Dave Cullen – Columbine

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You can look at the story of Columbine and think it’s just a bunch of whiny, privileged white males. That’s okay. People write off people’s troubles in similar ways. As we know, black people are less intelligent and cultured, so who cares what’s going on in Africa?

The world is full of stories. People murder and cause terrorist attacks all the time and it’s not something I feel comfortable reading. The purpose of the storyteller is to extract the meaning out of it. This book is not just the recounting of the events in Columbine and what came after/before. It’s a gigantic argument why the story even matters in the first place. Cullen does an amazing job. No scene is without purpose. No scene exists only to spout details. Each detail has insight into another topic. Like the best non-fiction, Columbine is more about other subjects than its title.

Cullen dispels two big, contrasting myths. There’s the ‘psycho villain’ myth, and the ‘revenge of the nerds’ myth. The truth is actually somewhere in between, or at least split between the killers. The truth was, Columbine Massacre was instigated by a single person.

The writings about psychopathy here are integral. Psychopathy was the cause of the massacre, and also what people miss. People believe in Just World and want to believe that moral people are also good social presence. If someone’s charismatic and hot, then he cannot be bad. However, the fat dude who sends you a message on Facebook is a creep. Such a world is ordered, easy to navigate and we know what to fear.

Psychopaths blow it apart. The true danger isn’t the socially inept person. He’s too timid and his doors are blocked. In order for him to cause social crime, he first needs to become a part of society. Psychopaths are the most desirable people. They’re aces in imitating social cues and personalities but they have no good intentions. They don’t even have empathy.

In truth, there’s nothing like ‘what a killer/rapist/thief’ look like. People who want to deliberately harm – and psychopaths do – need to conceal themselves. How else can a rapist do his crime, if he can’t convince his victim to trust them in an isolated setting? Eric Harris was successful. Women loved him. When he apologized, everyone was convinced. He knew exactly how to hint about the killing to see who’s on board. People couldn’t believe Eric would do it because of his social skills, but his high social skills are directly related to his lack of empathy which pushed him to massacre. It’s a bizarre thing. The most dangerous people are designed to look benign.

What’s ironic is during all the time leading to Columbine, it was Dylan who got the most flak. Dylan was only in it to kill himself. The journals are up online if you want to read it. Dylan was soaked in self-loathing. His character was truly tragic. While I’m not excusing what Dylan did, he’s perhaps just as a victim as the others. He barely even shoot during the massacre. His depressive state and feelings of powerlessness made him an easy target for a psychopath needing an accomplice. Harris provided him a way out. Psychopaths are hard to stop, but what if someone reached out to Dylan before?

This situation reveals something dark about our society. It’s caused by our overall preference for socially skilled people over everything. Yes, this would happen again. In the end, what we want are people who can act like Harris. We want charismatic people who can lead, who look good and can tell jokes. Dylan may have been almost innocent, but socially he’s useless. What’s there to do with a depressive suicidal? Speaking from an evolutionary standpoint, we will always support Harris over Dylan. Harris can navigate social situations gracefully, and for a social animal nothing is more important.

Aside from the killer’s psych, the book reveals the many shades of tragedies with multiple victims. Not everyone comes out the same. The stories of survivors, or the bereaved, are vastly different. Cullen tells the story they deserve with empathy. After such a tragedy, you need a spotlight on your unique position. No matter how many suffered with you, your misery is still real. Lumping it up with everyone else is insulting.

It’s also a story of media, and how the way we report events affect their influence. For those who are interested in media studies, this is essential. The parts about the eyewitnesses’ unreliability are fantastic. Such tragic stories have a stronger demand for precise details. These situations, by their nature, confuse us and we need every information we can have to understand them. The intensity of these situation also leads to confused memory. It’s almost funny how people thought there are multiple killers. One person saw Dylan & Eric with trenchcoats. Then they took off and a different person saw them.

An important arc is the story of Cassie, the supposed martyr. Initially it was reported she claimed to believe in God right before being shot. In reality this exchanged happened with a different student who survived. Yet people were quick to believe Cassie’s story and stuck to it even once the truth goes out. It goes to show you what kind of moral responsbility the media has. The reporting of this story affected lives. A survivor in trauma who needed her story told has been pushed aside while everyone lives in a lie.

I don’t think the conclusion of this book was that tragedy was inevitble, that Eric and Dylan were pure evil and we’re all victims. What makes the book so dark is that it shows how badly we function when tragedy strikes. Aside from the aforementioned psychopathy, there’s a coverup, ganging up on parents without knowing why and a parent who becomes a ranting anti-abortion activists. If anything, it’s almost fatalist. What could we do? We’re only human. Why disclose that we could’ve prevented it, and put us in harm’s way?

Cullen’s prose is sometimes too fiction-esque. Writing a non-fiction book like a fiction one, with dialogue boxes makes it look silly. The author wasn’t there, and if he were he could only have this exactness if he recorded it. I prefer writing as summary, since that’s the only thing you can do. Cullen’s prose is also precise enough to let it slide. He’s fantastic in choosing the right details. Physical descriptions never enter. Instead, it’s all about the people and what they did. I know a lot of people who say they can’t read a book without understanding the physical reality of it. Here, Cullen wrote a powerful story by only describing the people in it.

Some will write this off and say it’s just two white privileged white kids. Perhaps, but perhaps underneath every school shooting or underneath every crime rests a story like this. The difference is, we had a lot of cameras on the scene. Columbine is important because of what it tells us about us – that, yes, this will happen again. As social animals, we’ll always take Eric Harris above others. We’ll tell stories that make us feel good – our son is a martyr, they were just evil villains, they were just bullied kids. Cullen does have answers, they’re just incredibly pessimistic.

4 out of 5

Suicide: An Introduction to the Discussion

Suicide is a messy subject. There are a thousand angles to talk about, so many topics and sides that it’s easy to get lost. Debates can easily lose their direction with both parties talking about different things. Here I list the 3 main discussions around suicide. It’s important to know which of these we’re discussing. Each of these can be split up into more subjects, but I’m sure these are the main ones.

The discussion around the right to die is about the morality of suicide. The main question is whether people are morally obliged to live against their will, or whether they should be free to die. The most fundamental discussion is whether suicide has any moral weight at all. In general, here in the West we don’t view suicide as ‘immoral’, but we also don’t see it as a moral right like the right to live. What exactly the right to die means depends on who you ask. The most common definition is a painless, clean exit by euthanasia/assisted suicide. Most of the discussion about this right revolves around AS. Talking about the right to die says nothing about whether suicide is a good or bad option. It merely asks whether people should be able to do so, and how freely. It’s also connected to the right to self-harm.

  • Philosophical Suicide

This discussion is darker, less popular but it’s all over suicide networks. This is the discussion whether, in general, suicide is benefecial or harmful to the person committing it. It’s a general discussion that’s tied closely to antinatalism and Benatar’s asymmetry argument. The main question is, is non-existence always better than existence? It deals not with specific situations, but the nature of existence versus non-existence. Although a lot of suicidal people may not consider this question consciously, I don’t think you can talk about suicide without addressing them. Now with the more exposure antinatalism has and suicide communities, this discussion is integral to talking about suicide.

  • Personal Suicide

Whenever someone mentions suicide, the discussion will most likely slip into this. Considering the emotional weight of the subject, it’s for it not to. The discussion of personal suicide is about whether a specific person should commit suicide. Although it’s tied to the previous discussion, this one takes into account the person’s situation. Suicide networks generally avoid this part because they’re pro-choice, so they’re not out to convince anyone whether to live or die. This is the main (and possibly only) discussion suicide preventionists engage in. Many of the anti-suicide don’t seem to understand the difference between this debate and the former one, so they mix the two up and the discussion goes void. When talking to a suicidal person, it’s important to notice what they’re talking about, philosophical (general life vs. death) or personal (situations specific to them that make them want to exit). If you can’t distinguish what the person is talking about, you’re not really listening. Then again, if you’re against suicide you’re not listening anyway.

There are a lot of other topics involved and each of these can be split up into more and more specific debates. I don’t see anyone pointing out the existence of these. In truth, it’s the suicide prevention brigade that is doing the most harm. They do not discuss any of these. They handwave suicide, dismissing it as terrible and trying to use force to stop it instead of noticing the complexity beneath it. Only when we’ll acknowledge the variety of topics inside suicide we will be able to talk about it. All the research funds and we still get empty platitudes. So far, if anyone wants to actually talk about suicide, go to suicide communities. Be warned, especially if you work in suicide prevention. It’s harrowing.

Psycho-Pass

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Criminals who babble philosophically will always be present in fiction. It’s an acknowledgement that mere sadism isn’t enough. Even if a person is a sadist, there is more going on than plain cruelty there. If we can answer what makes a man start fires, maybe we won’t need fire extinguishers. Too often these stories are too fascinated with the idea of the underdog taking revenge at society. He may lose, but awareness that he’s wrong doesn’t make it any less of an escapist fantasy.

The person’s actions should follow his worldview. If they contradict that, then this contradiction must be addressed. People are messy so of course they will contradict themselves. If they do so in the story, it’s because the author made it so. If he made it so, he needs to connect it. Don’t put contradictions where they don’t belong. People don’t always contradict themselves.

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There’s a scene where Makishima gets into a fight and we see he’s a professional. It’s like before he went to star in Psycho-Pass, he stopped at Naruto and learned the ways of the ninja. I was supposed to be impressed, though. Not only is Makishima pretty and can predict people’s actions, he’s a champion at MMA.

It’s hilarious. It reminded me how Lisbeth solve an equation in the middle of the climatic fight. It’s so easy to give your character skills. You just look up the cheat codes, write the lines that say “add 50 points to Melee Skill” and you’re done.

Just because your character is skilled at a lot of things doesn’t mean the author is skilled. Character skills are often substitutes for personality. Makishima is your stereotypical Pseudo-Philosophical Villain. Forget about how the series quotes a lot of books. None of Makishima’s speeches are related to his actions.

All of his actions involve death and destruction. He gives people who want to hurt others the means to do so. When Makishima does something of his own, it’s also to cause hurt. The dominating theme is hurting others. He gives them the freedom to hurt others, but that’s as far as it goes.

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For freedom to be a theme, it needs to be expressed in different ways. The only freedom people gain is to hurt others. The violence is more varied. The characters include a bullied man, a girl sucked in her art and a person who loves the thrill of the hunt.

Makishima is not very differernt from the Jigsaw Killer. Despite talking about appreciating life, his traps were so dangerous (some can’t be complete without somebody dying) that it’s obvious he doesn’t value these people’s lives. Makishima babbles about freedom and the prison of the Sybil System, but he’s fine with killing an innocent person. There’s no worse way of ripping freedom from someone than killing them.

It’s all shock value without substance. The result is entertaining at first, but goes downhill fast. The anime goes south when it expected me to stare at a helpless, half-naked woman begging for mercy and take the villain seriously. It’s not dark, because true darkness is understandable. A villain whose motives we can comprehand and find reasonable is scarier.

If Makishima tells people to live free or die, how much of a choice is it?

What a shame. The series never chose whether it was a thoughtful story or a wild, exciting one. Either of these would’ve been fine. Being pretentious is the valley between the two.

The other side of the horseshoe fares better. The Sybil System is questioned, but it never becomes a strawman. The System is totalitarian, but it’s not an evil regime bent on oppressing everyone so the protagonist will have something to fight. Every system of government comes to power because it benefits someone.

The System doesn’t just benefit the Rich & Powerful. It benefits the simple people. The society has order, but it’s good order that leaves a lot of room for joy and wonder. Creativity may be restricted, but creativity isn’t everything. The artist may want to draw violence and the rocker wants to tell everyone to fuck off. Some would prefer to have a steady job and enough money to go for drinks with their friends.

The System also presents an alternative moral system to current society. We live in a society that praises people for getting money, having a lot of sex and being physically fit. Somehow all these promises of sex and money don’t prevent the high rates of suicide. So Sybil is not very friendly towards outcasts and has less room for creativity, but what if it’s a price worth paying for mental health?

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It’s a society where you see advertisements for ways to improve your mental health. Everyone is talking about their Hue and Psycho-Pass. If you think this is going too far, then take a look at our own society. We do the same only for physical health. Physical health is a giant industry of protein shakes, gyms and promises of social status.

No system exists without its outcasts, and Sybil has its own. Only how it casts out people isn’t so different than ours. We rage against models who aren’t stick-thin, as if being fat is a moral offense. Later, we’ll hang out with sexual harassers just because they’re charismatic. Sybil is harsh to the mentally ill, but forgets about the actions.

For a    series where mental health is a big issue, it’s surprising how lacking it is in character development. A flashback tries to develop one character. All it tells us is that she used to play guitar. Why did she take a different road than her friend? Why are their worldviews so different?

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Akane gets some development, but she’s an archetype they play with rather than a psychological portrait. Ginoza is slightly better, but everyone else spits exposition without modifying it. There’s a wild card, a bisexual analyst, a cliched noir dude who remains tough and an old geezer. Their personalities clash more than your average detective story, but there aren’t even hints towards a psychology they didn’t have time to develop.

Psycho-Pass has interesting ideas and a pretty fun story, but it has Makishima. It’s a pin in the tire that let all the air out. The ideas are too undeveloped and there aren’t enough of them to make up for this. It’s not a case of a series that’s too short, but a series that focuses on the less interesting parts.

3 dominators out of 5