The Role of Culture

A second idea with widespread currency is that lethal school violence is caused by a societal and popular culture that tolerates, encourages, or even demands violence. There are different versions of this argument.

In one version, a claim is made that inner-city violence seeped into pop culture, embodied in the mass media, and tended to glorify and encourage violence. The focus of the mass media on violence is seen not only as a reflection of a general enthusiasm for violence, but also as an influence that barrages American society with graphic images of violence. The important role of the mass media is thought to be particularly attractive and dangerous to youth who can spend hours viewing TV, listening to music with violent lyrics, and playing video games that feature violence.

It is hard to exclude this hypothesis on the basis of the evidence. All the incidents occurred against the backdrop of a popular culture that seems to tolerate if not encourage violence. However, it should be noted that the offenders in the cases did not seem to be more obsessed with these materials than the millions of kids who did not go on a shooting spree.

A second version of a claim about cultural influences emphasizes the gap between adult culture and youth culture. The argument is that if adults are not much present in the lives of youth, they will not be able to guide them toward such adult values as self-reliance, self-discipline, civility, mutual respect, patience, generosity, and empathy toward others. Without adult influence, youth culture might turn out to be particularly vulnerable to dangerous influences from the media or from peers. One extreme version of this is the emergence of a gang culture in which youth gangs perform the protecting, explaining, and socializing roles that would ordinarily be performed by families.

From the outset of our work, the committee was much attracted to this hypothesis. The inner-city cases were profoundly influenced not only by the general culture of violence in their neighborhoods, but also more particularly by youth gangs whose interactions created an important part of the social circumstances that animated and authorized the shootings—at least in the minds of the boys who fired the weapons. The suburban and rural cases also showed strong evidence that the world of youth was not very well understood by adults, especially youth who were forming their own culture supporting some forms of antisocial behavior.

In Rockdale County, a syphilis outbreak among teens caused by widespread sexual promiscuity of a particular group of kids who gathered at an unmonitored house to watch pornography on TV and imitate the acts



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