Calgary Herald - - WEEKEND LIFE - TOM KEENAN Tom Keenan is an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist, pub­lic speaker, pro­fes­sor in the fac­ulty of en­vi­ron­men­tal de­sign at the Univer­sity of Cal­gary, and author of the best­selling book, Tech­nocreep: The Sur­ren­der of Pri­vacy and the Cap­i­tal­iza­tion of In­tima

The hor­ren­dous at­tacks at the syn­a­gogue in Pitts­burgh, the su­per­mar­ket in Ken­tucky, and the Is­lamic Cul­tural Cen­tre in Que­bec City leave us ask­ing the fifth jour­nal­is­tic ques­tion: Why did it hap­pen?

It’s also worth not­ing that the ap­par­ent per­pe­tra­tors in all th­ese at­tacks were male. Is there some­thing in the male psy­che at play here?

A re­cent ar­ti­cle in the Jour­nal of Per­son­al­ity and So­cial Psy­chol­ogy sug­gests that a sig­nif­i­cant fac­tor fu­elling po­lit­i­cal or re­li­gious vi­o­lence is look­ing for ex­cite­ment in a hum­drum ex­is­tence.

Lead author Birga M. Schumpe of New York Univer­sity’s Abu Dhabi cam­pus says in a state­ment that “al­though re­search has re­cently linked peo­ple’s search for mean­ing or sig­nif­i­cance with their will­ing­ness to use vi­o­lence for a cause, our re­search sug­gests this is fur­ther ad­vanced by a thirst for ad­ven­ture.”

The sci­en­tists stud­ied 460 men and women from An­dalu­sia, Spain, and put them through some rather novel ex­per­i­ments.

One in­volved hav­ing half the par­tic­i­pants write a re­flec­tive es­say about the legacy they hoped to leave be­hind. The con­trol group was asked to write about “my favourite sport shoes.”

Ac­cord­ing to an Amer­i­can Psy­cho­log­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion re­lease on this study, “those who wrote about leav­ing a legacy scored higher on feel­ing that their lives had mean­ing and sub­se­quently lower in need for ex­cite­ment and sup­port of po­lit­i­cal vi­o­lence than those who wrote about their shoes.”

In an­other ex­per­i­ment, par­tic­i­pants were ran­domly as­signed to one of two hy­po­thet­i­cal an­i­mal rights or­ga­ni­za­tions.

The un­ex­cit­ing group used meth­ods like for­mal state­ments, pray-ins and prod­uct boy­cotts. The ex­cit­ing group took a more ac­tive ap­proach with pub­lic marches, pa­rades, hu­mor­ous skits and pranks, and re­fus­ing to dis­perse.

The re­searchers found that be­ing in the ex­cit­ing group “suc­cess­fully re­duced sup­port for po­lit­i­cal vi­o­lence in in­di­vid­u­als high in sen­sa­tion-seek­ing by pre­sent­ing an ex­cit­ing — yet peace­ful — al­ter­na­tive to a vi­o­lent ac­tivist group.”

They con­clude that “when in­di­vid­u­als search for mean­ing, they look for novel and in­tense ex­pe­ri­ences, thereby mak­ing them more likely to ad­here to vi­o­lent ide­olo­gies or groups.”

Per­haps find­ing pur­pose in life and peace­ful out­lets for thrillseek­ing may re­duce the urge for po­lit­i­cal and re­li­gious vi­o­lence.

My per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence on the front lines of vi­o­lent po­lit­i­cal ac­tion dates back to the stu­dent protests on the Columbia Univer­sity cam­pus in 1968.

While I didn’t per­son­ally oc­cupy build­ings, I was the news di­rec­tor of WKCR, the cam­pus ra­dio sta­tion, so I had a fron­trow seat. A few months ago, a hun­dred or so vet­er­ans of those days re­turned to the Columbia cam­pus for a con­fer­ence called “50 Years Af­ter the Rev­o­lu­tion: New Per­spec­tives on 1968.”

I al­ways thought the main 1968 vi­o­lence was “the bust,” when mem­bers of New York City’s Tac­ti­cal Pa­trol Force swarmed the cam­pus to take con­trol of the build­ings, beat­ing protesters with night­sticks and drag­ging some by the hair.

In prepa­ra­tion for this, protesters had poured soapy wa­ter on the mar­ble steps of Low Li­brary at the cen­tre of the cam­pus, caus­ing po­lice in their riot gear to slip and fall.

At the con­fer­ence, I learned that there were ac­tu­ally guns on cam­pus, brought in by AfricanAmer­i­can stu­dents and their com­mu­nity sup­port­ers. Luck­ily, none were ever used. It was also clear that this group were far more rad­i­cal­ized than their white stu­dent co-oc­cu­piers.

In fact, many of the Columbia stu­dents viewed the protest as a kind of ex­cit­ing spring party with sex, drugs and the can­cel­la­tion of classes and fi­nal ex­ams. Be­cause of their un-rev­o­lu­tion­ary at­ti­tude, they were told by the African-Amer­i­can stu­dents to “go take your own build­ing ” and un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously ejected from Hamil­ton Hall.

Thrill-seek­ing be­hav­iour also seemed to be a fac­tor in the ag­gres­sion of the po­lice when they were sent in to evict and ar­rest the stu­dents.

Paul Cronin, author of A Time to Stir, a book about Columbia 1968, quotes an NYPD of­fi­cer say­ing “we were just very bored, we had been up there sit­ting in those po­lice vans from Day 1. I was los­ing a lot of money play­ing poker and when the time came to let loose … we let loose.”

The sto­ried lead­ers of the 1968 protests at Columbia were all male: Mark Rudd, Tom Hur­witz and Ted Gold come to mind, the lat­ter killed in 1970 while try­ing to make a bomb for the Weath­er­man Un­der­ground. But women played a vi­tal role in the demon­stra­tions. Since the con­fer­ence pro­gram didn’t have a ses­sion on this as­pect, 1968 pro­tester and then Barnard stu­dent Nancy Bieber­man de­manded that the pro­gram be changed, and it was.

What struck me most was how the 1968 ex­pe­ri­ence per­ma­nently changed the life tra­jec­to­ries of those who were closely in­volved.

Many still be­came lawyers, but quite a few took up civil rights law or work­ing for the poor. Nancy Bieber­man now runs a low-in­come hous­ing agency in the Bronx. Ray Gas­pard pro­duces so­cially con­scious plays on Broad­way.

The idea that po­lit­i­cal and re­li­gious vi­o­lence stems, in part, from peo­ple seek­ing life mean­ing and ex­cite­ment cer­tainly rings true for me.

Now it’s time to fig­ure out ways to di­vert that en­ergy in pos­i­tive direc­tions.

Some of my 1968 class­mates can cer­tainly help show the way.


Re­searchers have dis­cov­ered that find­ing pur­pose in life and a peace­ful out­let for thrill seek­ing may help re­duce some in­ci­dents of po­lit­i­cal or re­li­gious vi­o­lence.

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