Does “Social Distance,” Not Mental Ills, Explain Virginia Tech?


University of Virginia sociologist Donald Black believes that Seung Hui Cho’s shooting rampage last week is not explained by his mental problems, says the Washington Post. A better way to think about violence, Black argues, is to examine closely the relationships between individuals and groups. Minute details of those relationships, Black argues, determine not only what an individual does but also how society and law enforcement will conceive of the event and respond to it. Black’s theory says that Cho’s upbringing and mental condition are red herrings.

Black’s controversial ideas have made him a lightning rod for criticism from both the political right and the left. His ideas threaten conservative beliefs about the role of personal responsibility, and liberal notions of humanism. Black argues that the social distance between individuals predicts how violence enters a conflict. The greater the social distance, the greater the violence. Black argues that one way to reduce bloodshed in gang violence is to show gang members the things they have in common with opposing gangs. If both homicidal violence and the law are seen as ways of resolving conflict, this explains why homicide, which was once common in all echelons of society has become rare today among people who are better off, says Mark Cooney, a Blackian sociologist at the University of Georgia.


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