A Call to Cultural Leadership

Last year there were approximately 12,000 gun related homicides in the United States.  By now we’ve heard so many stories of senseless drive by shootings, office shootings, and domestic violence that we’ve become numb to their reports.  The grim ones hold our attention and then slowly fade away.  Aurora and Sandy Hook were different.  They held our attention longer and reminded us that Columbine wasn’t an isolated incident.  These incidents reawaken our passion for debate on gun control and mental health screening.  We summarily take sides on these issues by thinking one side holds privilege over the other only to find that the short-sighted advocates on the other side think we are short-sighted too.  In the simple words of Pogo, we’ve met the enemy and he is us.   As we perpetually fight against ourselves very little gets done to solve the problem of violence in the United States.

It’s not that gun control or mental health issues are not relevant, it’s just that they are controlled by systems that are broken.  Our political system can’t legislate anything for the greater good because political egos rarely compromise and, as we’ve all seen, political discourse often devolves into embedded partisan politics.  Similarly, our mental health system is fractured.  There are no standardized measures that make it a viable system people can rely on.  With inconsistent funding medication seems to be the treatment of choice because it’s readily available and can give moderately predictable  results.  Together, our political system and mental health system are indications of a damaged social culture.

Our cultural behavior is undoubtedly negative.  We lie, cheat, kill, murder, excuse, deny, blame, shame, abuse, ridicule, bully and harm each other and then incessantly report on it creating a parasitic relationship between the media and our particular form of cultural madness.  We live in a rock-em, sock-em, shock-em culture.  It’s a social culture based on 24 hour news reporting of negative events with a sprinkling of admirable achievements thrown into the mix to remind us of our humanity.  It would be encouraging if we would rise up like Spartacus and take a pivotal position against this redundant loop of negativity, but sadly, we are more attracted to the shallow pathos of Lindsey Lohan and can’t wait to hear more of the sordid details.

It’s not that we don’t have heroes to emulate, but they predictably emerge from the villains that create them.  What we need are more unsung heroes, the ones that arise before there’s a villain to define them.  The unsung heroes are the outliers that bring cultural leadership to our society and give us hope for change.  Tricia Lammers is an unsung hero.  Earlier this year she called police to say her son was potentially dangerous.  She went against the powerful maternal instinct to protect her son by sheltering him and consequently saved countless lives in the process.  Upon investigation police found that he planned to carry out a mass killing on the eve of the opening of the third in the Twilight trilogy.  Tricia Lammers prevented another Aurora from happening.  She’s a hero.  But more importantly, she showed the nation how to be a cultural leader.  She acted before it was too late.  She turned in her own son and prevented a massacre.  Studies have shown that potential mass murderers often tell others about their plans.  Unfortunately, we rationalize what we hear when it involves people we love and turn a deaf ear instead,  becoming bystanders by default.  Tricia Lammers was not a bystander, she was a leader.

The point is, we can all be like Tricia Lammers.  In the past several years, after some high profile suicides following extended episodes of bullying, the school culture began to change.  Being a bystander was no longer an option.  Kids finally began to say, Enough!  And woke up to the challenge of peer leadership.

For years I worked with teams that promoted anti-bullying education in schools; we implemented best practices thinking we were fighting back and yet the bullying persisted. It even grew worse.  The one intervention that caught my attention more than any other we implemented was when the “popular” kids in school spontaneously came together in an alliance to protect the bullied from the bulliers.  They stopped being bystanders and started acting as protectors.   This change sent a strong message about the new social culture that was emerging.  Peer groups began to forsake their popularity and mobilized for the greater good.   Not in all cases, but in many instances positive peer pressure began to produce positive results, and the culture of bullying began to change.  It wasn’t a matter of who was cool and who wasn’t, it was a matter of what was right and what was wrong and what people were going to do about it.

In light of Aurora and Sandy Hook, I suggest we do whatever we can to raise our cultural consciousness so it becomes more proactive.  Taking a lesson from Tricia Lammers, and the students who combat bullying with positive peer pressure, we can bring about a change in our social culture by becoming the leaders of cultural change.  Every one of us can make a difference.  We don’t need an act of congress, more guns, less guns, more cops, more money, more arguments, more wasted time.  All it takes is being outraged enough to want to do something about it.  What will it take for us to be outraged enough?  I think we’re already there.  We don’t need to wait for an outside solution to do an inside job.  We cannot let the crazy acts of lone gunmen assault our sensibilities without doing something about it.  For a brief moment a clearing has been created for us to say, Enough!  This is our call to cultural leadership and it requires a different set of standards if we are to succeed.  For one, we cannot let our short attention span lead us to complacency.  We cannot forget that 12,000 people a year die from guns.  The more we remember, and the longer we remember, the more cultural leadership will ensue and the more Tricia Lammer’s will appear.  Finally, we must combat our socially ingrained bystander apathy with sensible and informed action.   Our children deserve no less than that from us.

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