Ideology or Psychology?

About halfway through Monday’s broadcast of the PBS News Hour, I was fascinated to see that one of the speakers presented as an expert on mass violence was none other than an intellectual historian, a University of Chicago professor named Kathleen Belew. Belew has just published a book tracing the evolution of white supremacy in America from the days of its appearance on the Internet in the 1980s up to the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.

What really drew my attention was how Belew situated her research within present day debates concerning the causes and nature of mass shootings. Clearly there is a growing disposition among some to move public discourse away from psychological arguments about “lone wolves” to one that sees them as part of a more politically conscious and deeply orchestrated movement. Professor Belew is in that camp.

As the various discussants made plain throughout the broadcast, law enforcement has easier access to federal resources when going after terrorism that is directed or inspired by foreign actors because of its broader global and systematic nature. Consequently, to relate mass shootings to a more concerted web-based ideological movement could potentially inspire the kind of legal reform that would give law enforcement similar access to data and powers of surveillance in these instances of mass shooting.

While I, for one, have no problem with the sharing of information among law-enforcement agencies, either state or federal, for investigating and preventing violent acts, I do have some very deep concerns about the specific rationale being offered by Professor Belew.

Far from being “lone wolves,” she argues, mass shooters are connected to each other through “decades of organizing.” What is lacking, she insists, is a “coherent prosecution of this movement.” Indeed, she went on, the shootings are meant to be “focal points” for recruiting new members to the Aryan Nation.

One has to sympathize with Professor Belew’s desperation to deal with this horror. But our orientation to the evidence has to be accurate and our reasoning sound.

The fact that a number of the shooters have been inspired by these ideologies of hate is not a refutation of the psychological profiles used to explain their horrid acts. Indeed, if the ideological factor were to be, as Professor Belew seems to be advocating, sufficient grounds for prosecution, we would be challenging more than the NRA’s reading of the Second Amendment; also in play would be the ACLU’s reading of the First!

What has happened, I am afraid, is a classic error to which intellectual historians are peculiarly prone due to the nature of their craft. The historical profession, dominated by left-leaning social history in the 1970s, moved in the 1990s to the forms of discourse theory that predominate today; but this means that it has become focused on forms of intentionality and purposefulness. That in itself is not bad. (I have written on that in a chapter here.) But what must be guarded against is the temptation to see purposefulness in everything—to the point where one is seeing conspiracy everywhere.

Ironically, to succumb to this fallacy is to subtly reflect the very mindset to which these ideologies of hate tend to appeal. There is in fact a problem of social isolation to which the minds of young men are particularly susceptible (See for example, this). For most of human history, the social and economic roles of individuals were fairly well defined and prescribed. The modern division of labor, on the other hand, directed as it is through largely voluntary commercial relations, does not always satisfy everyone.

Add to this the misdirected social policies of the past 50 years, the ever-burgeoning rates of incarceration, the drug war and its deformed twin (communities decimated by addiction), and there is little left for many individuals so affected to attain a sense of purpose sufficient to sustain anything other than an oppositional form of identity. And this has had a particular influence on predominantly young white men.

It is this kind of oppositional identity that the platforms of conspiratorial thought thrive upon. And here I might recommend a much deeper  investigation into the debilitating aspects of modern communication technology: Catherine Steiner Adair’s The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age (2014). Let us just say, texting is no way to hug your child.

It is the oppositional, anti-social, and yes, essentially isolated frame of mind that is particularly drawn to the mirage of social connectivity that electronic media impart. It is this social isolation that is still a big part of what is transpiring. Yet here comes Professor Belew, (and she is by no means the only one) to raise, inadvertently or not, the status of these shooters from that of the mentally ill to membership in a grand conspiracy.

This argument, of course, leaves open the question of what ideas are supposed to count as radically “alt-Right” and which ideational signifiers are to be marked as permissible; which are, and which are not, classifiable as “hate?” Perhaps even more alarming is the question: Who gets to decide?

And what then to make of those who do not fit the particular ideological profile of Professor Belew such as the Dayton shooter? He was a misogynist, to be sure, but he was also a supporter of an openly professed leftwing socialist.

Further in the discussion, Professor Belew let slip a prime indicator of the sort of discourse analytics she is actually applying when she noted that white supremacy undergirds large swaths of our electoral and judicial institutions. (Again, intentionality everywhere!) But as we see, this explanation doesn’t reach every assailant who commits an atrocity.

One could hope in this day and age that people might finally wake up to the fact that our local and state governments have ceded far too many of their responsibilities up the chain of command, even as, at the federal level, Congress has ceded far too much of its authority to the executive branch. Real community is local, not virtual—and it is only at this level that we will get a rein on the problem.

Are we then, in a moment of fear and distress, to centralize even more power to classify harmful and less harmful thoughts, as Professor Belew seems to be suggesting?

In this instance, I would listen to the psychologists and not the historian.

Reader Discussion

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on August 08, 2019 at 07:39:26 am

Mr. Eicholz,

You wrote: “But what must be guarded against is the temptation to see purposefulness in everything—to the point where one is seeing conspiracy everywhere.”

Of course that is true---we also must be careful not to call something a conspiracy when in fact it is evilness and sin----the more sin the more likely it is to be classified as a conspiracy to hide the fact that we just might have a religious element within the culture that must be talked about.

As the social fabric and culture turns more to evilness the more it looks like conspiracy----for all are or most are doing something evil and sinful.

See the book of Romans chapter 1 verses 18-32

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Randy Toman
on August 08, 2019 at 08:56:17 am

While ideological and psychological constructs may be useful in describing the motivations of mass-killers, the concept of moral character as an important factor in the decision to kill than either the ideology or psyche of the killer would be more useful. Character education has been downgraded to the point of non-existence in our school systems, and, coupled with the decline in the influence of religious influence, some individuals have no sound basis for evaluating their own behavior against a standard of morally acceptable behavior.

C.S. Lewis formulated the concept of 'trousered apes' in his book, The Abolition of Man, and Duncan Williams, a literary critic, has explored the influence of literature on this phenomenon in his work, Trousered Apes: Sick Literature in a Sick Society. The intense influence of the portrayal of killing in literature, the entertainment media, and computer games cannot be discounted as irrelevant to the formation and encouragement of a murderous character.

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Richard Helfrich
on August 08, 2019 at 09:10:52 am

I would count character formation and psychological health as related issues. It is, in fact, why actual face to face type community remains vital.

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Hans Eicholz
on August 08, 2019 at 09:52:27 am

Eicholz appears to treat Belew as though she was thinking in good faith but only in a misguided fashion. This is not at all the case. Every one of these writers rushing to get books and articles out connecting yesterday's events to "white supremacy" is merely a bid for publicity, approval and perhaps money. Such writers fit the data to the curve to which they have already committed themselves mind, body and soul. White supremacy is accepted as a fact which to challenge or question in even the slightest degree would mean ostracism, banishment, loss of tenure, investigation by bias hit squads, doxxing, etc. The orthodoxy is enforced as stringently as ever Marxist or Christian dogmatics were in their heydays. This is the very definition of bad faith. The proof is that these same people will not permit even a suggestion that Muslim terrorists are Islamic supremacists. No--Islam is a religion of peace; a few fanatics are not evidence of any ideologically-driven danger. As Obama said in the wake of I think the San Bernardino shooting, such shootings "do not pose an existential crisis" to the US or the West. Who will apply the Obama existential crisis test today?

Eicholz should look more to the psychology of Belew and her ilk for an explanation of the current "white supremacy" phenomenon. Per Voltaire, the necessity of white supremacy's existence is what has called it into existence for such people.

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on August 08, 2019 at 16:02:55 pm

Once again, we observe in operation the new revised formula for success in Academia: "Rant or Perish" - and please be certain to "one-up" your colleague as you advance the insane post-modern narrative.

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on August 08, 2019 at 16:06:24 pm

"Rant or Perish" appears to be the new maxim for academic success.

Then again, perhaps this lady is right as news comes today of this phenomenon:


The headline itself is sufficient.

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Guttenburgs Press and Brewery
on August 08, 2019 at 16:36:47 pm

Hans, I think Belew's argument is disingenuous. Her work is in the same genre as Nancy Maclean's claim that Public Choice economics is a white supremacist conspiracy, or Naomi Klein's "shock doctrine" claim that (classical) liberal policy is about violently imposing neocolonialism. Progressives and the modern left are unable to tolerate views other than theirs, and a simply demonizing their intellectual and political opponents.

There's no "white supremacy" movement to speak of, yet the left now pretends to see it everywhere. This is a revolutionary tactic, not a set of serious arguments. Note that neither the El Paso murderer nor the Dayton murderer were white supremacists. The El Paso murderer seems to have been more influenced by the overpopulation arguments of Paul Ehrlich, and the Dayton murderer was a leftist. I think you are right that ultimately ideology is not what drives such psychopaths, but it seems to me Belew et al. aren't terribly interested in stopping psychopaths -- they simply want their political opponents eliminated and they want the state to do this.

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Charles N. Steele
on August 08, 2019 at 16:53:14 pm

Dog-whistling lmao... Every Trump supporter and every non-democrat is a secret agent with orders provided subliminally... Seems reasonable

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on August 09, 2019 at 13:01:29 pm

Prof. Kathleen Belew's academic "conspiracy theory" that organized white supremacism, not mental illness or fatherless adult white males, is the determinative factor in mass murders is based on her own ideology and is based on a flawed sociology.

Last month Nancy Pelosi prophesied that in August there would be several unspecified acts that would prove that Trump was provoking racial hatred. Lo and behold in the first week of August we have two high profile mass murders purportedly provoked by Trump (or by Pelosi?).

The Dayton shooter was fatherless, white male who previously protested against KKK rally, but shot mostly black patrons at a nightclub apparently to fake a hate crime that could be blamed on Trump. He was a "poser" who had nothing to do with white supremacism. Sure, he may have been inclined to bring down Trump as a father figure he hated. But that isn't what brought about his heinous act. We already know that many hate crimes are attempts by minorities to fabricate victimization. The Dayton shooter seems to fall into this category.

The El Paso shooter was from an intact family who taught values but he was a white male who felt powerless to stop rampant immigration. He traveled 650 miles from Dallas to El Paso to pull off a mass murder of Hispanics at a border town. He was not a poser but a "sincere" mass murderer who was "triggered" by watching TV of Democrat Primary debate.

What apparently provoked both shooters, although differently, were certain provocative political symbols (not ideology per se or their family constellation or psychology). For an understanding of this one needs to become aware of what is called "symbolic interaction" theory in sociology.

Neither of these two shooters were part of an organized network of white supremacists or even Leftist Antifa (although the Dayton shooter was sympathetic with Antifa). There was no conspiracy in either case because neither the Democratic Party or Antifa on one hand, or the Republican Party and Trump, communicated or colluded with either of them. Ideology may have predisposed each of them in different directions, but it was a symbolic provocation that apparently brought them to act.

The sociologist Max Weber called this "methodological individualism" - the focus of how society works is not merely on groups and organizations but the individual. Sociologist Erving Goffman has also written about "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life" of how symbols motivate behavior. In other words, these evil acts were a choice, not predetermined by family background or psychology or explainable by some reductionist theory.

Modern society is pluralistic, meaning filled with competing symbols and ideologies. No one institution having a monopoly, institutions and their ideological justifications are weak. But filling this weakness is mass media .

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Wayne Lusvardi
on August 09, 2019 at 14:39:13 pm

I certainly hope no psychologist would dispute the importance of what sociologists say about symbols and identity formation. But then I also hope no socioligist would deny that the best hope remains trying to reach people through actual communities. Both disciplines generally agree with your point, I should think, about disputing simple causation or any form of predictable predetermined necessity to human action.

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Hans Eicholz
on August 09, 2019 at 16:54:42 pm

' I should think, about disputing simple causation or any form of predictable predetermined necessity to human action."

Then again, there is THIS which would seem to indicate that not only should we NOT apply simple causation. RATHER, according to this bright light from academia,

mere knowledge and competence is DISCRIMINATORY:


And we are surprised when some other "academic" spews similar idiocy.

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Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.