Children Who Might Commit School Shootings Are Not “Potential Sickos”

The issues of gun control and school shootings have been heavily conversed in the United States lately, so it shouldn’t be any surprise that Donald Trump weighed in with a number of tweets. The one that I want to focus on right now, however, reads as follows:

Now, there is a lot in this tweet that is concerning. The very concept of teachers being forced to carry guns is terrifying, and I genuinely hope that that never becomes a reality. But, at the same time, I think that this is the issue that the majority of people who read this tweet will focus on, and it is the issue that will be discussed more prominently. And there is something else in this tweet that I find terrifying, and worth discussion.

Namely, I want to talk about Trump’s repeated reference to shooters as ‘sickos’.

Now, before I get into this, I want to clarify something: anyone who commits a shooting has committed a terrible, sick act. They have taken innocent lives out of this world, and a very strong argument can be made that that is unforgivable. I am not trying to defend their choice to murder people, because that choice is indefensible.

What I am trying to say is that, especially lately, we have been talking more and more often about what causes people to commit shootings. And the general consensus seems to be that mental health tends to be to blame. Heck, even Donald Trump seems to be aware that mental health is involved in a person’s choice to take up a gun and murder others.

Now, the degree to which mental health is involved in gun violence is debatable. Only 14.8 percent of mass shooters in the United States are diagnosed as psychotic. People with mental illness contribute to roughly three to five percent of all violent crimes (most of which do not even involve guns), and when people with mental illness do use guns in a violent fashion, that violence is typically turned on themselves (in 2013, nearly two-thirds of gun-related deaths were suicides). So when we say that “gun violence is a mental health problem”, we need to remember that mentally ill people are not one gun away from murdering a whole bunch of people.

But there is a video that has been circulating around social media in the wake of this discussion that I would love to draw to your attention now.

This video is an open letter from Aaron Stark, and it bears the very intriguing title, “I was almost a school shooter”. In it, Stark talks about his experience in school, and how he had a “very chaotic and violent childhood”. He describes being bullied, and he describes how, as a result, “I got angry, and I started hiding weapons everywhere”. He states that, the only reason why he did not commit a shooting at his school was because he did not have access to a gun.

“People say mental health is the issue, and that’s true. My mental health was in sad shape. I was severely depressed and suicidal. I felt like I had nothing at all in life to look forward to, and so I literally had nothing to lose. When someone has nothing to lose, they can do anything, and that thought should be terrifying. So, yes, mental health was an issue. A bigger issue was love. I had a severe lack of love,” Stark says.

Mental health is not the only reason why gun violence happens. However, anyone who would be willing to take a human life is not a healthy person. These are people who are deeply pained, deeply rejected by their society, and, as Stark says, severely lacking in love.

These are the people who Trump is referring to as ‘sickos’.

And I’m not necessarily concerned for the men who have already committed shootings; that is an issue far too complicated for me to comment on. What I am concerned about is the young boy who is in pain, who is angry, who is in need of support and love so that he can avoid doing the terrible thing that he has been considering, and yet he is further alienated by his own president, who dismisses him as a potential sicko.

The language that we use when referring to people matters. And ‘sicko’ is a very dismissive word. ‘Sicko’ does not create room for discussion, and yet discussion is absolutely necessary for any young person who is considering this. ‘Sicko’ does not create room for love, and yet love is vital in avoiding this exact problem. ‘Sicko’ is the sort of word that discourages a young man from coming forward and talking about his feelings, because he doesn’t want to be dismissed as a ‘sicko’. So he doesn’t come forward. He just sits with it, and lets it fester. He allows it to progress, until the absolute unthinkable happens.

The truth is, it does not take a monster to do this sort of thing. All it takes is one lost, hurting, loveless child.

It bothers me to see the leader of a country use this sort of terminology, because it gives the rest of us an excuse to follow his lead. And we cannot do this. We cannot think in dismissive terms when it comes to other human beings. We cannot allow our horror of what might be to further doom other children who have not done it yet. These are children who need love and compassion and understanding, and if the president of the United States isn’t going to give it to them, then we need to make sure to give it to them. We need to be there to listen to people who need it. We need to be open-minded and non-judgemental when it comes to what they’re saying. We need to watch our language, and make sure that we are not alienating them further. Because that is so easy to do, when we are so used to doing it.

I am firmly of the opinion that creating stricter gun laws will help to fix this issue. This is something that we need to do; but at the same time, it will not make children stop feeling this way. It will only make them stop killing each other in such great numbers. This anger and this pain and this loneliness is not alright, and it leads to so many other problems – more than just school shootings. So we need to do something to fix it.

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‘Fake News’ And The Problem With Bias

Fake news‘ is an idea that has been around for a long time now, referring to any news that was overly exaggerated or distorted or, in some cases, fabricated, so that it does not resemble reality and is, therefore, misinforming. This idea was popularized, however, when in 2016, Donald Trump accused the media of being filled with ‘fake news’.

When Donald Trump initially did this, he was criticized by many people for trying to discredit media that does not approve of him, as it is (conveniently) the press that disagrees with him that tends to be dismissed as ‘fake news’. Trump has been accused of trying to attack the press, and of spewing misinformation himself.

And yet, despite the criticism, Donald Trump’s use of the term ‘fake news’ has sort of affected the way that people view the news. More and more recently, I have been noticing people distrusting the news, or disbelieving the news that they do not like.

Maybe these are people who think that things are not as bad as the news makes it sound – such as those who maintain that Donald Trump saying “grab them by the pussy” is not him confessing to being a sexual predator. Maybe these are people who are confused by the multiple perspectives that the media might give to a singular event, such as the 2018 women’s march, which most news outlets maintained was an event to protest against Trump, while Trump himself maintained that it was a celebration of him. And, oftentimes, when people are confused, they choose the option that they like best.

And here’s the thing: I think that there is a little bit of truth to this idea of ‘fake news’ being prevalent nowadays. A little bit. I don’t agree with the assertion that most news is completely fabricated, but I do think that it is difficult if not absolutely impossible to report news that is unbiased.

I think that a lot of us depend on our news outlets to deliver the news to us completely unbiased. And I have heard many talk show celebrities, such as Ellen Degeneres or Stephen Colbert, criticized for presenting the news with a political bias. But I think the thing that many of us forget is that the news is reported by… people. People who have something to lose or gain by the news being reported in a certain way – whether that be public support, such as in Trump’s case, or political change, such as in Degeneres’s case (I mean, she is a gay woman, so of course she’s demanding political change; I don’t even know why that’s surprising to people).

And even when reporters don’t have anything to gain by presenting the news with a bias, they still come to the news with their own understanding of it. With every story, they have to decide what’s important and what’s worthy of omitting. With every story, they have their own opinions, and these opinions can creep up in endless, subtle ways, whether it be the language that they use, the way that they format the article, or even the picture that might accompany the article. For example, when reporting the Brock Turner sexual assault story, Turner would frequently be referred to as a “Stanford swimmer” rather than as a rapist, turning public attention away from the horrific crime that he committed, and toward his so-called ‘promising career’ as an athlete.

This is biased. And I really don’t think that we can get away from this, as human beings: we can only switch from one bias to another. I have to admit, I cannot write any of this without bias. I simply feel too strongly about a lot of news stories, and I think we’d all be lying if we said that we didn’t all feel strongly about one thing or another.

And the problem (the problem that I think is exasperated by this idea of ‘fake news’) is that, when we see bias that we don’t agree with, we want to close ourselves off. We don’t want to hear anything that is being said. We want to think that the entire story is a lie.

And when we have this idea of ‘fake news’ to fall back on, we have a great excuse to ignore the entire article. We don’t agree with the bias, so we don’t agree with the story. So the story isn’t true. It’s fake news.

And this becomes a problem when people are ignoring real facts, picking and choosing what they believe based off how they feel. Because, sometimes, the way that we feel isn’t necessarily the best indicator of what actually happened. Sometimes, the way that we feel is informed more from our own bias than from truth.

So then, what do we do? How do we find out what truth is, when truth is so frequently hidden amongst bias?

Well, there is no easy answer to this, because bias will always exist, no matter where we look. It is everywhere, in every article, in every perspective, in every individual involved in the story itself. The only thing that I can suggest, the only thing that I have found that works, is being as informed as possible before putting forth an assertion or opinion. And what this means is doing a lot of research. A lot of research on the story itself, written about by multiple reporters, and a lot of research into the history of the story. For example, if you are trying to form an opinion about the Brock Turner sexual assault story, then it isn’t enough to just read a little bit about the story itself; a lot of additional research needs to be done into the history of rape culture and the statistics around the issue.

And this research is time-consuming and difficult. It isn’t as easy as being told what happened and how to feel about it, which is why I think many people would rather not do it. But the problem is, when we don’t do this research, we don’t fully understand the issue. We only know one perspective on it, and that isn’t enough. It most certainly isn’t enough when what we are doing is passing opinions on a story that affects our entire culture and the way that people live.

The Importance of Freedom of Speech

Personally speaking, I take a lot of issue with the way that the American military is run – and there are a lot of problems with it. This “stand behind our troops or feel free to stand in front of them”, “you’re either with us or against us” mentality that people have that creates no room for question or discussion. The fact that sexual assault is a rampant problem in the military that people are, quite frankly, not doing enough to address. The fact that military recruiters target and take advantage of uneducated and poor children. Yet, whenever I would mention these concerns, and there was someone nearby who wanted to convince me to overlook these problems and regard the American military as an overwhelmingly positive force, the same comment would frequently be made: “these are men and women who are fighting for your rights. If it weren’t for them, you wouldn’t even be able to say that you disagree with them. If it weren’t for them, you wouldn’t have the freedom of speech.” And I won’t deny that; for years, the American military has been filled with men and women who fought, suffered, and died so that their fellows would be allowed to say things that would get you killed or imprisoned in some other countries.

Freedom of speech is a right that gets discussed frequently, and, it seems, especially lately. Growing up, I always took it for granted that freedom of speech was always a good thing.

“I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it” – Evelyn Beatrice Hall.

Right?

Freedom of speech has been used to defend what are, in my mind, some pretty atrocious things. A homophobic baker refuses to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, but he claims that he is only practicing his freedom of speech. White supremacists protest publicly against removing a statue of a Confederate soldier, but they are allowed to be there because that is their freedom of speech. In both of these cases, a message is very clearly being sent to a specific group of people: you are not respected and you do not belong here, your existence will not be tolerated. And this message is awful, and I apologize to everyone who has had to endure it.

And when these instances arise, there are people who say things like, “I don’t believe in freedom of speech if this is what freedom of speech is”, and I understand that. It hurts my heart to think that there are people out there who have to endure messages like these daily. So sometimes, it’s easier to think that we could just shut these people up and be done with it.

But we can’t.

Because we have a flip-side to all of this too. Freedom of speech is not only being put under question when it comes to hate speech lately, but American president Donald Trump has sort of put all freedom of speech into question.

The first time that I became aware of this was when he began his attacks against the media, referring to any news station that spoke poorly of him as “fake news”. Trump has even issued a press ban, refusing to allow certain organizations from attending press briefings at the white house.

But the thing that everyone is talking about now, the issue on every tongue, is the fact that Trump took to Twitter and actively supported the American people punishing NFL players who took a knee during the national anthem.

With this single act, Trump has issued a very clear message: freedom of speech will not be tolerated, so long as it is something he disagrees with.

And yes, Trump has supported free speech in the past, such as when he defended Jack Phillips, the aforementioned homophobic baker, claiming that he had every right to refuse the same-sex couple who came to him for a wedding cake. Which makes it very interesting that this is where he chooses to draw the line when it comes to free speech.

Because in this particular instance, the NFL players in question are actually supporting something that I agree with. While the act of kneeling has since become synonymous with rebelling against Trump’s stance on freedom of speech, this is not where the act began. Initially, kneeling during the national anthem was started with Colin Kaepernick, who explained his reasoning by saying that he refused to “show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour.” This is where the issues stems from: a very real, very constant problem in American culture. This is an issue that needs to be addressed, and by kneeling, Kaepernick hoped to draw attention to it.

And yet, by kneeling, Kaepernick and the other NFL players who later joined in unintentionally began a conversation around free speech, for they have not only been told that the workplace is not a place for freedom of speech (unless they’re a homophobic baker, for some reason), but they have had their own president attempt to punish them for doing so.

And, yes, I am aware that the reason why so many people are offended at NFL players kneeling for the national anthem is because, in their opinion, the flag and the national anthem deserve more respect than that. And I could talk all day about how odd it is that these people seem to be more offended by a black man kneeling during the national anthem than a black man getting shot in the street by the police, but I don’t know if I’d get anywhere with that argument, and the point is, these men have a concern that needs to be addressed. And shutting them up won’t get rid of that concern. Shutting them up won’t save black lives, and it most certainly will not increase their love or respect for the country that made them do it.

And that’s why freedom of speech is so important, in every way that it exists: because when someone says something, even if we don’t necessarily agree with it, it still means something. Ignoring the problem won’t make it go away; addressing it will. And maybe addressing it makes us uncomfortable, but at least it makes us talk and develop and grow and change.

And, end of day, who gets to decide who is worthy to speak and who isn’t? I mean, Donald Trump is trying to assume the role of decider, but all this has done for him is create a divided country, neither side of which truly feels like their voice is being heard.

My whole life, I have always heard freedom of speech revered as this amazing force that needed to be respect. I have been told that it is a right that people have fought and died for, that is a rare privilege to be enjoyed by everyone who has access to it. And I still believe all this. I believe that, if you have a problem, speak it, because there’s no other way to address it. And maybe this does mean that, if we have freedom of speech, then everyone has freedom of speech – even those who are hateful and who we disagree with down to our very core, and maybe this does mean that people get emotionally hurt along the way. Life isn’t perfect, and even a system like this will have its casualties.

But just because someone says something rude and hateful and awful, that doesn’t mean that I have to tolerate it. That is me practicing my freedom of speech.

Why Bother Fighting?

I suppose I’ve always taken it for granted that everyone believed, whole-heartedly, that fighting was important.

I’m not talking about fighting in the sense of barroom brawls or schoolyard bullying. I’m not talking about unnecessary physical violence, or even physical violence at all. I’m talking about people who stand by their beliefs to the death. I’m talking about people who refuse to let injustice or cruelty go forgotten or unmentioned. I’m talking about people who will not allow themselves to be pushed around or bullied, they have to stand up and do something. I thought that that was something that everyone believed in, it was just something that was difficult to enforce when the time actually came to do it.

But the other day, I was proudly listening to the news as they talked about people who were trying to stand up to Donald Trump. People who believed in something and were not willing to just let it go. People who needed to fight. And while I was listening to this, someone raised the question, “why do they even bother? They can’t win, so what are they doing?”

I was taken aback by this question. I suppose I’ve heard it raised before, but it’s been a while since I’ve needed to give the answer to it. Because, the way I see it, when you believe in something whole-heartedly, whether that be equal rights for others or equal treatment for yourself, what else can you do but fight?

And why do we fight? Why do we bother? I mean, people have fought battles since the dawn of time, and they have continued to fight even when they knew they couldn’t win. So the way I see it, we do not necessarily fight because we know we’re going to win. We very well might not win. Good battles have been lost again and again, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t worth fighting.

We fight because we can’t do anything but. We fight because we cannot be silent, we cannot allow people to get away with things that are not fair or right. We fight because it is better than laying down and being walked over.

We fight because we need change, and that will not happen if we do not demand it. We fight because, if we don’t, then nothing will ever progress. We fight because life is not always easy or fair, so what other choice do we have?

And even in fighting, things are not always fair. Good people have been torn down, threatened, spat on, even murdered in an attempt to silence their fight, but that doesn’t mean that they should never have fought. That doesn’t mean that their efforts went to waste. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X both were assassinated, but they and the things they believed in and fought for are still remembered today. The Taliban tried to silence Malala Yousafzai permanently, but she still fights. And she fights because it is a worthy battle that she cannot back down from.

And hopefully we do win. Hopefully our voices are heard and changes are made, but even if they aren’t, that doesn’t mean we should back down. All it means is that we have to keep trying.

Why We Need Diversity in Politics

When it comes to politics, I am a firm believer that people from all perspectives should be considered. After all, who knows more about a woman’s experiences than an actual, flesh-and-blood woman? Who knows more about what it’s like to live in a wheelchair than someone who has actually been in a wheelchair? And who can better speak to the issues faced by people of colour than someone who has spent all their lives being a person of colour? Of course, it’s not always perfect – not every person in a specific community represents every aspect of that community. We all have different forms of privilege, we all meet with different challenges in our lives, and some politicians who represent marginalized people have actively fought in support of issues that concern their community. However, that being said, you are still going to make a much more informed decision around what to do with the lives of women if you are actually confronting a group of women, rather than a group of men.

And it is very rare that you see this nowadays. I am very proud of my own country of Canada, whose cabinet is intentionally diverse, made up of immigrants, Muslims, disabled people, native people, and not a small handful but fifteen women. In America, however, Trump’s cabinet is overwhelmingly white and overwhelming male – so much so that it is, in fact, the least diverse cabinet since Reagan’s. And since Trump has been elected, he has continued to make decisions that do not directly affect white men. Abortion, for example, is not a procedure that cisgendered men will ever have to endure, and yet Trump and his cabinet have made the decision for women that their access to it should be limited. I am not necessarily saying that if you asked any random group of women about their opinions on abortion, the answers will be any different – what I am saying is that too few women were consulted. This was a decision made by men for women.

And in my personal opinion, that isn’t okay. I do not think that men should have the ability to limit what a woman can do with her life and body, any more than I think that white people should have the ability to limit what people of colour can do, or that cisgendered people should have the ability to limit what transgender people can do. If you do not have the lived experience of belonging to that particular group, then you do not have the necessary information to tell that group what they should do and how they should behave. You do not know what they deal with.

And yet, I have heard my own perspective countered multiple times. “I think that people should be chosen for a job based on whether or not they are qualified, not based on whether or not they belong to a specific minority,” people will say, and I understand. To a certain extent, I even agree. If someone is faced with hiring one of two people: a black, transgender lesbian who is completely unqualified in every way or a straight, white man who has spent years preparing for this job, of course they should choose the man. But from what I can tell, that isn’t what’s happening. Unqualified people are not being chosen over qualified people to fill a minority quota, as this statement seems to suggest. Rather, in situations such as the one that I described in my home country, where Canada’s cabinet is a diverse one, perfectly qualified people are given jobs where they perform according to standards while simultaneously offering up their marginalized voice, providing a perspective that a straight, white man (a figure that continues to be seen in this workplace) lacks. In other words, the black, transgender lesbian from my example is not only good at her job, but she offers a perspective that would otherwise be lacking.

When I say that we need diversity in politics (and in the workplace, more generally), I am not saying that straight, white, cisgendered, able-bodied, neurotypical (etc., etc.) men should go without jobs. I am not saying that minorities should be given any special treatment that their more societally accepted counterparts don’t get. All that I am saying is that we should support minorities achieving positions that they are perfectly capable of filling, but that they haven’t in the past due to societal imbalances. There are a wide variety of people in our world, but if our political system continues to hear the story of only one side, then that is the side that will eternally be catered to. Inequalities will continue to be enforced, because as much as it is completely possible for a cisgendered man to sympathize with the issues of a woman and want to stand up for her, he cannot understand it in the same way that she does because he has not lived it. She has. Let her tell her story. Let all of us tell our stories. And let us all fight these battles together.