Tuesday, February 27, 2018

It Gets Better--Sort Of

A couple of years ago I heard something about a public service campaign aimed at gay teens, called "It Gets Better." I think the notion was to tell teens that they wouldn't get bullied after they left high school. I don't recall seeing any of the actual PSAs, and frankly I questioned the campaign, because bullying doesn't go away when you leave high school. What does change is that the older you get, often, the more resilient you are.

Studies over the years have found that mental health improves with age. This runs counter to the popular culture presentation of aging, which is mostly one of increasing decrepitude. But can anyone really be surprised? The older you are, the more struggles you have faced and overcome. In most cases, you can look back at a life of achievements and feel pride. The perspective of time helps one to weather disappointments with the view "This too shall pass." 

The distorted messages about aging given by popular culture are destructive. If young people believe that old age--typically defined by movies and tv as being over 55 or so--is a time of decline and ugliness, they won't look forward to it. They will be more likely to smoke cigarettes, do drugs, not save money, and generally behave recklessly, under the assumption that living past 55 is unimportant and perhaps something to be avoided.  And yet a study recently quoted by AARP found that 80-year-olds are more content with their lives than 20-year-olds are.

Aging, especially for women, is portrayed as something hideous by the media. Unfortunately, many women believe this propaganda and go to great lengths to forestall the signs of aging. The advantages of looking older aren't mentioned--the big advantage being a steep drop in sexual harassment.

It is true that growing older means physical decline--often more decline than what many young people realize. But physical decline isn't what it used to be. Most jobs no longer require physical fitness, and modern conveniences help the partially disabled compensate. Mental health is more important for happiness than physical health--a lot more important. 

One of the many misconceptions about older people among the young is about fun. To illustrate: Some months ago I was at a bar with a friend around the same age as me, and the bartender, a 20-something male, asked us if we were going somewhere from there. When we told him we were going to a concert movie for a hard rock/heavy metal band, he thought we were playing a joke on him. "But why would we be joking?" my friend replied, mystified. She's a few years younger than me, and perhaps was just learning that 50-year-old women are seen by some 25-year-old males as hags whose hobbies are restricted to card games, restaurants and an occasional Broadway show. Where do they get these ideas? Movies and television. In fact, most middle-aged people and even older people, up to an extent, engage in the same hobbies all their lives. Eventually, injuries and arthritis mean the end of extreme sports and contact sports, but tastes in music and the arts don't go away--they are more likely to expand than to contract (and who did the young bartender think invented rock and metal music--it was my generation!). I was able to laugh at the ageism (and sexism??) because as you get older, you develop a thicker skin. The older you get, the more you know, and knowing more makes you smug.

Lifespans are getting longer, and many do not anticipate this. I have an 85-year-old colleague with whom I do consulting work. On a recent vacation in California, I met a 96-year-old Park Ranger at a national park. She'd gotten bored in her 80s and decided to get a job. Her job was to speak with tourists about the history of the shipbuilding industry in Richmond, California, and her time working there as a black woman in a pre-integration era. She spoke for a half hour without notes. Who needs to read history when you can hear it directly from the source? And yet, I read in respectable newspapers and magazines that we need increased immigration to make up for a lack of younger workers in the US. If people work to their 80s and 90s, how much younger do younger workers need to be? Besides jobs involving physical labor--which are increasingly being done by machines--which jobs need to be done by youth?

The strange dichotomy between the real world and the world depicted by the media intrigues me. My best advice to the young is look with your own eyes and speak to older people to find out what growing older is really like.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Historical and Psychological Explanations for Gun Culture

The debate about gun control again rages, in the wake of a shocking mass killing. Proponents of gun control argue that European and other countries have stricter gun laws and far fewer shootings. But no one seems to be asking the question: Why do those other countries have stricter gun laws? Why do we have lax gun laws and enforcement and a strong gun culture? The answers can be found in our history and in psychology.

The basic motivator for most behaviors is fear.  The first white settlers to the US were mostly fleeing religious persecution. Many Americans don't think about how and why we have the freedom of religion that's enshrined in our First Amendment and doesn't exist in most other countries. How bad was the governmental persecution that prompted people to get in a boat and travel thousands of miles to a wilderness? No one takes such a step unless they are motivated by fear for their lives and for their basic rights.

Later, Britain took control over the US settlements as a colony, with all the exploitation and oppression that that involves. Today, when most people think of "colonialism," they think of white people oppressing brown and black people, not white people oppressing other white people--even though a colonial conflict persists in Northern Ireland. This confusion, especially in the minds of young people, is because of a type of political correctness that has infected education in the US. The early American colonists lived in fear and hatred of the British overlords. European countries have long histories of warfare and conflict, but those conflicts were between established states or tribal or feudal groups that were loyal to their leaders. People felt oppressed by foreign invaders or would-be invaders, not by a foreign occupying power. There is a deep psychological difference. To be ruled over by a foreign, oppressive force in your own country leaves a psychological impact that warfare alone does not. One could compare it to the difference between stranger rape on the street and growing up being sexually abused by one's stepfather.

To make matters worse, the settlers settled in an already occupied country, and were engaged in frequent conflict with the Native Americans. This history has little parallel with anything that happened in Europe--at least not since Europe in prehistoric times.  And, the Americas were wild. Wolves and bears went extinct in England before the contemporary era, but even today humans in the US are still occasionally attacked by bears and mountain lions. The American West was sparsely populated, and law enforcement was often in the hands of civilians.

The cultural memory of being surrounded by threats and ruled by an oppressive foreign government is fairly fresh.  When people talk about the Second Amendment, they aren't talking about shooting guns as a pastime. They are talking about a cultural fear that is deeply embedded in our country, a fear that our government may exploit or oppress us and use their monopoly on arms to do so, and a fear that our neighbors also may be a threat and there will be no one who will come to our aid.  The more culturally homogenous and older nations of Europe don't have these deep-seated cultural fears.

There are more recent historical and sociological phenomena that have led to mass shootings both in the US and in Europe. The status of white men is in decline. Most of the shooters have been white males. There is a widespread erroneous belief that poverty leads to both interpersonal violence and to rebellions. In fact, history's revolutions have typically occurred when a middle class has felt exploited or treated unfairly. When the middle class believes they aren't getting something that's due to them, they will rebel--the French Revolution is a good example. Today's white males are given messages from popular culture--such as from pornography, advertising, and films--that they are entitled to women's bodies, to consumer products and to status--yet in reality they are living in a society in which they have less privilege than their fathers did. This sets up a belief among young white men that they are getting shafted--that they aren't getting what's due to them.

A culture steeped in fear of government oppression and fear of a dangerous environment creates a gun culture. Who would give up their guns if they thought they might be needed to overthrow a tyranny or protect against civil strife? Meanwhile, recent historical and cultural changes have created a demographic of entitled yet resentful young males. Mix in disorders that I've previously identified in this blog as being implicated in mass violence--sociopathy, narcissistic personality disorder and delusional disorder--and the only surprise should be that there aren't more mass shootings.