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Are we barking up the wrong tree?

By Patrick Mattimore (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-06-02 07:48
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It has been frustrating to read the various opinions on "why" have so many people attacked schoolchildren in China recently. The predominant rationale is that the assailants are part of a repressive and rapidly changing society, and they attacked vulnerable schoolchildren to vent their pent-up fury against such a society. Specific societal factors cited are massive migration, the widening income gap between the haves and the have-nots, and corrupt officials.

So we are given to understand that "the incidents are reflective of widespread and rising social anxieties and frustrations and tensions in the Chinese society today", or that the "attacks are only the most explosive and brutal symptoms of an increasingly sullen and contentious society".

The commentators wrap their "ad hoc explanations" in convenient hypothesis that suggest societal factors will continue to produce these types of aberrant individuals. Ad hoc explanations neatly accommodate apparent contradictions such as the fact that the assailants came from different economic classes.

Employing an omniscient hindsight, pundits can use whatever facts fit into their preconceived notions and work backwards. They start with the outcome and suggest a logical nexus to the genesis. But like a math problem to which we know the answer is 3, there may be an infinite number of possible questions, 6-3 or 2+1 for example. What's more, there is no way to scientifically challenge the explanations.

We only have to look at the various explanations for school shootings by American kids in Kentucky, Arkansas, and Colorado in the late 1990s to understand that explaining these events by blaming society is largely pointless.

Another fallacy in the opinions of the "experts" is resorting to false correlative evidence. Take the issue of migration. The urban population in China has increased from about 26 percent in 1990 to more than 46 percent today. Some "experts" have concluded that it is the dislocation or disaffection of these new city arrivals that have caused a corresponding rise in the types of violence we are seeing.

But without a great deal more information, we should not reach the same conclusion. First, we should find out the state of rural crime during the same period. Rising rates of rural crime or violence would suggest that there are other factors at work. Second, we may consider global crime rates during the, say, last 20 years. Again, increases in worldwide crimes suggest a factor (or factors) not specific to China's urbanization.

The point is, we might be tempted to reach all sorts of conclusions about the recent shootings based upon theories that logically fit, but without carefully controlled studies, we really should not rush to judgment.

Here's a more fruitful approach to understanding these acts. At any one time in any one society, there are some individuals who are profoundly depressed, some who are mentally ill, and others that are barely able to regulate their impulses. When an individual from one of those categories reacts violently, he/she usually directs his/her violence inward or outward toward someone close to them. There are also sociopaths who lack a conscience for their anti-social acts.

In China, we have had several individuals who have enlarged the target of their frustrations. Obviously, there has been a copycat element because the means, details and targets of the executions are so similar.

But the fact that these disturbed men successfully targeted larger audiences than other similarly disturbed people around the world who have committed suicide or murdered a loved one is not a statement about a larger societal problem. We should not confuse the tragic outcome of the acts of a few men with a larger non-existent message.

Imagine, for example, a jumbo plane that crashes with only a pilot and co-pilot aboard, and one which is full of passengers. The latter event is obviously more tragic because of the number of human lives lost. But neither crash, by itself, reveals anything more deeply about the cause of the event. Certainly, in the case of the passenger-full plane, we might more quickly suspect sabotage. But in the event that a subsequent investigation of the two accidents suggests that both were the result of mechanical failures or pilot errors, we should not construct a larger lesson to be gleaned from the second crash.

Unfortunately, when we explain the acts of the people who attacked the schoolchildren as part of a larger societal problem, we have allowed the magnitude of the result to influence our analysis of the cause.

Societies should work to mitigate the suffering of people who are mentally ill and/or profoundly depressed. Societies must also act to protect us from those disturbed individuals and those with criminal intentions.

Sometimes, though, we just have to admit that we don't know what causes people to lash out in seemingly irrational ways, and while we might charge societies with finding ways to help mitigate those tragedies, we should not climb into rabbit holes to "prove" that it is our societies that are somehow causing them.

The author is a fellow at the Institute for Analytic Journalism and a former psychology teacher. He will be an adjunct professor in a Masters of Law program at Tsinghua University this summer.

Are we barking up the wrong tree?

(China Daily 06/02/2010 page9)