Bringing Big-Picture, Systemic Perspective to the Crisis of Gun Violence

The topic of guns and gun violence has again become front-page news as it does with each mass shooting. I’ve written about gun violence and what it will ultimately take to address it off and on in articles through the years. It is a concern about which opinion today becomes immediately polarized.

In my work as a cultural psychiatrist, I attempt to bring big-picture, “culturally mature,” systemic perspective to essential issues. Such perspective stretches usual understanding in a couple of key ways with any issue. First, it commonly requires that we take into account multiple, interwoven causal factors. Second, it alerts us to the fact that effectively addressing many of those factors necessarily involves thinking and acting in ways that before now would not have made sense to us. In my most recent book, Creative Systems Theory: A Comprehensive Theory of Purpose, Change, Interrelationship in Human Systems, I attempt to bring such perspective to current critical issues, including gun violence.

Most efforts to address today’s crisis of gun violence in the United States reduce to simple answer, single-cause/single-cure ideological debate. Liberals argue that gun control measures will make us safer. Conservatives argue that such measures will make us less safe, often shifting the focus to mental health concerns. Pieces of the truth lie in each claim, but each position is limited by simplistic assumptions. And other essential aspects of the gun violence question—arguably those of greatest significance—are rarely part of the conversation.

Given this complexity, a brief listing of factors can provide only a start—but here is my list, with emphasis given to needed interventions. Only the first two factors below are directly addressable through policies. At the same time, all must play a role if we wish to bring mature, systemic understanding to this essential issue. With all of them, it is important to appreciate that the great preponderance of gun violence incidences involve not mass shootings, but simple homicides and suicides.

Limiting access to guns certainly has a place in curbing gun violence. Statistics show that gun violence is less common in countries where guns are less readily available. But limiting access to guns, alone, is less of a solution than people like to think. Gun advocates are correct in their assertion that people who are determined to get guns will find ways to do so.

As a psychiatrist, I agree that increased availability of mental health services can make a significant difference—both better treatment for those whose mental states might lead them to commit violent acts and better systems for identifying such individuals. But many people who perpetrate gun violence do not have obvious psychiatric diagnoses. And while those who resist gun control measures can be quick to shift attention to the mental health of perpetrators, often these same people are the first to resist increased spending for mental health services.

The remaining factors all in some way concern the degree to which people experience meaning and possibility in their lives. When people do not, they become more vulnerable to perpetrating violent acts. As a start, poverty, bigotry, cultural background or simply temperament can deprive people of meaningful options. In the long term, improving economic opportunity, addressing discrimination, and increased appreciation of diversity  should all have important roles in lessening gun violence.

The role of violence in media and popular culture is sometimes acknowledged, but rarely does it get the emphasis it deserves, and the mechanisms of its effects tend not to be fully appreciated. Certainly violence is dramatically more pervasive in the media than it is in daily life. “If it bleeds it leads” too often determines what is on the evening news, and it is rare to see television programming intended for adults that doesn’t include at least one shooting (and often many). And violence is central to the easily addictive attraction of video games. Research supports that this constant barrage of violent imagery by itself contributes to the problem. But there is also a more troubling mechanism at work beyond just familiarity. At a deep neurological level, people come to associate the jolt of excitement that accompanies witnessing violent acts with significance. Given violent imagery’s defining importance in the media today, we should not be surprised when someone who feels a lack of purpose in his or her life responds violently. I think this factor—both its pervasiveness and the fact that we so often fail to acknowledge it—is one of the greatest contributors to what we see today.

The last factor is likely the most ultimately important, but it also most specifically requires an understanding of the broader cultural change processes that the Creative Systems Theory concept of Cultural Maturity describes. Again it concerns people’s experience of significance, but here at the most encompassing of scales. The concept of Cultural Maturity proposes that underlying all more specific crises in our time is a more basic Crisis of Purpose. As culture functions less as a symbolic parent, traditions and cultural dictates stop providing the same ready sense of meaning. In my writings, I describe how we reside today in an awkward “in-between-stories” place in these changes and often feel adrift. Indeed we often find regression with regard to needed steps forward. Ultimately, the most important factor in reducing gun violence may be the recognition of a new, more mature cultural narrative able to provide a renewed sense of individual meaning and shared purpose. (See Hope and the Future: Confronting Today’s Crisis of Purpose.)

Given the complexity of this picture, a person attempting to make sense of gun violence could easily feel overwhelmed, or even dispirited. But we have to accept that the challenge confronts us this deeply if we are to make real progress in addressing it. Like it or not, easy-answer solutions of any sort are going to leave us short.

The “good news” about applying culturally mature perspective to public policy is that it helps us understand with the systemic sophistication needed to act wisely. The “bad news” is that it doesn’t let us off easily. It alerts us to how our conclusions most often have their roots in simple answer, ideological thinking. And it makes clear that with most policy questions, multiple, evolving, interrelated causal variables come into play. It also confronts us with the recognition that effectively addressing key variables may require that we think in new—more mature and systemic—ways. The result asks more of us, but it offers the possibility of getting us where we need to go.


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