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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Death by Satanist Ninja

There has been a very odd news story capturing the focus of the South African middle-class over the last week or so. In a high school close to where I live, a teenager showed up at school one day brandishing a katana. He managed to kill one of his classmates with the sword, and also injured several other people.

Although the details appear to be a little sketchy and various sources report contradictory events, that seems to be the gist of what happened.

It's a tragedy. Some poor kid was murdered. That sucks big time.

But there's more.

Ever since the story first broke about a week ago, the airwaves have been buzzing with all sorts of speculation about what caused it. The consensus of public opinion seems to be that the perpetrator was a Satanist, which was evidenced by the fact that he listened to heavy metal band Slipknot. I've heard some other ideas expressed, along the lines of violence on TV, video games and so on. But the Slipknot Satanist Hypothesis seems to be the most popular.

Let's parse that hypothesis. It appears to consist of several unstated premises, which are as follows:

  1. Slipknot is a Satanist rock band.
  2. Satanists are dangerous and violent people.
  3. Listening to Satanistic music is likely to convert an otherwise normal teenager into a Satanist.
I'll deal with each premise separately.

Slipknot is a Satanist rock band.

In order to evaluate the accuracy of this assertion, we need to understand two separate points:
  1. What kind of a band is Slipknot, and what kind of music do they make?
  2. What is a Satanist?
Slipknot are a heavy metal band. They have cultivated a shocking and somewhat controversial image, including the wearing of grotesque masks. But when asked about their relationship to Satanism, they emphatically deny it.

Although their denial of being Satanists by no means disproves the suggestion, it does at least imply that if they are Satanists, they aren't interested in publicising the fact. And that lends discredit to the idea that their music would contain a strong Satanistic message. Why would they publicise Satanism in their music but then deny it in an interview?

So what is a Satanist? There are two broadly defined groups of people who tend to self-identify as Satanists.

The first is the social organization called the Church of Satan, founded by Anton LaVey. Despite the name, members of the Church are not devil-worshippers. LaVeyan Satanists are atheists with a penchant for theatrics and a particular moral code: "Return good with good and evil with
evil" (a kind of post-hoc version of the Golden Rule). LaVeyan Satanists would not, if they were truly devout, launch an unprovoked attack against anyone. That's not the point.

The other kind of Satanist is the rebellious teenager variety. There's no organized society of these Satanists, but rather isolated kids who have bought into the Satanic Scare propaganda and have embraced it as a way of sticking it to the conservative society they live in. Since there's no moral code or universal ethics guiding these kids, they are unpredictable, and have been reported to hurt themselves or other people.

It should be noted that this variety of Satanist probably isn't a devil worshipper either, although if you spoke to one, they might identify themselves as such. These kids are socially maladapted and design their appearance and behaviour to be shocking to their parents and other authority figures - even their peers.

Based on what we've seen here, I don't think we can support the conclusion that Slipknot are a Satanist band. They probably share some values with most Satanists of both varieties, but their music doesn't carry a Satanistic message, and they don't self-identify as Satanists.

Satanists are dangerous and violent people.

As dictated by their moral code, LaVeyan Satanists are not inherently violent people. Their ethical code dictates that when among nice people, they should be nice. When amongst nasty people, they should be nasty. In other words, their behaviour is a mirror of their surroundings, neither inherently peaceful nor violent.

Rebellious and psychologically troubled teenagers are unpredictable, but also not inherently violent. I'm not a psychiatrist, but having been something of a misfit teen once myself, I think these kids are more likely to hurt themselves than anyone else. Being a social outcast is a hard thing, and more likely to lead to depression than murderous rage.

Based on what we know about both kinds of Satanists, I don't think we can support the conclusion that they are inherently dangerous or violent. I might go so far as to say that you're probably safer in the company of a Satanist than in that of a religious fundamentalist. Satanists aren't suicide bombers, and they don't murder doctors for performing abortions.

Listening to Satanistic music is likely to convert an otherwise normal teenager into a Satanist.

This one is pretty absurd to begin with. It's analogous to claiming that watching Xena: Warrior Princess is likely to convert the viewer into a leather-wearing lesbian. It's rather silly.

I wasn't able to find any peer-reviewed research on the subject. If you guys know of any, please point us to it in the comments.

What I was able to find is an awful lot of conjecture. There appear to be equally strong opinions on both sides of the debate. What I found interesting was that those who support the idea that heavy metal music leads to Satanism appeared to be speaking from a position of trying to convert the reader to Christianity, or warning the reader that heavy metal may corrupt their Christian faith.

It's always interesting when an opinion seems to be shared by a group who already have some ideology in common, and those who hold a contrary opinion seem to speak from a diverse array of ideologies. That doesn't prove or disprove either side's argument, but it does raise some questions about how the conclusions are derived.

In the absence of good data and reliable expert opinion, I must rely on my own subjective experience. I used to listen to a lot of heavy metal music. In my early twenties I wore my hair long, dressed in black and frequented heavy metal clubs. I would frequently go straight from a night head-banging at The Doors to church where I taught Sunday School.

I was both a heavy metal listener and a devout Christian. In other words, I don't think that there is any reason to assume strong correlation between heavy metal music and Satanism.

Based on what we know about how people are influenced by the music they hear, I don't think we can support the conclusion that listening to Satanistic music is likely to convert a teenager to Satanism.

So what do we have? We have a hypothesis supported by three basic premises. I've shown that those premises are weak at best, and more likely completely fictional. So then what drives a teenager to kill his peer with a sword?

In the words of Chris Rock: "Whatever happened to crazy?"

Is it not likely that this kid is in severe need of psychiatric help? Mightn't some sort of pathology be responsible for this tragedy? Why must we always point the finger at societal factors, when the cause is just as likely to be internal?

Again, I'm no psychiatrist, but I submit that this kid is just as much a victim of circumstance as the one who wound up at the other end of the sword. He's clearly a sick little boy who needs medical attention. His actions appear, at least to me, to be consistent with those of someone suffering from severe mental illness. Perhaps some kind of psychopathy or sociopathy. Is this not a far more likely explanation?

If we apply Occam's Razor (All things being equal, the simplest explanation is usually the correct one), it seems that my Crazy Hypothesis is a more likely candidate to explain the tragedy. It doesn't rely on several layers of implausible events, but rather on one simple cause, compounded by the failure of the educational and medical systems to identify and treat the condition before this happened (That failure is not unprecedented, and quite likely).

I predict that when police psychologists analyse the boy's history, they will discover a pattern of destructive behaviour, violence and antisocial tendencies leading up to this tragic event. A pattern that should have been spotted by either the child's parents or educators, but for some reason was missed or ignored by both.

Let's not waste our time trying to lay responsibility on foreign musicians, obscure social movements or The Media, but rather focus more on how we can improve our education and medical systems, so that sick children like this can be identified and treated before they hurt anyone.