I think it’s stupid to say, as the CBC has, that not running Cho Seung-Hui’s video will help stop further slaughter. It only shows how desperately unclear everyone is about how to deal with these events. There’s nothing new about the potential for violent outbursts in unstable individuals. The trick is preventing them. That’s what is in doubt now, in North America.

Even those with the clearest answer — gun control — suffer from unease. The Toronto Star‘s Thomas Walkom warns: “But don’t assume gun control alone will prevent another school shooting. There is something dark and dangerous going on in North America.” On the right, John O’Sullivan says “radical evil” is afoot, to deny God, deny Good. U.S. writer Paul Craig Roberts, who is sort of both left and right, says, “In my day parents and teachers had authority. Today teachers have no authority, which is why they have to call the police to control the kids.”

I tend to agree that there are uncomfortable issues about authority here. Take the role of faculty and staff at Virginia Tech. I found them impressive. They showed concern, identified the risky student and got him to a psychiatric facility. His English profs removed him from class but tutored him. Yet they were ineffective in the crucial task of protecting the community from danger compared to the less professional players of earlier eras: family, friends, community, religion. Those societies seemed better than ours at containing the violent, anarchic impulses of individuals.

I know this sounds awfully traditional. Let me try to save myself from nostalgia for the fifties (or 1500s) by saying what I think “worked” in earlier times. The ability to keep the dangerous impulses of individuals under control was based on an entire social fabric that was hierarchical and patriarchal. It included religion, institutionalized in churches, and a moral code that tolerated sex within narrow limits. Parental authority was backed by religion (honour thy parents) and by sanctions such as the threat of hell.

All this was internalized in a sense of guilt and shame over violations. There was reverence for country, and a sense of debt to those who died in war “for us.” There was a penal code that didn’t stand much tinkering in the name of civil rights, and a set of formal outlets for violent impulses that had been repressed. These included regular wars on a massive scale, as well as institutionalized racism and lynching. In such societies, dissenters — artists, rebels etc. — could feel a certain security that their acts would not lead to total social breakdown and chaos frightening even to themselves.

It all “worked” in the sense that it largely kept the lid on menacing impulses, or channelled them elsewhere than the local schoolyard or college. With the breakdown in recent decades of this fabric, particular players can try to impose controls and limits — parents, schools, teachers, courts, governments — but they will not be nearly as effective as they were within a total framework that no longer exists.

The human and emotional costs were monstrous. People were dulled to their own experience and each other. I would not want to restore this set of constraints if one could, and one can’t. You can’t put that lid back on again. You can only try and fail, with further disastrous consequences.

The issue is now: Can our society devise a set of social controls that prevent explosions like Virginia Tech, but do not require severe repression and an impossible return to the undesirable traits of earlier eras? A teacher of mine, Herbert Marcuse, phrased this as: Can you have non-repressive desublimation? — mainly showing how hard it is to even formulate the question. Can you have a non-racist, non-patriarchal, non-sexually repressive, non-hierarchical, non-authoritarian yet orderly society that manages to control its potentially aberrant members? What would it look like and how would you get there?

That’s the utopian project for our time. The two scripts in the past 50 years that claimed to have an answer — Marxism and free-market ideology — have lost most of their legitimacy. The floor is wide open.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.