Michael On Everything Else

Our Dilemma

The easiest and worst mistake we could make would be to blame our present dilemma on the mere technology of war…. It is our attitudes toward war and our uses for it that really demand our attention.

(Grossman, 2009)

The U.S. doesn’t have a gun problem. The U.S. has a violence problem. If the problem was simply one of access, then other countries with high rates of gun ownership would present proportional rates of gun violence but we know that’s not the case. Of the top ten countries of gun ownership, none are in the top ten countries of firearm-related deaths (including suicide). Despite having the highest rate of gun ownership, the U.S. isn’t even in the top 10 list of Firearm-related death rates in the world (theGuardian.com).

Something else must be at play here.

At the beginning of this post as well as a post from yesterday regarding human savagery, I quoted Dave Grossman’s book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. In the book, Mr. Grossman first explains man’s innate, psychological unwillingness to kill his fellow man. Research conducted after World War II found that soldiers rarely fired their weapons and when they did, they were more likely to intentionally fire over the heads of the enemy.

Based on that research, the military implemented training programs to specifically reduce man’s built-in resistance to killing. These programs raised the firing rate in Vietnam to over ninety percent.

How was this achieved? The military program leverages three psychological processes; classical conditioning (à la Pavlov’s dog), operant conditioning (à la B. F. Skinner’s rats), and desensitization, which is vital to the program’s success.

Most of the language used in Parris Island to describe the joys of killing people is bloodthirsty but meaningless hyperbole, and the recruits realize that even as they enjoy it. Nevertheless, it does help to desensitize them to the suffering of an “enemy,” and at the same time they are being indoctrinated in the most explicit fashion (as previous generations were not) with the notion that their purpose is not just to be brave or to fight well; it is to kill people.

(Grossman, 2009)

For the average citizen, this same desensitization happens from an early age via pop-culture; movies, TV programs and music depict increasingly violent acts. Again I quote Mr. Grossman:

Our society has found a powerful recipe for providing killing empowerment to an entire generation of Americans. Producers, directors, and actors are handsomely rewarded for creating the most violent, gruesome, and horrifying films imaginable, films in which the stabbing, shooting, abuse, and torture of innocent men, women, and children are depicted in intimate detail.

(Grossman, 2009)

Even worse than just providing the content via popular media, Mr. Grossman also points out that producers “[m]ake these films entertaining as well as violent, and then simultaneously provide the (usually) adolescent viewers with candy, soft drinks, group companionship, and the intimate physical contact of a boyfriend or girlfriend. Then understand that these adolescent viewers are learning to associate these rewards with what they are watching.” Classical conditioning.

There are more processes discussed in his book and it is well worth the read, regardless of your position on gun control. And while I personally enjoy a lot of TV shows and movies that fall within the “violent” category, I grew up with several solid, male role models and I’ve enjoyed a rich life experience to help provide context and perspective while consuming popular media. I don’t advocate censorship—if someone wants to watch a movie like Saw then more power to them. A big part of the problem is that we have emotionally and intellectually immature audiences consuming this media, without any meaningful or applicable context or perspective on the matter and a big cause of that is the overall lack of meaningful male role models. I’ve written on this in a previous article; Too Little Masculinity and plan on expanding on that in later posts, but for now I think this is enough.

The U.S. doesn’t have a gun problem. The U.S. has a violence problem.


  1. Grossman, D. (2009). On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Back Bay Books.