August 09, 2011

Race, Anger, and Power

new sallyBy Sally Raskoff

Anders Breivik recently killed dozens people in Norway, ostensibly to start an anti-Muslim movement in his home country in the name of Christianity. Using similar means on a federal building, Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people in the United States in 1995, in “revenge” against the federal government.


While these two men are opposites in many ways, both used violent means to express their displeasure with society. McVeigh was opposed to the U.S. federal government while Breivik is described as an ultranationalist, but they embraced violence in similar ways.

What else do both these men have in common? What do they also have in common with groups like Neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan? All involve people in the dominant racial group (white) whose prejudice against others has propelled them towards violent behavior.

All involve people whose membership in the dominant racial group gives them few benefits since they are not in the upper echelon of that group – their social class membership precludes them from gaining much societal power yet their racial and other cultural identifications have them assume they should have such power. Additionally, they used violence, one of the tools of masculinity, to express their demands.

When people assume they should have some societal power, but they do not, it is logical that they may feel frustrated and even angry. That said, with the groups mentioned above that frustration and anger has led them to scapegoat others and make illogical choices.

What we see happening here is anger focused on others whose membership is in disadvantaged groups in their society. While those in the disadvantaged groups have nothing to do with the lack of power of others, they are often handy scapegoats since they have no power to fight back.

In addition, the men mentioned above attacked people who were symbols of the powers they were had identified as an enemy. McVeigh targeted the federal image building and government employees; Breivik, targeted the federal building and people at a gathering of the political party he did not support.

Breivik mentioned “cultural Marxism” as a problem and equivalent to “multiculturalism”. I’ve read a lot of social theory texts, including those of Marx; the conflation of multiculturalism with cultural Marxism perspective doesn’t exactly make sense. Instead, Merton’s strain theory would be more useful to make some sense of this otherwise senseless act of violence.

Let’s be clear: these behaviors of mass murder are not likely to attain the goals espoused. Bombing federal buildings and killing children and adults are not logical means to a logical end. Although these men do not appear to be legally insane, their behavior may seem crazy.

Strain theory identifies five modes of adaptation in response to anomic situations in society. In anomic situations, there is a lack of norms – or a lack of ability to live up to norms due to barriers of some sort. (And, as you know, norms are guidelines for expected behavior.)

According to Merton, the five ways that people adapt to normlessness (or barriers to success or strains in society) include conformity, innovation (use socially unacceptable ways to achieve goals), ritualism (reject goals, but not the legitimacy of the means of obtaining goals), retreatism (rejecting the goals and the means), and rebellion (reject and try and create new goals), based on whether one accepts or rejects the normative goals of society and the normative means to reach those goals.


So, where do the men mentioned above fit in this model? image

First, are they accepting the typical goals of their societies? Or are they challenging them? 

Second, are they accepting the typical means of reaching societal goals or are they challenging them, either by rejecting them wholesale or by replacing them with means of their own making?

I challenge you to use this theory to assess the situations above – and to discuss your answers with others to see if you all come to agreement or not.

I also challenge you to identify the source of anomie – what about their societies have left these people with such a sense of anxiety about the direction of society?

More importantly, I challenge you to analyze the situation sociologically to identify what society could do to avoid similar future events.


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These people in these societies were people who wanted their views to superceed all others. I think this is part of the reason to resort to violence. I say this because these people had no power and they knew that. America has gained most of its power through violence. This meaning all the wars we have faught, all the places where we have went to “help” other nations shows us that to gain power you must use force because if not used than you might not win. Meaning if people are not afraid of an outcome to their belief than they will think freely and start to try and inflict their beliefs on others. So we use force to scare them so they will not attempt this.

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