more secure doors – basically making schools resemble prisons. Conservatives from the NRA to the National Review love this idea. It’s realistic. It makes sense given the reality that we have created.

In that Superbowl post, I asked readers to imagine a world with no football. Given what we now know about brain damage, would we introduce football – from levels starting in  grade school on up to the pros – into that world? I borrowed this idea from Lisa Wade (“Imagine a world of higher ed but with no fraternities . . . .”)

Now imagine a world where guns are tightly regulated. Semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15 are banned. So are most handguns. Let’s call this world the United Kingdom. Suppose someone – someone like Wayne LaPierre – goes to the UK and proposes that they do away with all these laws. Here’s the pitch:  If you just let gun manufacturers and dealers make and import these wonderful weapons and sell them to just about anybody, your country will reap the rewards of more safety and more freedom.

Of course, eventually you’ll have a few school massacres now and then, but you can hire school guards who you buy guns for, and you can instal metal detectors and buy guns for your teachers to carry at all times. Your police officers too will run a much greater risk of being shot and killed, but bullet-proof vests can help a little, and the police themselves will all carry guns so they can kill more people. Oh, and you’ll also have more civilians shooting each other or themselves. What do you say? This is your chance to make the UK great again. Have we got a deal?

The UK politely declines. (“The logic of the honourable gentleman’s proposal lacks a certain . . . .”  Which is a polite way of saying, “Are you out of your fucking mind?”)

Now imagine another world, a world where some people have guns, but the guns that most bad guys can get are cheap revolvers accurate only at very close range though useful to brandish in a robbery (they’re called “Saturday night specials”). More sophisticated handguns are relatively few; semi-automatic rifles for civilians are unknown. Let’s call this world United States 1965.  Imagine the same spokesman coming to the US and making the same proposal – more and better guns (by better, he means, more accurate and able to shoot more bullets that are more lethal; simply put, he means better at killing more people). Others protest. They want to put restrictions on what the gun merchants can manufacture, import, and sell and on who can buy these weapons. Don’t listen to those people says our spokesman. Get rid of those pesky restrictive laws. The future lies before you bright with semi-automatic assault rifles and handguns. That is path to safety and freedom. What do you say, US? Have we got a deal?

That is the path we chose.

What makes Trump’s proposal rational is “path dependency”
the continued use of a product or practice based on historical preference or use. This holds true even if newer, more efficient products or practices are available. (Wikipedia). 
In many ways path dependency is a fancy phrase for addiction – trying to solve a problem with larger doses of what caused the problem in the first place. To outsiders our president’s more-guns solution to the problem of school slaughter sounds crazy.  But Americans who have come down this path, even Americans who find the idea repugnant, have a hard time denying its logic.

We Still Don’t Need No Stinking Evidence

February 18, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Sociology isn’t just “common sense,” we tell our students on day one of the intro course. First, one common sense proposition can contradict another. And in any case, the only way to find out if common sense is right is to look at systematic evidence rather than relying on intuition and experience. 

So here is Ross Douthat on Slate’s Political Gabfest podcast on Thursday, talking about his “Let’s Ban Porn” column in the Times (see this post from last week).  Asked about the negative effects of pornography, Douthat says,

I think we spend a lot of time in the media landscape today arguing about studies, and in certain ways in this case I’m appealing to cultural experience and moral intuition

Early in the discussion, Douthat had referred to the “experiment” we have conducted “in using not just pornography but hard core extreme obviously misogynistic pornography as a kind of broad based form of sexual education for young men.” He didn’t specify the outcome variables of this experiment, though the hosts of the show mentioned that at the same time that porn was spreading wildly, the subjects of the experiment (teenagers) were racking up lower rates of casual sex, pregnancy, abortion, and rape.

Nearly an hour into the podcast host David Plotz asks about evidence. Douthat referred to the relation between porn and “anti-social behavior writ large – depression, unhappiness.” I would have thought that unwanted pregnancy and rape were writ just a bit larger than unhappiness. But even with the variables he mentions, Douthat acknowledges that the studies showing a relationship between porn consumption and unhappiness come from a think tank that is hardly neutral (the Witherspoon Institute), and that these studies suffer from the problem of endogeneity, a word that here means that even if there’s a correlation, it’s hard to figure out which is causing which. (Douthat says nothing about the studies that contradict his desired result that porn makes kids unhappy.)

Douthat mentions other outcomes: “Young men are messed up. . . .Relationships just aren’t working that well. . . People seem really unhappy with the dating landscape.” If there’s evidence that all of these were different in some pre-porn paradise, Douthat doesn’t cite it.

For sex conservatives, the question of the evils of porn is just too important to be left to empirical evidence. Nearly ten years ago, I wrote a similar post (“Data? We Don’t Need No Stinking Data”). The names of the conservatives have changed (Kristol out, Douthat in) but the idea is the same.

Does watching porn or listening to make kids more promiscuous? Why waste time figuring out how to get data on the question? Just take it from Irving Kristol (William’s dad) from some years back writing in the Wall Street Journal:
Is it not reasonable to think that there may also be such a connection between our popular culture and the plagues of sexual promiscuity among teenagers, teenage illegitimacy, and, yes, the increasing number of rapes committed by teenagers? Here again, we don’t really need social science to confirm what common sense and common observations tell us to be the case.
    Can anyone really believe that soft porn in our Hollywood movies, hard porn in our cable movies, and violent porn in our “rap” music is without effect? [emphasis added]
By “here again,” he apparently means that there are several other areas where we are better off not trying to get evidence.

In the years since Kristol wrote that, our popular culture became more sexual and more violent. But sexual promiscuity among teenagers, teenage illegitimacy, and, yes, the number of rapes committed by teenagers all decreased.

But What Can We Do When It’s Too Late?

February 17, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

The NRA doesn’t really have to marshal arguments against the gun control laws that will again be proposed in the coming days and weeks. If legislators ain’t gonna legislate, you don’t really need to support your position. But argue they will. Their basic argument is that good guys need guns to defend themselves against bad guys, and the bad guys have lots of guns.

The country is so awash in guns that your only hope is to buy a gun, thus putting still more guns into circulation, creating an even greater need for people to buy guns. It is a feedback loop devoutly wished for by the NRA and gun manufacturers.

They also argue that the huge number of guns (300 million – an average of one per person – and counting) also makes anti-gun action a fool’s errand. As Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg argued (here) four years ago in the wake of the Aurora massacre, “It’s too late.”

It’s Vietnam all over again. In the late 60s, as it became clear that the US war in Vietnam was a mistake, war supporters made a similar argument. “Yeah, you were right about not getting into the war and then sending hundreds of thousands of more troops. But what we can do now? The war is not going well for us, so we have no choice but to send even more troops.” The Bush administration made a similar response when their invasion and de-stabilization of Iraq turned out to have been a predictably terrible idea.

Here’s one idea about what we can do. It’s not really a policy, but it might provide a start on finding a better policy: Stop electing the same kinds of politicians and the same party that got us into this mess in the first place.

In a post last November, I said (here) that the NRA policy on guns is like addiction: trying to solve a problem by doing more of what caused the problem in the first place. We wouldn’t put a Mexican heroin cartel in charge of the DEA. But we keep electing NRA-certified politicians to write our gun laws. Then, we’re shocked and dismayed that there’s so much gun violence.

Victims and Policies

February 16, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Right-wingers used to smugly say, maybe they still do, that a conservative on crime is a liberal who’s just been mugged. It seems logical. But twenty-five years ago when I was working on a criminology textbook, I could find no systematic evidence showing a link between victimization and political attitudes.

At the time, I thought that the problem might be that while most victimizations might be upsetting, they were not permanently traumatizing. If one day I stepped in dog shit because some inconsiderate New Yorker hadn’t bothered to obey the pooper-scooper law. In the moment, I would to immediately be rethinking my position on the death penalty.

But the emotion was transitory and faded quickly. It was the same when I found the window of my car smashed. Perhaps those victimizations were not serious enough. They were property crimes, not what the UCR calls “crimes against the person.” But I knew people who had been mugged – this was, after all, New York in the bad old days – and they had not adjusted their politics.

During the lockdown at the Stoneman Douglas school in Florida, while the shooter was still at large, one of the students interviewed others hiding with him in a closet.

There is only audio, no video, for the second girl interviewed, but  ABC posted a captioned version on Twitter. Here is a composite screen shot.

Maybe a liberal on gun control is an NRA hopeful who has just been shot at. But maybe not. In any case, whether this girl retains her new position on gun control, the evidence suggests that a mass shooting, even one covered extensively in the media, will have little impact on opinion nationwide. With Republicans in control of the government, yesterday’s killings might not even bring the customary increase in sales of guns and assault rifles.

In states that already have some sentiment in favor of stronger gun laws, a local massacre might be enough to tip the legislative balance. That’s what happened in Connecticut following the slaughter of children in Newtown. But in the legislatures of states like Florida and in Congress in Washington, these mass slaughters – even when the victims are children, even White children – count for little.

The kid who made the video, David Hogg, said on CNN, “We're children. You guys are the adults. You need to take some action. Work together. Come over your politics.”

The public may be upset, but the emotion is transitory, unlikely to last much past the funerals of the next few days. The pro-gun forces are strong and steady. It seems unlikely that Hogg’s simple request, despite its wisdom, will have any impact on laws or policies.

Porn and Pandora

February 11, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Ross Douthat wants to ban porn. No wonder then that he buries the lede even though it’s the only bit of systematic evidence he cites in his column today.

According to Douthat, we had a chance to ban porn a few decades ago. We could have done it. And we all, especially women, would have been better off – happier in our sex lives. Instead we “surrendered” to smut. But why?

Between the individualistic drift of society, the invention of the internet, and the failure of the Dworkin-Falwell* alliance’s predictions that porn would lead to rising rates of rape, the anti-porn case was marginalized  — with religious conservatism’s surrender to Donald Trump’s playboy candidacy a seeming coup de grace. [emphasis added]

Like Trekkie Monster in “Avenue Q,” I have no doubt that the internet made for much wider consumption of porn. As for US society being more individualistic now than it was 40-50 years ago, I would prefer to see some evidence. But on cause #3 – the failure of those predictions about rape – Douthat glides past an important fact. The rates didn’t just “not rise.” They fell. A lot. If you’re writing an op-ed about the society-wide effects of porn, that’s the lede.

The BJS victimization survey (here) shows that rates of rape and sexual assault in 2010 were less than half of what they were in 1995. More recent BJS surveys show no significant increase since 2010.

The same is true for victimization among college-age women. For both students and non-students, victimization rates in 2013 were about half of what they had been before the internet-porn explosion.

Maybe some John Lott of porn will write a book – More Porn, Less Rape.

Douthat doesn’t like porn. So rather than confront this large but inconvenient fact about porn and sexual assault, he buries it in the middle of a sentence one-third of the way into his column. 

It’s not just porn that Douthat doesn’t like. He doesn’t like sex for sex’s sake. He’s also condescendingly dismissive of any sex education that is not focused on repression.

The sex education programs in my mostly liberal schools featured a touching faith from the adults in charge that they were engaged in a great work of enlightenment, that with the right curricula they could roll back the forces of repression and make sexuality a place of egalitarian pleasure and safety for us all.

The students of the 90s, when Douthat was in those classes, wound up being much less sexually assaultive and sexually victimized than their counterparts of earlier years when sex ed either was not part of the curriculum or was taught as biology just to make it as boring as possible. No matter. Douthat likes those “forces of repression” and wants to see them rolled out again.

Don’t hold your breath, Ross. That Pandora’s box has been opened. Those erotic evils will continue to float unconfined, and Pandora herself has gone into the Internet music biz. So we are all free to pontificate, unconstrained by data, about what would happen if porn were banned. But if we’re going to speculate about the effects of pornography, we should pay at least some attention to the evidence we have about what actually did happen.


*Andrea Dworkin did not coin the phrase “Porn is the theory, rape is the practice.” That was Robin Morgan. But Dworkin, in her vigorous fight against porn, espoused that causal idea. Falwell is Rev. Jerry Falwell, Sr. He too did not like porn, though in my very unthorough Google search, I could find no reference to his claiming that it caused rape.

The Social Construction of Brutality

February 4, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Super. It’s Superbowl Sunday. On the front page of the New York Times Review section is an article by the wife of former NFL safety Rob Kelly. The title is “Football Destroyed My Husband’s Mind.” Mood swings, paranoia, depression, irrationality. “Often he would forget to eat. I’d find full bowls of cereal left around the house, on bookshelves or the fireplace mantel.” It’s chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the result of concussions and other physical insults to the brain.  

The kickoff today is at 6:30.

            *            *            *            *

Construction Job. In The Social Construction of Reality, Berger and Luckman describe how behaviors that start as a one-off – let’s meet for lunch tomorrow at 1:00 – can become institutionalized as regular practices. It turns into the Tuesday one o’clock lunch – external to the people involved. As more people become a part of it, its reality becomes more and more solid, literally, with buildings and equipment as well as rules and scheduling. We now have an institution that is seemingly unchangeable. Any other way of doing things is unimaginable.
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Imagine That. Last year, after a Penn State student died during a fraternity hazing, Lisa Wade tried to reframe the whole argument.

Imagine a world in which everything was the same about higher education except there have never been Greek organizations. An 18-year-old waltzes into a dean’s office and says, “I want to start an exclusive club on campus that doesn’t allow women and serves mostly white and privileged students and we’re going to throw parties all the time that are illegal, and at these parties, all the bad stuff that happens on campus is going to happen disproportionately. What do you think?”

By “bad stuff” she means rape and less criminal kinds of sexual coercion, drunkenness, physical and psychological intimidation, and brutality resulting in injury, sometimes hospitalization, and the occasional death.

Some people preferred to imagine Lisa being raped or killed for suggesting that their fraternities led to rape and brutality. 

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Zero-based Reality Construction. In “zero-based budgeting” no part of an organization has its budget automatically renewed. Instead, budgeteers ask of each item, “Is this necessary? What does it contribute to our goals?”

Imagine a world with no football. A group of athletes puts forward a proposal for a new sport to be played by school teams and professionals. It will cost a lot of money – money that most schools will not recoup. Many who play at the collegiate level and nearly all those who play professionally will live the rest of their lives with some pain and injury. Many will suffer permanent brain injury. Even those who play only in high school are at risk. Should we get started on making this a national institution?

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What’s done is done and cannot be undone. Institutions once constructed cannot be unconstructed, at least not quickly and only with great difficulty. Even if everyone agreed that fraternities or football are toxic institutions, nobody could imagine how to get rid of them. So instead, we get minor adjustments – rules about helmets and hits and heads, rules about drinking (requiring “third-party vendors”) or rush (reducing it from eight weeks to six). [Inside Higher Ed]

But there is no such agreement that these institutions do more harm than good, certainly no agreement on fraternities and probably not on football. Millions of us watch football and suffer no apparent harm. What happens to the players is, well, too bad. But that’s the way it is. What can you do?

Enjoy the game.