According to system justification theory, we all want to live in a fair and just society. Even if you experience personal discrimination, it is in your best interest to pretend it is not happening. For instance, it feels better to think that a customer is rude to you because they is having a bad day—not because you are [insert gender, race, etc., here]. If the rudeness is random (e.g., flat tire), we can justify their behavior. If it is targeted, we must admit the system is flawed. This holds even when we are not the target of discrimination. If you think a homeless person is homeless because they made bad choices or got ‘dealt a bad hand’, it is easier to look away. If you think the system—to which you belong—is in some way responsible, it is much harder. Essentially, we are motivated to believe the system we built is fair because it is emotionally taxing to see it otherwise.
Gun violence is baked into our American system. As such, it is emotionally convenient to shrug it off as a fact of life, as suggested by the Onion article on regular rotation since 2014. Applying system justification theory, we should be able to overcome this injustice by allowing ourselves to experience the negative emotions associated with it. But aren’t we already doing this? Each shooting is followed by videos of grieving family members, stories of the victims’ community involvement, candlelit vigils, pictures of friend groups forever minus-one, and poignant eulogies. I doubt anyone feels no guilt, sadness, anger, frustration, helplessness, or fear in the wake of these events. But if these events evoke negative emotions, why does society-at-large still justify them?
Mass shooters do not discriminate. Schools, night clubs, grocery stores, shopping malls, no place—or people—are off limits. Perhaps it is this randomness that allows it to be rationalized. Like the rude customer, it is less emotionally burdensome to chalk it up to being in the wrong place at the wrong time than to feel particularly vulnerable or discriminated against. But I argue that, in this case, the randomness is discrimination. Discrimination is the treatment of a group of people based on membership to that group—rather than individual merit. As Americans, we are more likely to die from gun homicides than peer nation citizens. Indeed, ‘no other rich western country comes close’. Therefore, we are unfairly and unjustly subject to gun violence simply by living in this country, by belonging to the group of people called Americans. I acknowledge the leap in terminology. I also acknowledge that there is discrimination within gun violence. But by framing mass shootings as discriminatory against an entire nation, perhaps we can reach a critical mass to decide we can no longer justify this system.
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Colin Gabler is a writer at heart.