When horrible acts of violence happen, how should the media - and the public - react?
The killing of five Amish girls in a Pennsylvania schoolhouse this week, and the fatal shooting at Montreal's Dawson College last month, unleashed a torrent of questions about why such acts of evil occur, and what we can do to stop them.
University of Toronto psychology Prof. Jordan Peterson has studied social aggression and atrocities, and he has some provocative ideas about how media attention influences killers' motivations .
He responded to your questions about the recent tragedies and the role of the media in reporting them.
Join the Conversation by submitting a comment. The questions and Prof. Peterson's responses appear at the bottom of this page.
"These crimes aren't impulsive," Prof. Peterson says. "Part of what they're counting on is notoriety. . . . They hijack the media, even though it's performing its appropriate function."
Is the promise of notoriety a factor in heinous crimes? Should there be different rules about reporting on certain types of crimes? Should the press avoid publicizing photos and writings of the killers, even if they might offer insight into their motivations? Or in a free society, should journalists report the news fully, even if it might have negative consequences?
"I'm suggesting that the technological transformation of the media and the ability to disseminate information rapidly has opened the door for a certain kind of pathology," Prof. Peterson said.
"The question is: Do we think that's a price worth paying, or are there things we could do that could minimize the probability of its reoccurrence?"
Prof. Peterson has taught at the University of Toronto since 1998. He's also a clinical psychologist who sees clients on a fairly regular basis.
He previously taught at Harvard University, from 1993 to 1998 after completing graduate and post-doctoral work at McGill University, studying alcoholism and aggression.
Prof. Peterson is the author of Maps of Meaning , published in 1999. His current interests include the formal assessment and theoretical nature of self-deception, as well as studies of creativity, achievement, personality, narrative and motivation.
Editor's Note: globeandmail.com editors will read and allow or reject each question/comment. Comments/questions may be edited for length, clarity or relevance. HTML is not allowed. We will not publish questions/comments that include personal attacks on participants in these discussions, that make false or unsubstantiated allegations, that purport to quote people or reports where the purported quote or fact cannot be easily verified, or questions/comments that include vulgar language or libellous statements. Preference will be given to readers who submit questions/comments using their full name and home town, rather than a pseudonym.
Rebecca Dube, globeandmail.com: Hello, Prof. Peterson, and thanks for joining us today. It's tough to understand tragedies like the killing of five Amish girls at their school this week, or the shooting last month at a Montreal college, and I think one question we all have is, why do these things keep happening? Could you briefly tell us a bit about what you think of media coverage of these types of high-profile crimes -- the good and the bad, if you will?
Jordan Peterson: Rebecca, although these things keep happening, they are still very rare, so the public danger is minimal. Nonetheless, such crimes are truly horrifying, and it is in everyone's best interests to end them.
Such acts -- crimes of notoriety -- are motivated by the perpretrator's understanding of himself as a victim. He believes that he has been unjustly treated, and that his life is an evil joke. We make much of victimhood in our society. We do not take the time to notice that an enhanced sense of victimization is often a precursor to vengeful acts of agression, culminating with some frequency in genocide.
It is wrong to think of yourself as a victim. It is wrong first because everyone's life is tragic, and second because it encourages revenge.
The perpetrator, once he regards himself as a victim, feels that his vengeful thoughts are justified. He thinks that the world and everyone in it is contemptible and worthy of slaughter. Dwelling on these thoughts, nursing them, turns them into increasingly detailed fantasies. The more detailed the fantasy, the more likely the acts will be carried out.
The perpetrator's narcissism begins to swell, once he comes to believe he is a judge -- a judge of mankind and God. When he kills, he is simultaneously revenging his self-defined victimization, dealing out unholy retribution, and feeding his narcissism. It is the latter motivation that might reasonably be the concern of the press.
The killings are not the media's fault. However, the evil minds of the killers have found a way to hijack freedom of the press to obtain notoriety. Fantasies about this notoriety are very motivating. It does not matter that it will only happen after the act, and after the suicide. The very idea of future notoriety is in itself highly rewarding. People live on hope -- we even understand the brain chemistry involved. Thoughts of future status activate the same brain systems that drugs such as cocaine activate. The same thing occurs when someone contemplates winning a lottery, and derives pleasure from that.
The suicide, by the way, is the culminating act in the drama of revenge and contempt the killers play out.
Frank McKinnon, Halifax: As these terrible acts are obviously premeditated, why are schools the chosen location? Is it because they ensure more notoriety due to shock value than their place of work or worship?
Jordan Peterson: Schools are not the only location, as similar killings do take place in work environments. They are generally treated differently by the media, however, with somewhat less dramatization.
In part, schools are chosen because the killers are familiar with them, and have been particularly victimized, from their perspectives, by the school environment. More frequently, however -- and more to the point -- schools are places of possibility and hope, occupied by promising young people, with their whole lives before them. The cruelest acts are by necessity aimed at the undeserving. Thus, if an individual is motivated by a generalized sense of revenge -- revenge against the conditions of existence themselves -- punishing the innocent is a much more horrifying act.
Remember, such killers are motivated by the desire for mayhem and pain, the more pointless, the better.
Stewart Smith, New Hamburg, Ont.: Prof. Peterson, do you know if there are more of these horrible events occurring per-capita now than a century ago? Also, do you see any connection between events like school shootings and the rise of the Internet?
Jordan Peterson: The murder rates in Western countries were much higher a century ago, and even higher than that in the previous centuries. Furthermore, these rates have also been declining over thousands of years. Tribal people, hunter-gatherers, were much more likely to be killed than modern men.
Patricia F., Berlin, Germany: I have both an observation and a question regarding violence. Though I was born, raised and educated in Canada, I've lived in Germany for the last 15 years. My observation is this: There is less all-round violence here in Germany than back home in Canada. For example, as a woman, I can walk the streets at night unafraid. In addition, the pathological phenomenon of child abduction is also new here (though is sadly happening more frequently). Another observation: Newscasters (with a few exceptions) are generally not celebrities and simply state the news in a matter-of-fact manner. In other words, sensational news reporting is not part of Germany's cultural make-up (yet). My question is: Are these elements directly related to the relatively low crime rate here, or how would one explain it?
Jordan Peterson: Patricia, crime rates in Canada were lower in 2002 than they have been in 25 years, and they are lower than rates in the the United Kingdom and Sweden. They are somewhat higher than rates in Spain and France.
It is easy to believe that the streets are less safe because the amount of time the general media spends reporting crimes has dramatically increased over the last decade, despite the overall decline in rates. So the perception of violent crime, but not the crime itself, is increased by the media.
Murder makes dramatic TV, and in the age of remote controls and multiple channels, the short dramatic episode helps draw viewers.
I am also not suggesting that the media stop covering murders. I am speaking about particular kinds of crimes: those that are motivated in large part by the desire for fame.
Walt O'Brien, Columbia, Maryland, United States: Greetings! Why is psychological testing in junior through senior high school not given as much priority as academic testing and the various scholastic testing regimes, please? There is no such mandatory beast as the MMPI or other testing regimes in place in any public school system anywhere in North America, to my knowledge. Or do you feel that mandatory psychological testing, like requiring people to take an STD test in order to get their drivers' license, would be an invasion of privacy and violation of human rights in favour of the public good?
Jordan Peterson: Walt, psychological testing would be unlikely to pick up a potential mass murderer, because of the false positive problem (detecting a problem where there isn't one). It's like screening at the airport. There are millions of passengers, and no terrorists (even though disturbed and angry people fly all the time), and there are many unhappy teenagers and young adults. So I'm not sure the public good would be served.
I think the broader question of the general utility of mental health screening in schools requires such a complex answer that it can't reasonably be addressed here.
Trish Taylor, Kitchener, Canada: I'm intrigued by your current focus of study -- "The formal assessment and theoretical nature of self-deception" -- have you published anything on this? What sort of self-deception or other thought processes lead a person to seek notoriety or take revenge by murdering vulnerable people when the result is condemnation and revulsion towards the perpetrator, along with devastating impact on their own families? If most of these people kill themselves as it seems, they don't experience the results ... so do they create a fantasy of what will occur?
Jordan Peterson: First, you can go to www.mapsofmeaning.com for an extensive discussion of such issues. I published a book, Maps of Meaning, that deals precisely with that issue, as does the TV Ontario program based on the book. All that information is there.
Second: Self-deception is primarily a sin of omission. It is very easy for individuals to continue doing and thinking the same things, even when they are confronted by anxiety and failure. It is often easier to blame other people, or even the nature of reality (and the mass killers certainly do both).
If any person refuses to adjust their behavior and their thoughts to improve their day-to-day adaptation, then their life becomes more and more unpleasant. As suffering increases, a sense of victimization and injustice develops. This leads to the development of fantasies about revenge.
That's the gateway to real trouble. Hell is a bottomless pit because it is always possible to make a bad situation worse.
Andrew Mulcahy, Victoria: First, does anyone investigate these killers by exploring their biological makeup: Could they be suffering from some disease? Or do all these cases appear to be the product of cultural dysfunction only? How many of these killers have a religious background? Has an atheist ever committed such a heinous crime? It is hard for me to see that a person who kills himself is just looking for notoriety. I think it is important that we track down, specifically, (including the likes of those killing in Baghdad) what makes it possible for an otherwise decent human being to commit acts so opposed to the innate nature of human beings?
Jordan Peterson: Generally speaking, mental illness leads to a marked decrease in the ability to think clearly and act in a planned manner. These killers are very methodical, so I don't think it is reasonable to assume that they are mentally ill. They don't have a brain disease like manic depression, major depression or schizophrenia. You could say they have a character or personality disorder, but the disease nature of those states is questionable.
Suicidal people, per se, are generally not looking for publicity. They just want to crawl into a hole and disappear. However, some suicidal people, particularly adolescents, do have revenge fantasies driving their suicidality. They imagine the scene of their funeral, and think about how sorry everyone who mistreated and ignored them will be when they are gone.
Also, the killers we are talking about don't just kill themselves. They kill others, and then kill themselves. It may be difficult to imagine how someone could want notoriety that badly, but it is nonetheless possible. It is not easy to imagine evil motivation, but it has to be imagined to be understood.
Finally, I do not think that the cause is cultural. The individuals who do such things are the ones responsible. However, they are willing to manipulate others (like those involved in the media). So the question becomes: Is it right to allow such manipulation to occur?
Lance M., Canada: Thank you for taking some time to allow the public to ask your expert opinion. I have studied Dr. Dave Grossman's writings on violence, school shootings and youth. What are your thoughts on the desensitizing effects of playing violent first person shooter video games on the physiology of young brains? Would you consider this a factor in the spate of shootings?
Jordan Peterson: Lance, it is a privilege to have the opportunity to answer these questions.
I do believe that first person shooter video games desensitize the players to violence involving guns. I can't see how it could be otherwise.
During psychotherapy sessions, it is standard to have clients who are fearful of a particular situation or who lack the appropriate skills play out in their imagination being in the feared place. Sometimes role-playing is used in the same manner. All psychotherapist know that repetition increases skill and decreases fear and disgust.
You get good at what you practice.
If you are interested in these issues, you could go to Dr. Brad Bushman's website .
He is a very good researcher and a careful thinker. He has also written, controversially, on the relationship between inappropriately high self-esteem and aggression.
Trish Taylor, Kitchener: If it's wrong for a person to think of themself as a victim as it leads to revenge (I agree, by the way), then it seems counter-productive for our justice system to be taking into account to the degree that they do whether the person committing the crime is a victim and therefore has an excuse, if you will, in the eyes of the court for what they've done. Don't these two things work against each other and create a dangerous victim mentality?
Jordan Peterson: It is reasonable for the courts to take specific situational and psychological factors into account when making a judgement. If a person brutalized for years acts aggressively towards the perpetrator, for example, the fact of the continual brutalization has to be considered, because there is then an element of self-defense to the crime.
I am thinking about identity as a victim as a general life philosophy. That should not be encouraged. Life is very hard for people, although it can also be very rewarding. The fact that it is hard does not mean that people are victims. They are just involved in a tragedy.
Michael Carey, Toronto: Prof. Peterson, Are there common warning signs in potential perpetrators that the public should watch for?
Jordan Peterson: Michael -- Again, these events are very rare, so it will always remain difficult to predict them.
However, there are warning signs, just as there are in suicide.
A very depressed person might be considering suicide. To assess the likelihood of such action, you ask them: Are you thinking suicidal thoughts? If the person says yes, you ask them: Do you have a plan? If they say "no, it is just thoughts," then they are generally at low risk. If they say, "yes, here is the plan, the date, the weapon ... I have the whole thing planned out," then they are very suicidal and perhaps should be hospitalized.
The mass killers also broadcasts warning signs. They frequently brag about what they are going to do. If they are asked, they will say what they are planning. They want notoriety, and have a difficult time being secretive (this latter element was lacking in the killer of the Amish girls). But they are also somewhat conflicted, and the good part of their soul is hoping that someone will pay careful attention and stop them.
If someone is irritable and depressed sometimes and arrogant and self-aggrandizing other times and is evidently angry and socially isolated and they tell you or other people that others deserve killing, then that is a warning sign.
The problem is that people are afraid to find out that such things might be true -- and so they generally remain hidden. Also, when adolescent friends find out, they often do not know what to do. It's hard, because threats alone are not enough, generally, to warrant anything more than casual inquiry on the part of authorities (if that).
Rebecca Dube, globeandmail.com: That's all the time we have for today. Thanks to everyone who submitted questions, and sorry we didn't have time to get to everyone's questions. Prof. Peterson, thank you very much for joining us today. Any last thoughts?
Jordan Peterson: In closing, I would like to say thanks to the questioners and readers, and to The Globe for the discussion.
I hope that this continued discussion and debate will help everyone determine the appropriate private and public response to these terrible crimes.