There is a passage in Emerson's "Self-Reliance" that might have more intellectual heft than much of the more recent informed commentary.
Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.That first sentence stuck with me for years after I read it. The elaboration is turgid, but the message appears to be that, for cooperation to emerge, people have to put the desires of others ahead of their own. Therein is the foundation for voluntary exchange. But voluntary exchange without invention becomes stagnation, and Emerson brings out the ensuing tension in his next paragraph.
Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world. I remember an answer which when quite young I was prompted to make to a valued adviser, who was wont to importune me with the dear old doctrines of the church. On my saying, What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within? my friend suggested, — "But these impulses may be from below, not from above." I replied, "They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil's child, I will live then from the Devil." No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it. A man is to carry himself in the presence of all opposition, as if every thing were titular and ephemeral but he.Stop reading it there, and it sounds as if Emerson is suggesting that a person is free to follow the verdict of his judgement, no matter where that may lead. Not so.
What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder, because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.Implicitly, the non-conformist remains a moral and productive person, seeking to persuade by changing minds rather than to frighten by ending lives.
The objection to conforming to usages that have become dead to you is, that it scatters your force. It loses your time and blurs the impression of your character. If you maintain a dead church, contribute to a dead Bible-society, vote with a great party either for the government or against it, spread your table like base housekeepers, — under all these screens I have difficulty to detect the precise man you are. And, of course, so much force is withdrawn from your proper life. But do your work, and I shall know you. Do your work, and you shall reinforce yourself. A man must consider what a blindman's-buff is this game of conformity.
A century-plus of enlightened thinking fails to improve. First, in the aftermath of Sandy Hook, a lot of the chin-pulling went into the realm of erroneous profiling.
Most of us understand that even if all school shooters are white males, it's a mistake to be suspicious of all white males because they might be school shooters. A lot of us also understand that even if all school shooters are gun owners, it's a mistake to be suspicious of all gun owners because they might be school shooters. Being suspicious of Muslims generally because a lot of terrorists are Muslims is the exact same mistake.That post appeared the day after the Boston Marathon bombing, for all the good it appears to have done for run-of-the-mosque Moslems in the northeast, or, more recently, in England.
In sum, what I’m proposing is that a large part of the toxic culture of white/privileged masculinity is fed by parental permissiveness, so that what privileged boys learn as they grow up is that there are no limits or boundaries which they must respect. Little boys are permitted to be more destructive in their play and in their relationships with others than little girls are. Drug and alcohol abuse is more tolerated among bigger boys than among adolescent girls, not to mention the ownership and use of dangerous tools and weapons from pocket knives to semi-automatic rifles and handguns. Poor academic performance is more tolerated among boys than girls–we’re told that the boys are just “different learners,” not meant to sit in academic classrooms quietly and obediently all day long. (Never mind the hundreds of years of history in which only boys and young men were permitted to sit quietly and learn–and most of them did pretty well, and a damn sight better than their female peers who were excluded from classrooms entirely.) Again–I don’t think this works to the advantage of these boys or the men they become. What I’m suggesting is that this permissiveness is bad for them, yes, but it’s also bad (and potentially dangerous) for everyone else.I'll leave for another day whether destructive play and dysfunctional relationships still vary among boys or girls. For now, it suffices to note that those quiet and obedient boys (perhaps encouraged because the teacher was pretty good with his fists if required) might have been reading and understanding Emerson after they'd finished McGuffey.
That's too simple-minded for the culture-studies types, who see masculist conspiracies and unrequited privilege at work.
Perhaps the greatest asset that unearned privilege conveys is the sense that public spaces “belong” to you. If you are—like James Holmes last week, or Charles Whitman, who killed 16 people on the University of Texas, Austin campus in 1966—an American-born, college-educated white man from a prosperous family, you don’t have a sense that any place worth being is off-limits to the likes of you. White men from upper middle-class backgrounds expect to be both welcomed and heard wherever they go. When that sense of entitlement gets frustrated, as it can for a host of complex psychological reasons, it is those same hyper-privileged men who are the most likely to react with violent, rage-filled indignation. For white male murderers from “nice” families, the fact that they chose public spaces like schools, university campuses, or movie theaters as their targets suggests that they saw these places as legitimately theirs.That passage, in the wake of the Aurora theater shooting, preceded Sandy Hook and the Boston Marathon, where the perpetrators do not fit the Frustrated Achiever profile so well. When the perpetrator doesn't fit the profile, perhaps a more sensitive approach is in order.
Profiled in the Lowell Sun in 2004, Tamerlan said he liked the USA.Still alienated, but now it's the privilege of the dominant culture leading to the alienation, rather than the failure of the dominant culture to deliver on the privilege.
“America has a lot of jobs. That’s something Russia doesn’t have,” he told the newspaper. “You have a chance to make money here if you are willing to work.”
He later said, in a photo essay about his boxing exploits, that he hoped to be selected for the US Olympic team, and that he dreamed of becoming a naturalized citizen. But he also lamented his alienation, saying, “I don’t have a single American friend. I don’t understand them.’’
Put it together, and we have a flimsy, ad-hoc set of explanations why some disaffected people behave badly, and when it's all said and done, nothing available to make it better.
Emerson had both the diagnosis and the corrective, years ago.
Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.Deconstruct that.