“It’s the culture, stupid!”


Anthony Marsella, Ph.D. – TRANSCEND Media Service

A “Trickle Down” Analogy of the USA’s “Culture of Violence”

“It’s the . . . 

During the course of Bill Clinton’s Presidential Campaign, and eventual victory over George H. W. Bush in 1992, Clinton’s advisor, James Carville, coined a phrase that crystallized the major difference between the two when he stated emphatically, “The economy, stupid.”  The phrase caught on, capturing in a few words the key issue that separated the candidates. Today, this phrase has morphed into a wide array of “political culture” expressions, including: “It’s the deficit, stupid,” “It’s the corporation, stupid,”  “It’s the Constitution, stupid,” and ultimately, “It’s the everything, stupid.”  (See Wikipedia, 2012, p. 1 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/It’s_the_economy,_stupid, December 19, 2012).

I would like to build on this iconic utterance, that captures so much in so few words, by calling attention to the dominate sources of continued mass violence that exists in the United States of America today:  “It’s the culture, stupid!”  Thus, even as well intentioned public and private response to the Sandy Hook massacre seek solutions in highly specific policies, laws, and practices (e.g., background checks, gun registration, armed guards), these will ultimately prove insufficient, and acts of mass violence will continue.  A number of individuals and organizations have written eloquent, informed, and impassioned commentaries on the causes and consequences of the Sandy Hook Massacre (e.g., Psychologists for Social Responsibility [www.psysr.org], American Anthropological Association, and American Psychological Association, National Council on Disabilities).  But none of these have, in my opinion, captured the full complexity of the causes of mass violence because they give limited attention to the multiple causes of violence that reside in American culture, specifically the American “culture of violence,” that penetrates and shapes all aspects of our daily lives.

I did find one commentary particularly informed with regard to the complex causes of violence that abide in our nation, and that commentary was offered by William J. Thompson (December 19, 2012), a university professor who has taught courses in “non-violence” for many years, and who obviously lives his personal life according to that ethic.  In his article “Understanding Sandy Hook,” Thompson offers definitions of violence, analyses of its many forms and expressions, empirical data bases that index violent acts, and preventive solutions.  I especially resonated to his view that the larger societal and cultural context of our nation — its history, implicit endorsement and support of violence at local and national levels, and its indifference and avoidance of a substantive self-examination of its values and directions — contributes to the mass acts of violence that abound. I agree with him!  All acts of violence are complex in their causes, and these causes arise and are sustained from historical, economic, political, and societal forces and events that implicate the moral dimension of our lives, specifically our sense of connection, social responsibility, identifications, and commitment to justice.

Multiple and Interactive Causality

Why do I say this?  I say this because the causes of the mass acts of violence both specific to the people, forces, and circumstances of each instance, but also reside in larger and enduring set of forces and events that exists at different levels of our lives, and that interact and cascade off one another in an ever amplified and self-defeating cycle of individual and societal deviancy.  All violent shooting and bombing events have their roots in (1) formative causes (e.g., genetics, temperament, early life experiences, characterological dispositions, social structural circumstances, race, poverty), (2) precipative  causes (e.g., bullying, rejection, humiliation, perceived abuses by government), (3) exacerbative causes (e.g., membership in violence groups, gun availability and accessibility), and (4) maintenance causes (e.g., membership in a broader culture and/or milieu that justifies violence, sanctions it, and legitimates as a way to resolve individual and social inequities).

Within this framework of multiple and interactive causality, events, forces, practices, and values at macro-social levels (i.e., government, social structure, economic system)  “trickle down” to microsocial levels (i.e., family, schools, workplaces, media), and then “trickle down” to individual psychological and behavioral levels (e.g., beliefs, emotions, values).  In a few words, we are socialized by the culture in which we live. This socialization can prepare us for becoming productive and responsible citizens, or demented and sociopathic persons committed to violence and destruction, driven by an ends justifies the means mentality.

The Need for a National Analysis and Dialogue on American Culture

Because the reality of this complex interaction of unique individual circumstances and the broader cultural contexts which daily socialize our lives, it becomes difficult to predict. to prevent, and eliminate specific and mass acts of violence.  While the policies being proposed to address the assault weapon shooting tragedies that have occurred across the world for several decades focus on the specifics noted previously, there is a serious resistance and subsequent failure to develop a national dialog regarding the larger issues of the forces that have shaped and sustained our national identity and culture.

Think back to the 2012 presidential election in the United States.  There was an obvious absence of substantive discussions about major societal issues, including materialism, consumerism, commodification, greed, distribution of power, celebrity fixations, abuses of constitutional human rights, local, national, and international militarism, injustice and humiliation of the poor, immigrants, and certain religious and cultural groups.  At best, if these were spoken, it was minimal in words and time, and the election focused on specific events (e.g., Libyan assassinations, national debt, abortion, candidate personality).

The clever use of media (i.e., TV political ads, image creations and management) kept us from raising or even addressing major problems we face as a nation — our identity, our values, our role as a resource for peace rather than war, for justice rather than its miscarriages, for people rather than corporations, for decency rather than humiliation, and for democracy rather than “hypocracy.”  Martin Luther King, Jr. stated it well:

“A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: ‘This is not just.’  The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others, and nothing to learn from them is not just.” (MLK, Jr., Riverside Church, New York City, April 4, 1964) (Note: 50 years ago)

American Popular Culture

The USA — its future as a nation, and as a political, social, economic, and moral ideal — is now in the control of a few powerful individuals, groups, institutions, and nations.  Those in control have shown little interest or concern for the nation and its citizens. They are the new robber barons of the old guilded age. And, in what must be considered the major tragedy of our times, the citizens of the USA remain relatively passive and indifferent to what is occurring.  Yes, it is true we respond to the individual and specific mass tragedies associated with violence, disasters, and related instances of suffering.  But, as a population — with a few exceptions (e.g., OWM, SOA Protests, union protests) – we remain passive to the many injustices and abuses perpetrated by public and private individuals and organizations that serve self-interests at the expense of our nation and the world.

Say what you will in argument and contention, the United States of America is a “Culture of Violence,” and we are exporting that culture in all of its manifestations and forms across the world as we encourage greed, profit, consumerism, materialism, commodification, environmental exploitation, demonization of nations and cultures, militarization of societies, abuses of human rights, criminal acts of assassination under the guise of protection, and endemic and epidemic fear.

Think of Sandy Creek in a new light:  A “unique” emotionally troubled and confused individual gradually becomes socialized to intolerable levels of hate, anger, and alienation, and soon becomes immune to the horrors of death and destruction that he fantasizes.  He is immersed daily in a culture that accepts and approves violence via a media, entertainment, and public and private institution that glorifies and justifies “power,” “domination,” “force” and “dehumanization.”  With easy access to assault weapons, his constructs a deviant reality with each passing day. Finally, it becomes time  (1) for him to be an avenging angel (note how many movies, TV shows, and honor this theme), (2) for all others to suffer at his hand, (3) for him redeem the abuses seen or witnessed each day on streets, schools, workplaces, and (4) to act as an armed militaristic hero righting wrongs.  Everyone becomes his target, in a final gesture of contempt and protest toward a family, school, and life that has denied him any semblance of worth as a person. Yes, he pulled the trigger, but so did our culture of violence.  And, we must ask, is it only guns that cause mass violence acts?  What happens when toxins, viruses, bombs, automobiles, and drones begin to exact a toll.  Guns were a means to an end, and there are hundreds of millions still out there, and more being purchased and stored each day. Anger and rage will finds other means, because violence is nurtured in a cultural milieu that supports it and sustains it.

The “Trickle Down” Metaphor

Yes, I can hear the arguments to the contrary, and here I call upon the words and policies of a past USA president who became noted for his “trickle down” views. Consider the relentless pursuit and justification of acts of torture by our government, and the failure to prosecute any of those involved in egregious policies and acts.  Indeed, we later try to justify these acts with a popular propagandistic movie, Zero Dark Thirty, whose message is that “torture” is justified and good, and those who permitted it, and who did it, should be considered national hero’s, and be given awards and citations for their “criminal” efforts. There is no secret as to who is behind this production. There is no prosecution for this egregious violation of our laws; instead there are medals and adoring speeches for the commission of evil acts.  Then we are free to attribute mass violence to “mental illness” (i.e., ADHD, autism, schizophrenia, drug abuse, damaged brains) and to demented terrorists who seek revenge because of our state terrorism .

In my opinion, the actions at the highest levels of government and corporate abuses, eventually “trickles down” to the daily lives of citizens.  You can’t escape culture!  It is the “soup” in which we swim, the tapestry in which we are embedded.  “What we sow, we reap!”  With each government or corporate act of violence and/or indifference to violence, we create a culture that “trickles down” from the highest levels to individual lives.  Violence abounds in American society, touching everyone’s life as victim, perpetrator, or anxious observer and witness of the endless violent acts committed locally, nationally, and internationally. Ultimately we are all victims and perpetrators through acts of intention or through acts of silence and indifference that tolerate abuses. There is no escape from this reality.

The USA way-of-life — the ways we socialize violence in our citizens via larger institutional or structural forces (e.g., entertainment, demonizing populations, denial of opportunities and narrow group privileging, militaristic foreign policies and invasions of other nations) encourage violence even as we as a nation ignored, deny, and/or rationalized these events as unimportant or incidental to what is occurring. Individual and collective acts of violence and crime by those in power and position are too often dismissed, tolerated, and/or approved across political, economic, educational, military, and moral institutions.  But they have consequences.

We can lament, apologize, pray, change some laws regarding gun control, and even speak correctly of the need for improvements in prevention-oriented school mental health services.  But the major cause, our “culture of violence” that socializes all of our minds and behavior each day, is not being addressed, nor even acknowledged by our local and national leaders.  Rather, they have focused on how we must guard against and control “demented individuals,” who are the trigger-pullers, but not the sources that socialize minds.  But what about the “demented individuals” in government, military, and corporations who pursue narrow self-interests, including power, wealth, position, control?  National leadership, via election, appointment, or promotion does guarantee “conscience” or character.  Indeed, it may require a sociopathic character as we have so often found to be true.

Are our leaders whose actions are creating an enduring legacy of resentment different from domestic perpetrators of mass violence?  Are they different from those who pull triggers in schools, universities, and theaters?  If so, tell me why?  Is it because our “laws,” permit them to act with impunity, without consequence, without considering the future they are creating for us. They show no evidence of compassion, empathy, responsibility, civility, or any of the virtues required for a sound society.  What is “trickling down?”  See Table 1 for a graphic representation of this view.




  • Militaristic Wars, Invasions, Occupations (Iraq, Afghanistan)
  • Secret Wars (e.g., Mexico, North Africa)
  • Government Overthrows (Libya, Central America, Chile)
  • Illegal Assassinations
  • Drone Bombing (e.g., Pakistan, Yemen)
  • Use of Radioactive Weapons (e.g., Fallujah)
  • World’s Largest Military Budget
  • Leader in Weapons Sales
  • Privileging of Wealthy and Powerful (e.g., No Prosecution)
  • Corporate and Institutional Corruption, Fraud, and Crime (Priceless)
  • Surveillance, Monitoring, Archiving of Personal Information
  • Consumerism Economy
  • Media Control
  • Neuro-Behavioral Control Technologies
  • Failed Economic Policies
  • Hegemonic Globalization Controls and Domination
  • Demonization of Nations (Iran, China, Russia) and Populations (Muslim, Arabs)


  • Child, Family, Marital, Elder Violence
  • Workplace, School, Street Violence
  • Sanctioning of Violence by Religions
  • Domestic Militia Groups
  • Youth Gangs
  • Alternative Illegal Economies
  • Violent Entertainment
  • Sexualization
  • Vigilantism
  • Cults
  • Fanaticism/Fundamentalism
  • Prison Brutality and Abuses

III.    PSYCHOSOCIAL (Intrapsychic/Interpersonal) LEVEL

  • Fear, Anxiety, Worry
  • Anger, Rage, Frustration
  • Powerlessness
  • Distrust, Suspicion, Paranoia
  • Alienation, Anomie
  • Protean Character
  • Stress Overload
  • Dehumanization
  • Depression, Despair, Demoralization, Suicide

Closing Thoughts

Thus, what is needed at this point to address the epidemic of mass acts of violence is not only new policies, laws, and regulations regarding the specifics of guns of all nature, but also a critical examination of the historic and contemporary forces, events, and individuals who have shaped what we have become as a nation that is now mired in fear and self-destruction in an aimless pursuit of empire that will only serve special interests of the wealthy.  Isn’t that what all of the recent wars were about?

We need a national dialog that will yield an action agenda.  This agenda must simultaneously address the many cultural forces that shape the context of our lives. As individuals and a nation, we must choose peace over war, empathy over detachment, responsibility over self-interest, connection over separation, civility over exploitation, and justice over all.  We need to build a culture of peace.  And to do so, we will have to give priority to a new moral code that prizes peace.

If the USA chooses to resolve national differences and interests via militaristic acts that include expanded invasions, occupations, military bases, murder, and new technologies of destruction (i.e., drones, powerful new bombs, assault rifles, assassinations), why should we expect our citizens to respond any different from what they see is normative and acceptable.  The finger that pulls the trigger sees the power of those in office, the seeming indifference with which they order death and destruction.  But the finger that pulls trigger knows only helplessness.  “When you go forward for revenge, dig two graves.”  It “trickles down.


 Anthony Marsella, Ph.D., a  member of the TRANSCEND Network, is a past president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii, and past director of the World Health Organization Psychiatric Research Center in Honolulu. He is known nationally and internationally as a pioneer figure in the study of culture and psychopathology who challenged the ethnocentrism and racial biases of many assumptions, theories, and practices in psychology and psychiatry. In more recent years, he has been writing and lecturing on peace and social justice. He has published 15 edited books, and more than 250 articles, chapters, book reviews, and popular pieces. He can be reached at marsella@hawaii.edu.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 21 Jan 2013.

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