Monday, July 6, 2015

A Chaos Theory of Human Action

When I teach causal analysis to my students, I start with a simple lesson: If a pot is boiling, one can see that the cause is the flame below the pot. Remove the flame (the cause) and the pot stops boiling (the condition [or, "problem"]).

Problems are seldom that simple. Still, if, say, a section of the factory is not up to speed with production, and one knows that there is a one-armed man on the line performing a job better handled by a two-armed man, one might shift things so that the one-armed man is moved to a position on the line at which he needs only push a button at the right time. 

When we move out into the complex world of society, things become even more complicated. Every time something bad happens, well-intentioned folks try to "start a conversation" about it. Then, subsequent groups try to "raise awareness" about it. This can be a good thing, but, more often than not, this is an exercise in self-medication; we often just do these things because they make us feel like we are accomplishing something, when, in terms of actual problem solving, we may not be accomplishing anything at all. 

Don't get me wrong: we may well accomplish something by "raising awareness" and "starting a conversation," as long as the subject at hand is grounded in the real world; in a world of some semblance of logical function; in a chaos-free set of circumstances. 

If, for, instance, historic buildings in a neighborhood in Philadelphia start to show House-of-Usher-like cracks and begin sinking into the sewers, a cause needs to be found and a solution needs to be employed. This can't be done without "raising awareness" (making the community aware of the problem) or without "starting a conversation" among local government, architectural experts, etc...

But when, for example, some animal shoots up a church, we need to be careful. When an act is so nonsensical and so purely evil as that "starting a conversation" about it can also, in the minds of similarly-inclined animals, lend the act a form of credibility, we need to watch our collective step. We may turn the nonsensical into something with a false foundation; with (in the eyes of the misguided or animalistic) a seemingly valid reason. 

Having a sensitive discussion about what causes this kind of thing may need to happen among a team of psychologists, but to do so in the public sphere, in the media, may have a counterproductive effect. 

In an interview for a teaching job, I was once asked if it is ever time to "give up on a student" so that the rest of the class can progress. The answer is no. Never. One finds a way to keep the rest of the class going while still attending to that individual student's needs. 

But with a murderous anomaly who walks in to a church and guns down innocent people, I am inclined to punish him severely and move on. Even your average loud-mouthed racist -- while he may be a nothing more than a pimple on the rump of humanity -- is a far cry away from the kind of evil that would do such a thing. 

If I believed a public causal analysis would give an indisputable answer as to why a guy shoots up a public place, I would encourage it. As it stands, it feels more to me like a sensible discussion of the completely irrational may do more harm than good and may even sustain the problem. As I said, the discussion needs to happen, but maybe not on a radio talk show. In that forum, we tend to conclude things like: "Video games cause kids to blow up their schools." (Right...)

Perhaps Dylann Roof doesn't deserve to be figured out, even if he can be -- which he can't. Perhaps he needs to be locked up in solitary confinement until he rots. Unlike some paradoxical people, I think killing is wrong, no matter what, so I would never call for his death, but it might be nice if the relatives of those he killed could stop by once in awhile and look through a little window and watch him shivering on a cold stone floor. 

I don't want to have a conversation about what caused Roof to take innocent lives as if any "reason" could make it all make sense. It really can't. And, in the end, should it? Human behavior might well have its own chaos theory. One can't figure out chaos. 


  1. I'd also like to add something about the "forgiveness" aspect. People had been reporting how shocking and amazing it was for so many family members to come out so quickly and forgive him publicly for killing their family members. OK, I "get it." Harboring hate is bad for those left behind and it's the Christian thing to do. I can understand the concept for forgiving the person, although I would have a terrible time with that personally...but I felt it goes too easy on him. Does he really need to know he's forgiven? And he's such a coldhearted individual, does he even care? I mean, unless it gave those family members tremendous peace to do that...I dunno. But there's a difference between saying you forgive someone for a perpetrating a heinous act like that, and feeling it. I am at definite odds with this.


    1. "...unless it gave those family members tremendous peace to do that..." I guess that's the key. But I would rather he suffer. For the rest of his life. Call me cold.