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Truthout: Shooters Transformed by a New Era of Virtual Dehumanization?


-By Michael Meurer

February 22, 2013- After the mass murder of 20 children and 6 teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, by a disturbed 20-year-old on December 14, 2012, the dominant media narrative quickly turned into a national debate about gun control. As necessary and important as this debate is in a nation with over 270 million guns in private hands, we need to dig deeper for root causes. In the avalanche of reporting aimed at understanding the Newtown killer's motive, little attention has been paid to the idea that the killer may be a harbinger of the corrosive effects of new underlying changes in human nature, and that these changes may be shaped by the dehumanizing tendencies of advanced capitalism in an age of abstract financialization and social media.

There are eerie similarities among the young killer of Newtown (age 20) and his predecessors in the Aurora theater massacre (age 24), the Virginia Tech killings (age 23), the Columbine murders (ages 17 and18), the Gabrielle Giffords mall killings (age 22) and at least a dozen others since 1982. While the average age of mass killers in the United States over the past three decades is 35 years, 10 of the worst mass murders in US history were committed by white males younger than 25. These mass murders often end in suicide and are typically carried out with a calculated indifference that indicates a complete absence not only of empathy, but of the passions historically associated with murder, such as jealousy, lust or greed. The seven deadly sins do not necessarily come into play.

The robotic nature of our premeditated, often suicidal mass murderers in the United States is doubtless telling us something important about the society that is producing this new breed of droid-like humans. The nation with the most advanced capitalist economy on earth is also leading the world in mass killings (4 or more fatalities), with an average of over three per year since 2003, and six incidents with 140 victims in 2012 alone.

In his seminal 1967 work of situationist philosophy, The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord described the historic arc of social life in capitalist societies as a slow descent from being into having and eventually into merely appearing. At this advanced stage of capitalist devolution, personal relationships are almost completely supplanted by impersonal commodity relationships that are mediated by images, while the citizen has devolved into a consumerist spectator. In Guy-Ernest Debord's formulation, the ideology of spectacular society leads to "...the impoverishment, servitude and negation of real life."

If we fast forward from 1967 to today's society of ubiquitous social media, it seems that new, more dehumanizing forms of social relationship unimagined by Debord have taken hold. In his review of the movie The Social Network, David Denby of the New Yorker writes the following:

"From the first scene to the last, The Social Network hints at a psychological shift produced by the information age, a new impersonality that affects almost everyone. After all, Facebook . . . is a paradox: a web site that celebrates the aura of intimacy while providing the relief of distance, substituting bodiless sharing and the thrills of self-created celebrityhood for close encounters of the first kind. Karl Marx suggested that, in the capitalist age, we began to treat one another as commodities. The Social Network suggests that we now treat one another as packets of information.

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