“Why is violence so rampant in American society?” That is the question I often hear expressed concerning the apparent brutality that exists within the American psyche, especially in comparison to its equally economically developed first world countries. It is a particularly difficult question to address as its phrasing seems to demand a conclusive answer on a topic that is ripe for hasty generalizations and personal biases on the part of the individuals interested enough to even tackle the issue.
I think that it needs to be remembered how the U.S. is not really one cultural block, as much as a collection of various (often contrasting) cultural sentiments. By which I mean, it would be a mistake to think of any one cultural expression/norm as a reflection of the American mindset (and one should be weary of any public figure who insists otherwise), because the propensity by which any such cultural expression dominates will by necessity vary greatly between different geographic areas in a country whose landmass spans from one ocean to another. For example, sociopolitical beliefs and preferences will diverge greatly between Americans living in California, Texas, Vermont, and Michigan. Moreover, even within these contrasting states it is not unusual to find enclaves of population whose cultural mindset is contrasting enough to make them seem like foreigners to each other (i.e. the cultural difference between San Fransisco, CA and Sacramento, CA, or Odessa, TX and Austin, TX, is prominent enough despite both of the paired cities being located within the same states). Given all of this, it is possible that the perceived violence attributed to the United States as a whole might simply be the result of a few concentrated areas of violent activity fostering the impression of a more hostile society, which may not be altogether warranted.
Though an appealing hypothesis, it still fails to account for the fact that the U.S. actually does have a higher rate of violent activity, even after one factors in populations size and population diversity. The undeniable truth is that, on average, we are a more violent country than a great deal of other first world countries. One can even go further by saying that the mindset of the United States appears to regard a certain form of social turbulence as culturally healthy, in ways that other similarly developed countries do not. This is actually not as absurd of a position to take on the matter as one might initially think.
The United States, for the majority of its history as an independent country, was composed of uncharted–essentially lawless, since sitting laws could not always be enforced–territories. Essentially, the image of the wild west is a reality that is barely only a little over a century old in a large segment of the American population. And although these areas have by now been modernized and incorporated under the rule of enforced law, in many ways the appeal of the rugged, self-governing gunslinger has remained ingrained in the romantic sentiments of many people (including people who have no realistic interest in emulating such a harsh reality).
This is possibly best characterized in the popular prominence of a gun culture in many sectors of American society (a very unique feature amongst first world democracies). Whichever side of the debate you fall on (either favoring more gun regulation or less), it is undeniable that there exists within many segments of the U.S. public a distinct self-identity with one’s right to carry firearms, as well as firearms in general. As someone living in the South, this is not at all surprising considering how the mere possession of guns for a long period of time beneath–and west of–the Mason-Dixon Line made you the law in a local region. This mindset that unless the individual retains the right to–if the occasion demands it–keep order and safety by any and every means possible (including firearms), the common citizenry is put into a disadvantaged position to combat against lawless disorder, is still seen as particularly relevant in the eyes of many Americans (whether the alleged perpetrators are common criminals or overreaching governing authorities). And it is within the context of this mindset that the appeal of identifying with the vocal gun culture resonates with so many Americans.
But is the influence of this gun culture a contributing factor in the proclivity for violence often identified with American society? I personally see no clear answer to this question, as it’s highly dependent on one’s presupposed opinion on the matter. My goal on stating the above isn’t to find a solution or compromising in the gun regulation debate, it is to point out that–within the context of a generalized American society–violence is not always categorized with malicious tendencies. In fact, a prominent premise among advocates for less gun regulation is the claim that it is necessary for good and law-abiding members of society to use violence to protect themselves from the same society’s bad and lawbreaking members (this is also a mainstay theme in most Hollywood action movie plots). Thus, one could argue that this lack of a reflexive repulsion towards violence amongst many Americans (this includes both those for and against more gun control)–where the act of resorting to violence is more often than not valued in accordance to the consequences it brings, rather than its adherence to an ethical principle–goes far in fostering to the rest of the world an impression of the U.S. having a rampantly violent culture.
“But why on earth would you want to leave such an impression?” Would be the follow-up question I imagine being voiced from those residing outside the U.S. border. The only truthful response I can give to this is that, as a collective culture, Americans don’t really care what impression they leave on the rest of the world. Because there exists another, complimentary, mindset within most of U.S. society–and I’m speaking as a naturalized American, who matured through his adolescence in America, and went through the American education system–which is: As the United States of America, we are the standard by which we judge the world, not the other way around; for no other reason than that we are the United States of America.
So, if the rest of the world judges us as violent (justifiably or not), we’ll simply claim it’s a testament to our nation’s individualism, without losing a moment’s worth of sleep over it. Come to think of it, that’s probably the same response we would give to explain our abysmal test scores in comparison to the rest of the world. Well, at least we’re consistent.