"The corrupting influences of modern American culture" -- Columbine, Part 3: The Technologies of Deviance

By Doctor Comrade

[This is the third part a three-part series on school shootings, the media, and discourse about abnormality. You can read part 1 herePart 2: "How could it happen here in this nice, quiet, middle-class community?": Corrupting the Suburban Sanctuary]

The debate over Columbine’s causes accentuates the myth of the school sanctuary to the extent that several preeminent experts on child violence blamed modern culture for instances when suburban schools became subjected to youth violence. In particular, James Garbarino, who has advised the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse, the National Institute for Mental Health, the National Black Child Development Institute, the U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect, and the FBI, was one of several authors who identified how coverage of shootings in affluent white neighborhoods gets sensationalized media attention. His influential study Lost Boys analyzes how to save vulnerable young men from violence, using methods he learned working with inner-city youth. He consulted the media on how to cover youth violence, and as an expert that many media outlets call on for analysis, his book (which came out just before Columbine) is a rich source for contemporary metanarrative constructions of violence and corruption.[1] He places a great deal of blame on “the corrupting influences of modern American culture,” which he interprets as glorifying and perpetuating violence.[2]

Garbarino’s stated goal is to save troubled boys from themselves and their environments, and by extension protect society’s most vulnerable members. In this sense, troubled boys refers to kids who grow up with multiple vulnerabilities that would cause them to become violent, like gang affiliation, child abuse, poor school performance, and the absence of positive role models.[3]  This veneration of the child mirrors the sanctuary myth in that it perpetuates the idea that children are vulnerable, need protection, and are helpless victims of corruption. He states, “They are all our sons.”[4] This statement suggests that his paternalistic approach seeks to extend and strengthen the sanctuary out of a sense of collective parental obligation. This belief is what makes Garbarino an absolutist: he identifies “norms or rights that [he believes] are good, necessary, or healthy for all people,” which informs his notion that deviance “runs afoul of these norms,” so if vulnerable children were not exposed to negative influences, they would grow up “normal.”[5] He essentially argues that the conditions of poverty will always put poor children at greater risk for violence. From this perspective, two dominant schools of thought on deviance become clear: the absolutist position, which sees deviance as a tangible departure from normality and regular social organization, and it violates objective and universal norms of behavior; second, the constructionist position argues that deviance is a violation of a cultural consensus on what constitutes proper behavior, and that deviance and norms are relative and dynamic.[6] Under the absolutist designation, it becomes clearer how Garbarino seeks to cure “an epidemic of youth violence” by engaging psychologists, parents, and activists to remove risk indicators like “maltreatment… spiritual emptiness… [and] the video culture of violent fantasy that seduces many of the emotionally vulnerable.”[7] He operationalizes epidemiology as a metaphor for school violence. This kind of metonymy further reinforces the perception that the school is a sanctuary, which is supposed to be free of disease. If youth violence is an epidemic, then it must have some kind of epicenter, which he presupposes must be outside the ideal school because vulnerability to violence is normal in inner-city environments. In this way, he argued that inner-city schools, where violence is prevalent and normalized, can teach society about how to handle affluent schools, where violence is supposedly more alien. Garbarino’s methodology seeks to answer why violence is so normal in urban areas, and then uses that knowledge to rescue suburban children. By focusing on inner-city boys, Garbarino believed he could “know the circumstances under which the epidemic of youth violence first took hold, among low-income minority youth in inner-city areas.”[8] He identifies the epicenter of youth violence as outside of the suburbs with racialized discourse that implicitly blames violence on corrupting influences.

Those who hold the absolutist position are explained by the constructionist position: the absolutist position provides legitimate explanations of deviance because it draws on a system of morality and a perspective on how the world ought to look, which demonstrates how the debate over deviance and its associated oppositional positions reveal that deviance is always already constructed, either in a moral sense or in a dynamic sense. Furthermore, because the absolutist position sees conceptions of deviance as universally defined, “if something is considered to be morally wrong in one place, it should be judged wrong everywhere.”[9] By using universalistic moral terms, the media not only tacitly endorses the absolutist position, but it also fulfills its role as integrative and legitimizing, such that it provides coverage of deviance and information that supports those metanarrative structures that condemn deviant entertainment preferences. As shown by the Marilyn Manson example, the media presents familiar boogey-men as explanations of larger examples of deviance, which collapses deviance into a catch-all term that juxtaposes minor divergences with major violence. This collapse demonstrates how media narratives attempt to signify violence with these constructed codes like “foreign” or “bizarre” music.

One compelling example of this construction is the way Garbarino conflates Satanism and heavy metal music. In a way, he collapses two completely separate aspects of what would traditionally be abnormal into one concept, though he is far from the first to make a connection between dangerous media and Satanism. Social scientists have often been called on to support the notion that media can turn children away from their parents’ moral values. For example, moral crusaders in the 1920s used research on films to argue that the cinema could warp teenagers’ moral attitudes, and several psychological studies in the 1960s and 1970s asserted a causal link between depictions of violence and aggressive behavior.[10] In 1980, some Christian groups burned rock and heavy metal records that they claimed contained satanic messages (which some other groups had done in previous decades as well).[11] In 1990, two families sued the heavy metal band Judas Priest for driving two young men to attempt suicide with subliminal messages.[12] In the same vein, Garbarino argues that Satanism, as endorsed or propagated by dark culture, contributes to youth violence. In between two sentences about young shooters in satanic cults, he mentions how Kip Kinkel, a shooter in Oregon, enjoyed heavy metal music.[13]  With no explanation, Garbarino links heavy metal music with Satanism, and by extension, abnormality. This discursive jump exhibits a metalinguistic game that attempts to merge the signifiers of “Satanism” and “heavy metal” into a single term like “corruptive” or “evil.” The result is a “second-order semiological system,” or a myth, which is based on an existing semiological chain.[14] The chain retranslates the completed sign into a new signifier, which in turn constitutes a new sign, the sign of the myth. Garbarino’s discourse provides an example of how larger cultural structures influence the construction of these kinds of myths, in this case “abnormality,” with its constituent parts (signifiers) like corruption and danger.

Perhaps a clearer example comes from his interview after he counseled Klebold’s parents. Without ever knowing Dylan, Garbarino claimed that “What happened with Dylan Klebold, it seems, is a sad confluence of vulnerability, modern culture and the entertainment industry.”[15] This excerpt shows his insistence that child victimhood comes from beyond the sanctuary: it demonstrates how Garbarino believed that Klebold was a victim, and therefore not an agent, and it excused his parents and the suburban community from any blame. Modern society, and in particular those dangerous and contagious elements in violent media, had infected Klebold with the epidemic of youth violence. Garbarino engages this fallacious counterfactual thinking several times, implying that if Klebold (and probably Harris) had been completely insulated from the outside world (Manson, Rammstein, Doom), then the events at Columbine would never have transpired. Lost Boys is an example of how absolutists on deviance, both in scholarly and media circles, contributed to the denigration of “dark culture” as dangerous culture.

Garbarino’s perspective parallels other historical examples of sociological absolutism. For example, psychiatrist Fredric Wertham condemned comic books as harmful literature that caused juvenile delinquency. He observed that delinquency came from “many children who drifted into delinquency through no fault or personal disorder of their own…. There is nothing in these ‘juvenile delinquencies’ that is not described or told about in comic books. These are comic-book plots.”[16] Wertham went on to vilify superheroes like Batman and Robin because “homoerotically inclined children” were “special devotee[s]” of Batman’s possibly homosexual relationship with Robin, which encouraged children to emulate their heroes by sodomizing their classmates.[17]  Garbarino’s 1999 analysis corresponds with this book from 1954 by contending that modern culture corrupts young boys. It would be easy to update Wertham’s targets, replacing “comic book” with “video game” or “heavy metal,” an exercise that Garbarino and the media at Columbine essentially undertook. In doing so, Garbarino’s modern sociological account of youth violence reflects that homophobic fear of abnormality and underscores how the metanarrative fear of abnormality is continuously present in the sociological literature, a historical trend that has influenced how the media conceives of abnormality. By relying on these kinds of experts and historical precedents, the media could claim legitimacy and credibility for their accounts of allegedly deviant characters carrying out acts of violence.

The other major perspective in the debate on deviance comes from social constructionism, which Emile Durkheim first articulated in his overarching theory of social interaction in 1895. He postulated that “it is also inevitable that… there are some with a criminal character. What confers this character upon them is not the intrinsic quality of a given act but that definition which the collective conscience lends them,” an argument that defines the modern conceptions held by the social constructionists.[18] According to Durkheim, deviance has a function because it forces society to define its collective morality by delineating what is immoral.[19] In a metanarrative sense, the media provides the information to a national audience that reinforces the existing moral view that some forms of entertainment are deviant and therefore dangerous. For Columbine, the media represented the abnormal characteristics of the shooters in such a way that the sanctuary myth could be reinforced because they made it obvious that corruption, deviance, and abnormality were the dangerous characteristics that threatened the safe haven by conflating strange music and interests with tendencies toward violence. Durkheim’s position illustrates how the absolutist position has always existed. Asserting that society’s morality is defined by what is immoral creates both sides of the deviance debate, where one side argues for deviance as both absolute and universal and the other argues that it is socially contingent. In this way, the Columbine coverage illustrates both how the absolutist position was privileged and strongly reinforced by the media’s accounts, and how debates over deviant popular culture have persisted over time and never been resolved.

Deviance is also a political technology. As shown by political scientist Michael Paul Rogin, constructions of deviance in the last decade of the twentieth century corresponded to “the creation of monsters as a continuing feature of American politics” because “Cold War ideology… required America… to demonize the subversive in order to defend against the resulting breakdown of difference.”[20] Communists had to appear like monsters in order to justify the cultural violence waged against them. There was pervasive fear that communists would corrupt the minds of young people, which reiterates the child-victim concept. As another example of subversive politics that was derided as abnormal, communism represented deviance, and therefore had to be demonized, and then exorcised. Demons could possess people, and as “subversives melted into their surroundings as racial and cultural differences… disappeared, the imagined danger shifted from the body to the mind.”[21] Reagan revived the demonology that began in the 1940s during his presidency in the 1980s. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the news media redirected those energies and techniques at new targets. Where the communist had been the subversive demon before, the news media recast the monster as violent entertainment, Satanism, and other forms of social deviance.

The media’s accounts point to the ways in which the news piled on multiple narratives that left no doubt for uncritical audiences that the Columbine shooters had not only targeted their peers, but they had targeted Christianity, affluence, suburban life, and the concept of the popularly conceived moral order. These narratives, as moralistic and normative frameworks for understanding information, demonstrated how abnormality vis-à-vis Satanism, anti-Christianity, or corruptive music presents genuine threats to a functioning society. Harris and Klebold had invaded Columbine, which was portrayed like an affluent, religious sanctuary. In that way, Columbine appeared in the news media like a moral paragon that was only corrupted by dangerous outside influences. This further illustrates why the news media seemed so obsessed with Columbine because Columbine could be used to capture the public’s attention, garner ratings points, while at the same time reaffirming what the general culture already believed. Abnormality was always already immoral, and the selectively chosen information coming out of Littleton served to reconfirm those moral values.

Part 1: "These boys were dangerously strange" -- How Media Discourse Targeted Outsiders after the Columbine Shooting
Part 2: "How could it happen here in this nice, quiet, middle-class community?": Corrupting the Suburban Sanctuary

[Read more of my long-form writing about history, the media, and American culture: "The Strength of Street Knowledge": Media Representations of the Political Discourse of Gangsta Rap and the Pathology of Blackness: Colonizing Harlem in Collective Memory, 1964-1995.]


[1] James Garbarino, Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them (New York: Free Press, 1999), x.
[2] Ibid., 23.
[3] Ibid., 10–13.
[4] Ibid., 28.
[5] John Curra, The Relativity of Deviance (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc, 2000), 13.
[6] Ibid., 8–10.
[7] Garbarino, Lost Boys, 28–29.
[8] Ibid., 5.
[9] Patricia A. Adler and Peter Adler, eds., Constructions of Deviance: Social Power, Context, and Interaction (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2003), 2–3.
[10] Bill Osgerby, Youth Media (London ; New York: Routledge, 2004), 64–65.
[11] Tom Zito, “Witness Of Fire: Putting the Torch to Thousands of Rock Albums, Two Midwest Preachers Aim to Burn the Devil in America’s Ears,” The Washington Post, December 3, 1980.
[12] Larry Rohter, “2 Families Sue Heavy-Metal Band As Having Driven Sons to Suicide,” The New York Times, July 17, 1990.
[13] Garbarino, Lost Boys, 127.
[14] Roland Barthes, Mythologies (New York: Hill and Wang, 2013), 223.
[15] Mary Jo Kochakian, “New Look at the Roots of Columbine,” Sun Sentinel, September 9, 2001, http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/2001-09-09/health/0109060698_1_eric-harris-harris-and-klebold-dylan-klebold.
[16] Frederic Wertham, Seduction of the Innocent (Rinehart & Co., 1954), 149–155.
[17] Ibid., 192.
[18] Emile Durkheim, “The Normal and the Pathological,” in Constructions of Deviance: Social Power, Context, and Interaction, ed. Patricia A. Adler and Peter Adler (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2003), 57.
[19] Ibid., 58.
[20] Michael Paul Rogin, Ronald Reagan, the Movie and Other Episodes in Political Demonology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), xiii–xix, 39.
[21] Ibid., 237–238.