Isolated: Where compassion falls short

Photo credit: Lorie Shaull 

Since last week’s shooting in Parkland, Florida, several articles have suggested a seemingly simple solution to the epidemic of gun violence in our schools. Not tighter restrictions on who has access to deadly weapons, what kind, or how many. Not investments in mental healthcare access and intervention. Not fixing the broken system that allowed a tip reported to the FBI about Nikolas Cruz to fall by the wayside. Not even heightening security checks at schools or arming teachers to fight fire with fire.

These articles have simply suggested that we should all reach out to the lonely and ostracized among us. That we should encourage our children to counter their classmates’ isolation and disconnection with a friendly smile and an invitation to sit together in the cafeteria.

Sounds idyllic–all these shiny happy people holding hands at recess. No child left behind in a toxic stew of neglect, self-doubt, and revenge fantasies. Teens and pre-teens with the emotional maturity to not ridicule a classmate today because they don’t want to get gunned down while they cower under a desk tomorrow.

Based on what I’ve seen among my friends, the idea resonates across political ideologies. So what’s wrong with the instinct to combat an isolated student’s festering rage with kindness?

It’s an extraordinarily compassionate response at a moment when our country is reeling yet again from a heinous act of violence. It’s downright noble. But consider who we’re suggesting deserves our compassion–and who, by omission, we may be suggesting is less worthy of it.

Would this idea be gaining traction if the standard profile of a school shooter were not a troubled young white man? Imagine our country embracing that same solution if school shooters were typically Muslim or Latino or black. Imagine our president encouraging compassion and understanding, not a travel ban, a border wall, or a nationwide stop and frisk policy.

The call to befriend standoffish young white men as a way to quell their violent tendencies only reinforces the familiar narrative of white killers as loners and individual actors. While they are portrayed as pitiable lonely souls or “broken” boys who’ve lost their way, people of color who commit violent acts aren’t given that benefit of the doubt. Instead, they are extrapolated out in the minds of many, including our president, to represent the entirety of their races or religions. (And even many who have acts of violence committed against them are portrayed negatively.) Where is our compassion then?

Why does it matter where our compassion falls and where it doesn’t? It matters because it signifies whether we believe an act is an “isolated incident” or a part of a larger pattern. When we see a violent offender as an individual, we respond with a litany of reasons why their violence was an exception to the rule. When we see an individual, we propose individualized solutions, like asking our children to be the bearers of empathy and the frontlines of kindness so they don’t get murdered in their classrooms by a “troubled” young man.

When we see a violent offender as representative of a larger pattern or group, we respond with all the ways their violence epitomizes that pattern. We propose policy solutions designed to eradicate the pattern, and that too often ends up harming many other people who “look like” they fit that pattern.

Take, for another example, the opioid crisis sweeping the country, an epidemic that disproportionately impacts white communities and that has been met with calls for empathy, portraits of addicts as our neighbors and our children, and a focus on treatment and redemption. Compare that to our country’s response to crack use in the 1980s, particularly in black communities. Then, the narrative was driven by fear, “crackhead” and “junkie” entered the lexicon as a way to distance addicts from “the rest of us,” and policy responses focused not on treatment and redemption but on harsh sentencing and three-strikes laws that contributed to our country’s outsized incarceration rates, especially for people of color.

Yes, compassion and connection have a role to play in combating the isolation that can breed violent rage, especially in young men. Yes, we all should strive to engage rather than exclude and encourage our children to practice kindness and empathy. But the kindest, most compassionate step we can take in this moment is to demand that our elected officials recognize this pattern of violence for the epidemic that it is and respond with meaningful policy. Ultimately, that will save far more lives than picking a lonely boy first for the dodgeball team.

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