Anger At Inanimate Objects?

By Robert Bernstein   |   July 9, 2024

Today was an interesting news day. The Supreme Court just ruled that “bump stocks” cannot be banned. Even though these devices effectively turn legal guns into machine guns. And even though the Firearms Owners’ Protection Act of 1986 banned civilians from owning any machine guns manufactured after that date.

The bump stock ban was a rare case of bipartisan support for gun control after the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting that killed 60 concert attendees. It was the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history. Bump stocks almost uniquely allowed killing on this mass scale.

On this same news day, I watched the start of the demolition of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The site of a horrific mass shooting in 2018 that killed 17 students.

Am I the only one who sees how bizarre this is? Bump stocks almost certainly were responsible for killing human beings. They are now legal. But we demolish a school building that did nothing to harm anyone?

By the way, I looked up Marjory Stoneman Douglas. She was an environmental superhero, working tirelessly as an advocate and journalist to protect the Everglades from being drained and built on. She lived 108 years. Long enough to have fought for women’s voting rights in the early 20th century. Her memory is being demolished.

Another example: The 1984 mass shooting at the San Ysidro McDonald’s. The shooter was aware he was having mental health issues and called a mental health line. They said to wait for a call back. He waited hours by the phone and got no call back. The next day he went to McDonald’s and murdered 21 people. After the massacre, an autopsy indicated high levels of lead and cadmium in his body.

His wife claimed this was likely due to his job as a welder for Babcock and Wilcox, who she claimed did not provide proper respiratory protection for him. Was anyone held accountable? No. But the McDonald’s building was demolished. Even though that building harmed no one.

From the 1200s to the 1700s there were “Animal Trials” where animals were literally put on trial and executed for bad behavior. Is executing a building any more sensible?

If you are hammering a nail and you hit your thumb by mistake, do you curse the hammer? Do you destroy it? Will a new hammer be less likely to hit your thumb?

We sometimes hear of a golfer bending his clubs or throwing them in the water hazard. Or a tennis star smashing his racket. (It is usually a guy.) These people may be sent to anger management training. Acknowledging the irrationality of anger at an inanimate object.

This all reminds me of research by Carol Nemeroff and Paul Rozin, published in the 1994 paper, “The Contagion Concept in Adult Thinking in the United States; Transmission of Germs and of Interpersonal Influence.”

Their research asked people if they would be willing to wear a sweater once worn by Hitler. Even if it was disinfected. It seems that people have a sense of what they call “magical contagion.” One theory is that evolution selected for those who avoided microbial contamination, long before we had an actual germ theory of disease.

Evolution favors being overly cautious. Better to think the rustle in the grass might be a dangerous animal than to ignore it. Better to avoid “contamination.” Even if most of the time it is nothing harmful. One study subject even used the word “cooties.” Sweaters and buildings don’t have cooties.

This magical contagion fear is also a root cause of discrimination. Think about the “untouchables” in Hinduism. Or about the separation of racial groups in the U.S. even now. Things have improved, but it is still a thing.

If we want to reduce harm, shouldn’t we focus our actions and policies on things that really can cause harm? Like bump stocks? And things that can help, such as improved mental health, worker protections and education?

And can we stop destroying inanimate objects that are not the cause of any harm? Can we get over our sense of “magical contagion”?  


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