20 children and 6 adults were shot to death at an elementary school this week. 20 children, all 6 and 7 years old, with their whole lives ahead of them. Heartbreakingly, the innocence of every other child in that school and in that community has been lost forever. Children who still await the arrival of the tooth fairy with giddy joy have seen beloved teachers and friends brutally murdered.
As a country, we are united in our grief. As a country, we are divided in our response. On one side ‘ban all guns’ on the other, ‘people kill people, guns don’t kill people. Yes, I believe we need more sensible gun control laws. Nicholas Kristof has identified other countries with laws which have drastically reduced the incidence of such massacres while accommodating the rights of their citizens. But addressing the prevalence of weapons is not the only answer. Excusing the atrocity as the action of one unbalanced man has been done too many times before and nothing has changed, safety nets for those suffering from mental illnesses have not been constructed. But attributing the violence only to mental illness is also dangerous. I believe the answer requires a deeper look. I believe part of the answer is changing our culture by targeting and reinforcing key behaviors that build a sense of community rather than of isolation, where violence is the only conceivable outcome.
With deepest respect and condolences for the families of the victims and the members of the community, one of whom is a close friend, I submit that we need to change attitudes and behaviors about violence, not just regulate the weapons. The idea that behavior can address enormous social issues is not new and has compelling stories to back it up, many of which can be found in the book ‘Influencer: The Power to Change Anything’. How do we change attitudes about violence? There is a raft of compelling research that ties viewing violent images to performing violent acts. There is also research that shows that young children are more adversely affected by the news than by violent images in cartoons and movies because they have the capability to distinguish between ‘real’ and ‘pretend’ violence, and the ‘real‘ violence affects their behavior more directly. (you might want to think twice before you let your children watch the news with you) I’m not going to suggest we simply ban all violent movies and video games, I am going to suggest we dig even deeper to change our culture.
I believe we need to put serious pressure on the news media to give us balanced news stories. Not just the unrelenting reinforcement of a culture of fear, of ‘get them before they get us’, and violence, but one that better reflects our everyday reality and the values we actually possess. Is your day 95% violence, terror and bad news? I sincerely hope not. So why is our news cycle consistently 95% bad news and 5% good news? I’m not suggesting we go the other extreme because we do need to be aware, living in a bubble of delusion isn’t healthy either. But how about a 50%/50% balance? The media manages to pull it together for tragedies. After 9/11 there were stories of the heroic men and women who risked their lives, racing up the tower as the occupants fled in terror. After the Sandy Hook shooting we have learned of the selfless act of 27-year old Vicki Soto who hid her 1st grade students in cupboards and lied to the gunman to save their lives, violently losing hers in the process. Waiting until a tragedy occurs to share positive stories perpetuates the culture of fear and violence. If we are going to change the culture, we need our media to show desired behavior in each and every news cycle, not only when our faith in humanity has been so badly shaken. I believe that we are better people than the media portrays. I believe that we are capable of incredible acts of compassion, empathy and kindness each and every day in ways both small and dramatic. I believe that we are a country where protecting children is a core value and where schools are a safe haven. I believe that we need a media that reflects our national values accurately.
As an example, I spoke with a friend in Canada the day of the massacre and she talked about how a good portion of every news cycle had positive and uplifting stories that supported a culture of compassion, caring and concern for others, one that is reflected in their far lower violent crime statistics despite a large number of guns. One example was a story about a severely disabled woman had been robbed of the iPad she needs to communicate. Rather than stop there, the story followed up the next day by tracking all the efforts of various members of the public to raise funds for a new iPad. These stories show people proper behavior. They demonstrate that for each act of violence and hatred there is a groundswell of concern and intervention, of the positive human characteristics we all possess. We learn best by watching the behavior of others, and the Canadian media is supporting learning desired behavior.
If you are in agreement about the need to change the underlying culture, please consider boycotting the news media, and letting them know why, or by signing this petition, which I will share with the media.
What does this have to do with my usual topic of drowning prevention? The same logic about changing behavior relates to ending the senseless global epidemic of child drowning. Until we identify key behaviors that keep children safer around water and focus on reinforcing those behaviors we will be continue to have one child drown every minute. I can’t live with that any more than I can having 6 and 7-year olds slaughtered at school. Can you? It’s time to address the issues that are killing our children by changing the root causes, not just snipping delicately around the thorny branches.