On Tuesday 5/26/22, an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas was the site of yet another school shooting in this country. The former student gunman took the lives of 19 precious elementary school children and 2 heroic teachers. It broke the hearts of a nation—again.
How do we understand this?
Whether in childhood, our family of origin, the schoolyard, the community, or the workplace, most of us have suffered humiliation. As such, most of us have felt the pain, shame, and anger of being made to feel smaller, disrespected, and undesirable. Why and how we react and whether the pain is interrupted by connection and support or intensified by more rejection bears on the link to violence.
Definitions of Humiliation
- To be humiliated is to be reduced to a lower position in one’s own eyes or another’s eyes, ie, to be made to feel ashamed or embarrassed.
- While humiliation may cause shame, it is actually somewhat different. Whereas, we can feel shame and feel less than for something we have done or failed to do without anyone knowing, with humiliation there is always a perpetrator.
- For Dr. Linda Harting (2007) humiliation is a relational violation that causes an individual to feel degraded, devalued, or unworthy of connection.
- Underscoring this, psychologist and expert Dr. Clark McCauley (2017) describes humiliation as always including a perpetrator, a victim, an unjust lowering, and unequal power. With humiliation, there are often many perpetrators, and whether that translates to a schoolyard of bullies, a racist culture, or a workplace that belittles on the basis of gender, the presence of many perpetrators exacerbates the experience of being humiliated.
Impact of Humiliation
Experiences of shame or humiliation—including experiences of being scorned, ridiculed, belittled, ostracized, or demeaned—can disrupt our ability to initiate and participate in the relationships that help us grow.
The Connection Between Humiliation and Violence
“All the cruel and brutal things, even genocide, start with the humiliation of one individual” (Whack, 2013)
Humiliation as Enduring Pain
In her research on humiliation and violence, Hartling, (2007) found that high scores on a Humiliation Inventory came from those who had recently endured humiliation as well as those whose humiliating experience occurred many, many years in the past. She wondered if the enduring nature of humiliation contributed to and intensified the aggressive responses to humiliation. She identifies two possible reasons for the enduring nature of humiliation and the violent response that follows.
The Social Pain/Physical Pain Overlap Theory (SPOT)
Eisenberg and colleagues (2005) found that social pain, like humiliation, triggers some of the same mechanisms in the brain as physical pain. Unlike the child’s separation distress which reduces with maturity, Eisenberg et al. suggest that social pain may endure over a lifetime.
The Pain of Social Exclusion and Loss of Self
Hartling (2007) reports on research that finds that when people feel humiliated there is a lack of self-awareness which is needed for self-regulation. The excluded high school kid doesn’t want to but can’t stop thinking about being the outsider.
- Baumeister and colleagues (2003) suggest that social exclusion impairs regulation such that there is a tendency to withdraw into a deconstructed state characterized by numbness, an altered sense of time, an absence of meaningful thought, and little concern for consequences of violence to others and to self to escape.
- Twenge and colleagues (2002) suggest that suicide may be the ultimate self-defeating behavior to avoid self-awareness.
- In The Violence Project, a collection of data on mass shootings, Jillian Peterson and James Densley (2021) underscore that school shooters rarely have an escape plan—for them, their violent attack on victims is also a suicidal crisis—an ending meant to harm self and others.
The Violence of Revenge
According to Clark McCauley, the connection between humiliation and violence is the intense desire for revenge.
In their book Revenge: On the Dynamics of a Frightening Urge and Its Taming, Bohn and Kaplan (2011) suggest that thoughts of revenge are common. Most of us have had revenge fantasies. In a way, they serve a regulatory function that helps us reset our sense of self and our sense of integrity.
I hope his business falls apart so he will know what it feels like to be embarrassed in front of the other employees.
Teenage Boy Being Bullies at School
I would love to see her face if I go public with what I know about her.
Actual revenge is more likely when there is not only violation but vulnerability,
- Chronic humiliation, whatever the cause, is like any prolonged emotional trauma. For some, the result is an inability to re-regulate, come out of fight/flight mode, and broaden perspective beyond a hopeless one. As such, normal judgment is impaired.
- Revenge can feel like the only option when there is little or no connection with others; no emotional support to buffer and reframe humiliation; limited positive definitions of self; and reduced capacity to recognize a further loss of self by becoming the perpetrator.
- Researching 172 mass shooters described in The Violent Project, Drs. Peterson and Densley utilized public data, first-person accounts in diaries and suicide notes as well as interviews with shooters themselves. They found certain repetitive patterns that reflect childhood abuse and exposure to violence by parents, domestic violence, and severe bullying by classmates. They suggest that this violent exposure and unaddressed trauma feeds later rage and despair.
A Homicidal-Suicidal Crisis Point
- Based on their findings, Peterson and Densley (2021) report that nearly all mass shooters reach an identifiable crisis point in the days, weeks, or months before the violence that pushes them over the edge.
- Be it relationship loss, the death of a parent, or a mental health crisis, escalate to potential shooters and formalize their plan. In this frame of mind, social media is often the imagined connection, the place to post overt or cryptic comments about a plan. Isolated and wanting notoriety, the school shooter often seeks to identify with and copy former shooters in dress, appearance, and choice of weapon.
- Relevant to understanding the desperation of the school shooter is Peterson and Densley’s important finding that school shooters seldom have an escape plan. For them, this is a murder of others and a “death of despair” for self ( p.16).
Much as Dr. Michael Anestis, author of Guns and Suicide: An American Epidemic, maintains that guns are “a central component” (p.133) in American suicide, so too are guns integral to the killing by school shooters.
- According to the Violence Project, 98% of mass shooters, including school shooters are male. Substantial research finds that the presence of aggressive environmental cues like guns can lead to aggressive thoughts and behavior.
- The handling of guns was found to increase aggression by increasing testosterone in male college students by Klinesmith, Kasser, & McAndrews (2006).
- In a study by Lubin and Colleagues (2010) that speaks to the association between lethality and availability of guns, they report that when the Israeli Defense force (IDF) noted that young soldiers were dying from self-inflicted gunshot wounds on weekends, they changed the policy to prohibit bringing guns home. The suicide rate dropped by 40%.
Availability of Guns—Legally and Illegally
·The average age of the school shooter is considered to be between 16 to 18 depending on the source. For those under 18, it means they are able to obtain guns illegally.
Guns are legal from age 18, but if purchased from an unlicensed dealer, no background check is needed.
According to the Johns Hopkins Center on Gun Issues:
Most school shooters have used assault weapons or guns with large-capacity magazines (LCMs) which have 60%-67% higher fatality counts and 100%-200% higher wounding counts than mass shootings without LCMs.
Currently, only seven states and Washington, DC, ban the two devices, and two states, Colorado and Vermont, only restrict LCMs.
Only 19 states and the District of Columbia have laws in place allowing authorities, and sometimes private individuals, to seek red-flag orders, also known as extreme risk protection orders, to seize weapons from someone found to be a threat to self or others.
If we recognize the humiliation and potential violence of school shooters, we need to address their vulnerability and protect them and their victims from the lethal capacity of guns.