If you haven’t seen it yet, the “knockout game” is a new game that’s been all over the news. Young teens walk up to unsuspecting people on the streets, and punch them hard enough to knock them out. At least one person has died from what police think may have been a “knockout game” attack, and there have been several attacks that landed people in the hospital. Obviously I don’t think I need to explain why most Americans are horrified by this. What the fuck has gone so wrong with our country that kids are just punching random people in the face, including elderly ladies?
Well, I’d like to make a guess, and I suspect most people won’t really care for it.
I think that’s what’s wrong with this country is that we’ve let economic inequality get so bad, that these kids don’t have anything to lose by knocking out little old ladies.
Yes, yes, I know it’s a frustrating answer. When acts of senseless violence occur, the last thing we want to do is turn the blame inward at ourselves. But the truth is, we ought to.
You see, it’s fairly well established that economic inequality gives rise to violent crime. Take this 1999 study that showed a clear link between income inequality and rates of homicide, assault and robbery. From the abstract:
We provided a test of our conceptual framework using state-level ecologic data on violent crimes and property crimes within the USA. Violent crimes (homicide, assault, robbery) were consistently associated with relative deprivation (income inequality) and indicators of low social capital.
Some of these crimes increase for obvious reasons – robbery probably has a direct economic benefit to the perpetrator, and thus it makes sense to think that people would commit robbery more often if they feel stressed economically. But, things like assault seem more subtle. Why would economic equality cause a person to start punching strangers on the sidewalk?
To answer that, we have to start accepting that we don’t live in a vacuum. We, as a society, have a hard time accepting the context to things when that context forces us to bear some of the responsibility for the undesirable outcomes. However, if we ever want to get past these bad things, we have to be willing to own our part in it. The context for these attacks is a United States where young middle-class people will do worse than their parents. More and more people are falling into poverty, and the average age for a fast-food worker is 29. We have created an America where people in poverty have very little chance of climbing out of it, and those on the edge of poverty are increasingly being pushed off that edge. Given that context, why are we at all surprised that that young teens are looking around them and deciding that they have nothing to live for? That the potential consequences of walking up to someone and knocking them out are outweighed by the sick, sadistic sense of fun that they get from it?
Of course, I’m not saying that these teens are absolved of their actions just because their actions take place in a larger context. As human beings, we’re always responsible for our actions. But, we need to turn that sentiment back on ourselves. In the same way it seems unconscionable to say that these teens aren’t responsible for their own actions, it’s equally unconscionable to say that American society as a whole bears no part in this.