LIST OF PRIZE WINNERS and SUMMARY ARTICLE with LINKS TO THE WINNING ESSAYS —2016
LIST OF PRIZE WINNERS:
This year there was no First, Second, or Third Place prize awarded.
Those winning the prize of Honorable Mention are, in alphabetical order:
Bozhidar Boyadzhiev from Sofia, Bulgaria
John Dairo from Ajuwon, Lagos, Nigeria
Primavera Fisogni, Ph.D. from Como, Lombardy, Italy (editorial chief at La Provincia daily newspaper, Como, Italy)
Matthew Gaiser from Calgary, Canada
Please note: Essays have been edited for grammar and, in some cases, headings were added.
The reason behind this essay contest has been, and still is, the feeling on my part that I do not understand anger and violence and how to handle it. This is partly, to be frank, a personal problem: I have never been comfortable with my own anger to the degree that (as a thinker) I am often not aware that I am angry. I have to observe what I say and do and the effect of my behavior on others in order to deduce that I was or am angry. People don't see me as an angry person, and I am not physically violent, but words and facial expressions can hurt others.
I am not writing this to make a public confession but to explain why we are not awarding First, Second, or even Third prizes again this year. I have been waiting for an essay that will help me understand my own anger as well as the anger and violence of people I know, people I meet, and people I read about. I am not sure what the standards are of the other three judges, but this is mine.
One judge says that the Essay Question, as stated, is very difficult or impossible to answer. How can anyone understand anger? If anyone does, how can the answer be put into words without over-simplification? Anger is so deep and natural and prevalent that it is like trying to understand life itself or matter or energy.
So I think I owe an apology to those who submitted essays. What I am looking for is for something on the most profound level. This is like setting up a music writing contest and only being happy with music on the level of Bach or Mozart. I myself can't live up to my own expectations.
I see glimmers and flashes of insights in most of the essays submitted, but nothing on the level of a Freud or Jung. And I stand by my goal, because I think this is what we need. We need a real answer on the deepest level to the problem of violence. On an individual level and on a global level, we have to penetrate to the heart of the problem. This is the goal of the essay contest, and I hope we can all agree that it is a worthy goal.
Another way to put this goal is that I am looking for papers that will give me the tools to change, to recognize, understand, and handle my own anger.
I am not writing this to discourage anyone from entering the contest if we continue on with it in 2017. Since I have never seen what I think of as a good answer to anger, I think it is valid for each of us to chip away at the problem and put the little chips out there. I am not trying to discourage people from writing their partial answers: I am just explaining why we are not giving the First, Second, and Third prizes.
I encourage people to think about the issue(s) and write about it and submit your ideas. As a psychologist I would say that this process is valuable in itself — the process of becoming aware of and struggling with a problem. On the other hand, perhaps there is a person out there who has penetrated to the depths of the problem in themselves and/or in others and understands what needs to be done and will write about what they have learned in a way we can all understand.
I live in the U.S. I wonder why there seem to be more school shootings in the U.S. than elsewhere. I wonder why one student becomes violent when others don't. Why aren't we all violent more often? We can discuss external environments that breed angry feelings, but anger can arise without any external stimulus. Some — by genetics or a brain disturbance (neuro-psychology) or because of previous experience — seem to be prone to violence even in peaceful, happy, empathetic, and pleasant environments. Being nice and empathetic can make an angry person more angry instead of less. — I do see, in the essays submitted an attempt to grapple with the complexity and multi-factored nature of the phenomenon, but I don't feel I come away with enough of an answer. (Perhaps an in depth case study of a shooter would have thrown a different kind of light on the subject).
All this said — and it may seem that we are being overly demanding — I would like to move on to a summary of the positive and, hopefully, helpful ideas the judges found in the winning essays.
Empathy and Introspection
Bozhidar Boyadzhiev (from Sofia, Bulgaria) emphasizes the need for empathy if we want to understand school shooters. In his essay, Boyadzhiev also suggests that it is only if we understand the potential for anger and revenge in ourselves that we can recognize, understand, and possibly help students who may become violent. In his essay, John Dairo (from Ajuwon, Lagos, Nigeria) sees the answer as "listen to our youth" programs which are based on empathy with individual students. Primavera Fisogni (from Como, Lombardy, Italy), in her essay, states that empathy is the answer. And Matthew Gaiser (from Calgary, Canada) suggests, in his essay, that a supportive (loving and empathetic) family or friend or teacher or mentor or religion or therapist can help.
I have to agree, but I don't see this as the solution for every student in every situation. It makes sense intuitively, but is there evidence? How do we know what will help who and when? Also, what if a hostile person turns away from or against the person trying to listen with empathy?
Causes of School Shootings (in the U.S.)
Boyadzhiev speaks of suffering from "chronic humiliation" which compresses the psyche and leads to an equal and opposite decompression. "Just as a dehydrated body must drink in larger amounts, a compressed impressionable ego (which comes to feel unrecognized and that one's life is ruined forever) requires a powerful act of decompression." But, he adds, this decompression is not necessarily explosive or impulsive, as school shootings are often carefully planned. Contributing to the problem is the press that gives blueprints to potential shooters and makes us all feel that school shootings are inevitable. Compounding this is a hyper-vigilance of anxious authorities that can damage and provoke students with quick diagnoses.
To me, one of the more interesting ideas in Boyadzhiev's essay is that it is a skill to handle one's negative emotions, and not everyone has this skill. My intuition (and prejudice) is that he is right that some children could benefit from training in this skill (to recognize and handle one's own anger). Those for whom the training was not successful, closer monitoring would be required.
According to Dairo, humiliating bullying, mental illness (leading to over-sensitivity and feelings of hopelessness and to fantasied humiliations), modelling (from movies, etc.), parental moral duplicity (and hypocrisy), and a general lack of inner peace all contribute to the pain and anger that lead to the desire for revenge. He feels, probably correctly, that cyber-bullying is exaggerating the problem, as it spreads humiliation to more and more people and leaves it out there for longer periods of time.
Fisogni sees acts of violence such as school shootings as being voluntary, as they are often carefully planned. She sees the shooter as feeling outside a group and wanting to be in and blaming the group for his not being included (which is a different psychological mechanism, she argues, than terrorist attackers who do feel part of a group). The rejected student (or the one who feels rejected) is lost in his own pain and does not empathize with those he is about to shoot. This is not mental illness but a voluntary closing off "to the world of life," the world of others. The student dehumanizes those in the group and does not respect them, and, in shooting, hopes to gain back the feelings that he blames the group for having taken away from him. He comes to see himself as a mythical hero standing up to an unjust and all-powerful institution.
Fisogni argues that we are all in the same boat. We all know what it is like to be locked out of a group and of losing the "taste of goodness" and of losing, at least for a while, our morality. We stop sensing the humanity of others and focus only on our own hurt. Most, but not all of us, value controlling these cold feelings and do so, but others choose not to.
— These seem to me good points, but I do wonder how much control we have over our feelings. It is true we can fight our tendencies to treat others as sub-human and evil, but it can take a great deal of sophistication, even in cultured and sophisticated people, even in religious people, to reach a place where we see our vengeful tendencies as a problem. Often we are proud of these tendencies (as Fisogni points out) and feel as if we are heroes for having these feelings and that we are weak cowards if we do not let them out. There is a sense in which we choose our behaviors, but what if we haven't been trained or taught to value self-understanding and self-control? There are two perspectives, and we don't know enough about ourselves and about human nature to know what flips us from one to the other — or so it seems to me. This is especially true for certain mental illnesses in which there are delusions of rejection even when there is none. And then there are situations when a person's anger at a group or group values (or at all people) pushes a group away and forces the group to reject the person who then blames the group. The situation is complex and difficult for us to understand and even more so for people who have little training and may lack the intellectual ability to understand complex matters.
Gaiser sees school social life as the medium in which hurt and humiliation and then anger grows. Though this is more a sociological explanation than a psychological one, the points Gaiser makes are relevant to psychology. School, he argues, is a different form of society than a nation. Society (outside school) has, over thousands of years, developed methods for discouraging and handling violence, but school has a different structure than society. Most important, children are grouped together in classes without getting to choose where they are put. In society, if you don't get along with someone or someones, you can walk away. And, as mentioned. there are mechanisms available (even if imperfect) for what to do if you are harassed. Not so in school where the students have to figure out their own way of handling situations. Students are told not to fight and, instead, to report problems to teachers, but it is often impossible (both in school and after school) to avoid conflicts, and there are problems for anyone who turns in fellow students.
— I think Gaiser's argument is overstated, as there are many injustices and humiliations after school, in the bigger society, that cannot be remedied. Still, it seems true that, in some way, school is a self-contained Petri dish where all kinds of bacteria grow.
The Essay Question did not ask for an answer to the problem of school shootings. It was too much to ask for an answer, especially before we understand the problem.
However, it seems irresistible for us to look for and hope to come up with an answer. This shows how severe is the problem.
As mentioned, all four winners suggested that empathy and listening might help potential school shooters. Boyadhiev added that we need to be aware of our own desires for vengeance in order to be truly empathic. He also recommends a "beneficial environment" and the education of the public and students to psychological mechanisms which education would include how to recognize and understand fellow students who are having trouble. He says, poetically, that we have "to be psychologists to one another." — I add, on what seems to me to be a slightly more realistic and pessimistic note, how difficult it is for adults to become aware of themselves psychologically. How much more difficult to ask for this same awareness of adolescents. Still, I have to agree, at least to some extent. Most psychotherapies depend on the idea that empathetic and understanding listening can help some patients to become less isolated and less filled with self-hatred and more accepted and less angry. Research supports this approach with some people, at least to some extent. But we must remember that some shooters (I'm not sure about school shooters) had been involved in long-term therapy. Therapy is not a cure-all or panacea for everyone at all times. We don't know enough to say for sure in these matters.
Dairo suggests that parents might model decent behavior and train their children better and seek peace instead of just money or power. He feels, perhaps optimistically, that this would humanize their children. He also recommends participation in societies that promote inner peace such as the Goi Peace Foundation (an organization with which I am not familiar). — I like this idea but also know, from my own life, how difficult it is to maintain feelings of peace in the face of financial, political, relationship, and health issues. And there is a danger of forcing oneself to feel peace and pretending to oneself that we feel good and happy and peaceful when we are unconsciously seething with resentment and anger.
To all who submitted an essay: Thank you!
The Judges would like again to thank everyone who submitted an essay and the sincerity and thought we found in them.