Mass Shootings and the Nation’s Social Norms

By Rich Harwood

I was personally called into Newtown, CT to help the community make a decision about what to do with the Sandy Hook Elementary School after the massacre there. I saw first-hand just a small portion of the pain and suffering and trauma the community had to bear. No one, anywhere, should have to endure such avoidable pain.

But people do. Those of El Paso and Dayton have their own horrific stories to tell now. We can add them to the nightmares from Pittsburgh and Charleston and elsewhere.

While tired old debates rage over politics and policy in the wake of this new violence, our social norms rot away. So many people feel utterly bewildered and enraged about the direction of our country. Many of us also feel powerless. But we are not.

Today, there is a fundamental choice we can make as individuals and throughout the country. We can descend further into the destructive norms now gripping society—ceding the public square to hate mongers, demagogues and demonizers—or we can step forward and reclaim and rebuild the social norms that shape of our lives and this nation.

In my over 30 years of rebuilding and strengthening communities of all kinds and sizes, I have found that one clear telltale sign of a community’s civic health is its norms. Struggling communities are riddled with norms of endless divisive debates, incessant name-calling, and ugly derision. There is an “othering” of people. Individual dignity gets stripped away.

These negative norms breed mistrust, cause people to hunker down and retreat from one another, and prompt people to seek scapegoats for their own problems and greater social ills. Hope is the ultimate casualty. And when hope dims, people stop engaging.

Increasingly, these are the conditions spreading throughout our nation. And while they may not be a direct cause of mass shootings, my own experience is that they undoubtedly set the larger tone. They heighten despair. They make people feel they are losing control over their own safety and lives.

But here’s the good news. Even under the most difficult of circumstances, it is possible to reverse destructive norms. I have seen this happen time and again, in places from Flint, MI to Mobile, AL, from small towns in Kentucky to suburban communities in Illinois.

Concrete, proven steps start with turning outward toward one another, especially those who are different from ourselves. We must see and hear one another. We must also focus on what we share in common, especially amid our real differences. And we must say “NO MORE!” to purveyors of hate and division.

It is a dire mistake to wait for our politicians to reset our social norms. We don’t have that luxury; and in all the work I have done, politicians typically are the last ones to step forward. They are waiting for us.

Our task is to resist the natural instinct to turn away from one another and build more walls between us. Retreating only leads to letting those who divide us further rot our social norms.