In addition to my experiences practicing both forensic psychology and law, I've been covering crime stories on national television for years now – everything from beheadings on buses to mass shootings to kidnappings to sexual slavery to murder/suicides in which entire families have been wiped out – so not much surprises me anymore. But I'm being asked more and more frequently whether I think the stories are getting more and more horrific. If it seems that way to you, I think you're onto something – as one viewer noted, "I don't recall ever hearing about a father slashing the throats of his wife and five children even 20 years ago" (as we saw just a few weeks ago in Florida). There have, in fact, been horrific crimes perpetrated throughout human history, but I think there's definitely been an uptick in the frequency and severity of what I'd call "grotesquely violent" crimes in the U.S. in recent years. How many times in recent memory have you heard a law-enforcement officer say to the TV cameras something along the lines of, "This is the worst thing we've ever seen in our community"? I've heard that in my earpiece on the air more times than I've kept count of this year alone. So if this is a trend that we're witnessing, why? Two reasons, I think, both cultural.
First, I think that more and more people are growing up with very little time being spent on their moral development, on inculcating them with conscience and character. Fewer and fewer Americans are going to church, so kids aren't getting it there. More and more American parents are divorced and busy with their lives and careers as single parents, which has made them increasingly absent from their homes, so kids aren't getting it there. While our public-school system, where the majority of America's kids are educated, has gone out of its way to foster unconditional self-esteem, which in turn fosters inappropriate assertiveness and a sense of entitlement, nobody in the system wants to touch moral issues with a ten-foot pole for fear of being sued, so kids aren't getting it there. Kids aren't getting it anywhere.
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Second, I think there's been a steadily increasing emphasis on the self here in America. Family size has steadily declined, so the parental attention that's available is divided by fewer kids. Parents who've chosen to get divorced in lieu of working through workable problems or in order to pursue relationships with partners other than their spouses have modeled profound selfishness and then overindulged their children out of guilt. In the relatively good economic times America has enjoyed in recent decades, outside of the past year or so, many single and divorced parents also have overindulged their children out of affluence, which again fosters a sense of entitlement. Then, whether it's YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, popular music, advertising, Americans are bombarded with the message that life is about you and what you want, and that your purpose in life is to achieve "happiness," and that happiness is to be pursued via whatever looks to be the fastest – as opposed to the most lasting or meaningful – road possible. And while the proliferation of electronic media has enabled us to connect with more people more frequently than ever before in human history, the quality of those connections has suffered – interpersonal empathy is diminished when living, breathing human beings are reduced to screen names or perpetually smiling profile pictures.
Now, into that amoral, self-focused cultural milieu that I've just described insert some of the same disturbed, mentally unbalanced individuals that have always existed in American society, and it's really not so surprising that they're pushing the behavioral envelope – doing more antisocial, more malignantly narcissistic things, more often, than ever before. And that's happening against the backdrop of a culture that seems less-inclined than ever to make decisive moral judgments about people's behavior and thereby to arrest (literally and figuratively) horrific behavior in its infancy. In a culture that's increasingly tolerant of the kinds of behaviors that escalate into grotesque violence, relatively "low-grade" violent and victimizing behaviors, it's not all that surprising that more people than ever are reaching the full potentials of their destructiveness. Sadly but simply, I think that the extremes of human behavior are becoming more extreme amid a state of cultural chaos, and fixing it will be much harder than understanding it.
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Brian Russell, Ph.D., J.D., is a licensed psychologist, attorney at law and familiar national television pundit on psychological, legal and cultural issues.