Monday, October 5, 2015

Mass Shootings and Labels

Our son is on the autism spectrum, but we don’t bandy that about.

Not that being on the spectrum is something to be feared or ashamed of. We just don’t want him labeled.

We humans love to label and to classify things. This is a dog. That is a cat. This is some wicked storm. That is a moron.

I hope you can see where I’m going. If not, here goes: Labels work for good and bad.
And labels become excuses. If we label  our son as being on the autism spectrum constantly, some teachers might treat him differently – and not differently as in “He needs assistance in managing his time and getting homework turned in” but as in “Damn that Davidson kid, you know, the autism one, he’s a disorganized soul, ain’t he?”

If our son hears the label too much, it becomes an excuse. “I didn’t turn the homework in on time because I’m on the autism spectrum.”

And how about those other labels – where there isn’t a label at all?

Enter Chris Harper Mercer, the sad young man who killed nine and wounded scores of others on the campus of Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, last week. There’s a strong movement in Roseburg to never mention his name. He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named sought notoriety through his killings, they reason. So don’t give it to him.

But some of the things said about this unfortunate young man after the fact are pretty revealing, if you ask me:

“For us, he was another guy who worked on set.”

“A guy with baggy pants who walked goofy.”

“It wasn’t that she had never seen the shooter before: she couldn’t even remember whether she had seen him before.”

“An awkward boy who was slow to respond when someone said hello.”

“He really didn’t have a personality that was memorable.”

“He knew plenty of students who said they didn’t know the shooter, and they didn’t want to know him, either.”

This could be me. This could be my son. This could be any one of a score of people who are socially awkward and uneasy around new people.

These people don’t want to know him in death and notoriety. But it also appears they didn’t care to know him beforehand, either.

I’ve posted this on Facebook and been told that the man was unapproachable, a men’s rights activist, unfriendly. I don’t know what is true and what is rumor-mongering. If it is true, it’s likely he found friendship in these “rabbit hole” communities where more mainstream friendship was lacking. Where were the mainstream folks before Chris Harper Mercer decided he wanted to make a name for himself in a world that apparently didn’t want to know him to begin with?

You’re cooking up new labels for me, I know. So I will add the standard disclaimer: I don’t support in any way what he did, nor do I support the misogyny of any of the mens’ rights groups out there. I do support the idea, however, that as we slap labels on people and file them away and ignore them and then act shocked when they act inappropriately – nay, heinously – then we are a part of the problem.
Guns are part of the problem. Mental health issues are a part of the problem. The twisted world of mens’ rights is part of the problem.

But the biggest part of the problem? It’s us.

Not only is the community of Roseburg insisting on keeping Mercer anonymous, they didn’t pay him much notice when he was alive. And in any number of communities, there are people just like Chris Harper Mercer: Marginalized, leaning toward the fringe, and generally being ignored by people who ought to remember there’s a human being right there, asking for help.

That’s damning on society in general, not to pick on Roseburg in particular. We’ve become so paranoid as a society that child protective services is called on children allowed to walk home from the park or from school, children wearing headscarves are tormented in public parks, and anyone with any oddity or perceived difference is considered creepy and beneath even knowing.

(Yes, I know the Klopecks turned out to be guilty at the end. But that’s fiction. But with 99.9% of the people we encounter who don’t have memorable personalities or walk goofy or are unfriendly and are thus filed as unnamed, they go on with their lives, never harming a fly.)

Trying to bury any mention of Chris Harper Mercer is to deny society’s part in the murders he committed, while we point fingers at the traditional bugaboos of mental health care and gun control. It’s easy to point fingers at those tried-and-true scapegoats, as easy as it is to ignore the fact that pointing to them isn’t going to amount to anything. The deaths of those 26 children at Sandy Hook which resulted in nothing clearly shows society is beyond the point where the murder of children will galvanize them to action. Even those who were calling for action then. They give up. They look at the status quo and say “nothing can be done.”

They’re just as bad as Jeb Bush, with his “stuff happens” comment. Just because they rattled a few chains and made a few angry Facebook or blog posts doesn’t get them off the hook.

When anyone says “nothing can be done” because of any reason – be it the status quo, general indifference, NRA lobbying, or what have you – what they’re really saying is “Well, this isn’t going to be easy. So I’m not even going to try.”

Speaking of trying, I'm reminded of this story of Mr. Fred Rogers, a man who did nothing but try in his life to connect with children -- many of whom didn't even know who he was:

ONCE UPON A TIME, a little boy with a big sword went into battle against Mister Rogers. Or maybe, if the truth be told, Mister Rogers went into battle against a little boy with a big sword, for Mister Rogers didn't like the big sword. It was one of those swords that really isn't a sword at all; it was a big plastic contraption with lights and sound effects, and it was the kind of sword used in defense of the universe by the heroes of the television shows that the little boy liked to watch. The little boy with the big sword did not watch Mister Rogers. In fact, the little boy with the big sword didn't know who Mister Rogers was, and so when Mister Rogers knelt down in front of him, the little boy with the big sword looked past him and through him, and when Mister Rogers said, "Oh, my, that's a big sword you have," the boy didn't answer, and finally his mother got embarrassed and said, "Oh, honey, c'mon, that's Mister Rogers," and felt his head for fever. Of course, she knew who Mister Rogers was, because she had grown up with him, and she knew that he was good for her son, and so now, with her little boy zombie-eyed under his blond bangs, she apologized, saying to Mister Rogers that she knew he was in a rush and that she knew he was here in Penn Station taping his program and that her son usually wasn't like this, he was probably just tired…. Except that Mister Rogers wasn't going anywhere. Yes, sure, he was taping, and right there, in Penn Station in New York City, were rings of other children wiggling in wait for him, but right now his patient gray eyes were fixed on the little boy with the big sword, and so he stayed there, on one knee, until the little boy's eyes finally focused on Mister Rogers, and he said, "It's not a sword; it's a death ray." A death ray! Oh, honey, Mommy knew you could do it….And so now, encouraged, Mommy said, "Do you want to give Mister Rogers a hug, honey?" But the boy was shaking his head no, and Mister Rogers was sneaking his face past the big sword and the armor of the little boy's eyes and whispering something in his ear—something that, while not changing his mind about the hug, made the little boy look at Mister Rogers in a new way, with the eyes of a child at last, and nod his head yes.

We were heading back to his apartment in a taxi when I asked him what he had said.
"Oh, I just knew that whenever you see a little boy carrying something like that, it means that he wants to show people that he's strong on the outside.
"I just wanted to let him know that he was strong on the inside, too."
"And so that's what I told him."
"I said, 'Do you know that you're strong on the inside, too?'"
"Maybe it was something he needed to hear."
But then again, it’s always them. It’s never us. What can we do? Except point out the obvious (Gun Control! Better Mental Health Care!) and then shake our heads when (surprise!) nothing changes because we don’t bother to get at the root of the problem where we are and with what tools we have already at hand: A friendly smile. A chat with a socially-awkward individual. And you know what? We have to try more than once. We have to try more than a dozen times. We can’t just try once, think, “Well, he was unfriendly. He was slow to say hello. He’s not much of a conversationalist” and leave it at that. If we don’t try, and keep on trying, these people seeking friendships are going to find them down any number of rabbit holes, with outcomes that will most likely add to society’s sickness, rather than to its healing.

And to think we’re going to solve anything by making Chris Harper-Mercer unmentionable? Well, we’re going to look a bit ridiculous.

I’m thankful for the kids at school who are patient with our son. Who can see through his awkwardness, who can see past the labels. They’re doing more for the betterment of society than any law possibly could. They’re giving him a new label: Friend.

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