Building a Positive Online Community: Five Rules for Social Media Users

A few years ago, when Facebook made the switch from ordinary profiles to Timelines, I was incredibly excited. It meant I could look back at all the things I’d shared over the years–those moments from years past became easily accessible, and the thought of that was just awesome. Now, in 2014, I lament the fact that I (or anyone else I’m friends with, for that matter) can easily go back and look at the things I’ve posted over the past almost-six years I’ve been on the site.

Why, you ask? Because I wasn’t very smart about using it back then. Ask anyone who’s been Facebook friends with me the past three-to-four years. Really.

A few years ago, I used Facebook primarily for two things: 1) Starting raucous political debates, and; 2) Complaining about ridiculous things, such as losses experienced by Syracuse athletics. It sounds ridiculous, but it’s sadly true. I think I’ve gotten better in the past few years–a lot better, actually. And I hope my Facebook friends would agree with me.

Social media is unique in that it allows us to control exactly how others perceive us and how we build ourselves, both personally and rhetorically. No one can know exactly what people are thinking at any given moment, but the things we choose to share on social media offers us a glimpse into the minds and lives of others at any given point. What we choose to share and how we choose to share it has a huge impact on how others perceive us and the lives we live.

Some of you may be thinking “Well, so what? I’ll share what I want to share, and if people don’t like it, there’s always the ‘unfriend’ button.” The problem is that this was exactly the attitude I used to have, and it really proved to be a poisonous one.

Think of it this way: If you had a friend who, when you spent time together, did nothing but complain about the negativity in their life and start arguments with you, would you want to continue spending time with that person? I didn’t think so.

Social media friendships are really no different. When we accept a friend request or follow someone on Twitter, that means that we at least want them in our social media lives badly enough to make that initial connection (except, of course, in rare cases when people will accept any request or follow back anyone). And these connections have a dynamic quality to them–we have at least a subconscious expectation that the people we connect with are going to make an effort to not only keep up with the goings-on of our own lives, but also share moments and content that make us laugh, cry, or think about things in a meaningful way.

On Facebook especially, that’s what I’ve begun to do–share things that my friends on that platform will find meaningful, engaging, funny, or thought-provoking. And my social media presence has only become more positive for it.

With these things in mind, I propose the following rules for building yourself in a positive way on social media platforms and building a more healthy online community:

1) Privacy is of the utmost importance.

This holds especially true for services like Facebook, Foursquare, and others where your privacy settings are very controlled. When someone posts a photo of their kids with their friends on Facebook, their intent is to share that photo with their friends, and only their friends. Respect your social media friends’ privacy by not sharing their personal posts. Or, if you really feel the need to share it with your friends, ask them first. Additionally, try to refrain from using children’s names or personal information–as good as privacy settings are now, you never know who can see that information.

2) Don’t like or comment on everything.

It’s great to like or comment on someone’s posts (or to retweet/favorite tweets you enjoy)–it shows the person posting the content that you found it meaningful or enjoyable in some way. But when someone interacts with everything someone shares on social media, it loses sincerity. Don’t be that person who likes something just for the sake of liking it.

3) Don’t post or share too much.

A few years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for me to post four or five Facebook statuses a day. Now, it’s rare for me to post four or five a week. I’ve found that less is more on social media (at least on services like Facebook; Twitter is a different story entirely)–the less frequently you post/share things, the more likely people are to interact with your content.

4) Be a positive contributor to the social media community.

Life really can suck sometimes. I know–I’ve been there. We’ve all been there. But if life is getting you down, the last thing you should do is go on a spree of posting nothing but passive-aggressive or whiny statuses/tweets. The reaction from your social media friends likely won’t be positive–I learned this one the hard way.

Posting a nice memorial to a deceased loved one? Go right ahead. That’s actually a pretty touching thing to do.

Asking for encouragement in hard times such as unemployment? Also an appropriate use of social media platforms–your online community will more than likely react in a positive, incredibly supportive way.

But posting a rant-filled status about a personal issue you’re having with someone? Not okay in most situations (there are always exceptions to rules). And starting contentious, nasty political debates? Also not a good thing to do. Not only are most people set in their political ways, it’s also a waste of your time and energy, and previously healthy friendships can become damaged (I also learned this one the hard way).

The main point here is that you should try your best to make positive contributions to the social media communities of which you are a part–no one can be exclusively positive, but it’s good to at least attempt to share more positive content than negativity.

5) Turn off the computer and put down the smartphone once in a while.

Social media is great, but spending time building personal, face-to-face connections with people is better than any social media platform out there. It’s good to turn off the iPhone and spend time with people you care about, and to build friendships in person, not just online.

I used to spend way too much time on social media–it was actually pretty unhealthy. When I wasn’t logged into Facebook on my computer, I’d more than likely be browsing it on my phone. You’d be surprised how refreshing it is to unplug yourself from the digital world for a while and spend time honing your talents, practicing your hobbies, and making memories with those you care about.

Now, I don’t claim to be a social media “expert,” and I’m certain not everyone reading this is going to agree with these rules. These aren’t meant to be hard-and-fast rules that guarantee you’re going to have a happy existence on social media. No, these are just things I’ve learned (often with hard lessons) from my experience on a variety of different social media platforms.

The remarkable thing about platforms such as Facebook and Twitter is that the community is what we make of it–your contribution to it matters just as much as mine. The posts we share and the comments we leave make our collective experience. We’re all in this social media experience together, and we should strive to make it as positive and memorable as we can. So let’s get started.

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Why I Write

I get asked the question all the time: Why do you write? And for the longest time, I’ve never really had an answer. I guess I’d never really given it much consideration. Why do I write? With this post, I’ve decided it’s finally time I give an answer, both to those who’ve asked and to myself.

To me, writing is catharsis–it gives me an emotional outlet unlike no other. At life’s extreme highs and extreme lows, I choose to express myself with words.

It’s remarkable, isn’t it? That differing permutations and combinations of just twenty six letters can allow us to externalize what we’re feeling? To share our joys and our sorrows?

Why do I write? Because it helps me convey and understand my emotions.

If you’ve never sat down and just written before–just put the pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and let it flow–I suggest you give it a try sometime. It’s one of the most therapeutic things you can do.

Sometimes, when life gets me down, I open a writing program I have on my computer and just let everything out. I often keep these writings to myself–I’ll read it over, be satisfied with my work, and close the program without saving a thing. Other times, I’ll save these pieces with the notion that I’ll one day work up the courage to share them with you all. The latter scenario is what led to my sharing the memoir I wrote of my late grandfather that appeared on this site a few weeks ago.

In the most difficult and trying of times, people cope with their feelings different ways. Some may curl up in bed with sad music and let their tears wet the pillowcase. Others may sit in solace and contemplate the meaning of it all. Still others–and I pray this is not you, dear reader–will let their emotions out with the self-infliction of pain.

But none of these things are me. I write instead. My keyboard is my razor blade; my words are my blood.

Why do I write? Because it’s how I cope.

When my grandmother died four years ago, I was completely stricken with grief. She was one of the people I held nearest to my heart, and losing her broke me.

In the days after her death, I decided to write a eulogy for her–to take the swirling cacophony of thoughts buzzing about my head and give them a voice. That one simple exercise was one of the most emotionally freeing things I’ve ever done, and I haven’t stopped since.

My advice to you? Start writing. And if you already write, keep writing. Even if you think you’re no good, and even if you keep it all to yourself. Write it all out.

Why do I write? Because, in a way, it sets me free.

Flappy Bird Has Ruined My Life

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A new game has taken Apple’s App Store by storm, and not for the best of reasons.

If you haven’t yet downloaded Flappy Bird, the game featuring a small yellow bird and green Super Mario-style pipes in 8-bit graphics, I strongly suggest you spare your sanity and click the ‘back’ button in the App Store before it’s too late. Why the strong warning, you ask? Because Flappy Bird falls into that category of life-ruining vices that include alcohol and gambling.

The objective of the game is simple: Fly a small bird through a series of openings in sets of green pipes that look like they came straight out of a Super Mario Bros. game. Sounds simple enough, no? Wrong. It’s hard to predict exactly how the bird will behave when the screen is tapped, and when things seem to be going well, the bird has a tendency to smash right into one of the pipes, thus ending the game.

I first heard about Flappy Bird late last week, when my girlfriend was over at my apartment. Someone on one of her social media platforms had written a rage-filled status about it, and we couldn’t help but wonder what this viral new game was all about. Alas, we decided to save our mental well-being and not investigate the matter further.

Later that day, my cousin texted me asking if I’d heard of it. When I’d replied that I had, but didn’t have the first clue about it, she told me what its objective was and how infuriating it makes its users. By this point, my curiosity had been piqued. I just had to play it for myself and see if it was really as bad as people made it out to be.

In those waning moments of sanity–of happiness, really–I clicked “download” and eagerly awaited its installation. Now there really was no turning back.

The beauty of one’s first time playing Flappy Bird is that the game gives no further instructions other than “tap,” which is rather vague. How often do I tap? Just once, and then again once the bird starts encountering obstacles?

I started the game, and failed immediately. I only tapped the screen once (that’s all the directions say, after all), and that little yellow bird took a nosedive right into the ground.

Game over.

“Okay, let’s give this one more try,” I thought.

The next attempt was more successful–I managed to make it through one set of pipes before promptly smashing into the next set, thus killing the bird and ending the game. Now that I think about it, this game is much darker than I originally thought.

Of course, now that I’d started, there was no turning back. Especially considering my cousin told me she had a whopping high score of fifteen–something that seemed like an impossible feat to my newcomer self.

On and on I played, spending hours trying my damnedest to will that bird through those pipes. Most times, I’d only make it through four or five before I’d crash, thus allowing exclamations such as “GAH!” or “RUUUUAHH!” to escape my lips. I even came close to throwing my phone across the room a few times (it’s okay, I have an Otter Box).

The more and more I invested myself in the game, the more my life began to suffer. Personal relationships have taken the brunt of it. I find myself ignoring text messages for long stretches of time because I can’t pull myself away. That stupid little 8-bit bird has sunk its claws into me, and there is no escape.

My friends (or people who used to be my friends) have even begun engaging in trash-talk over this game. As I sat on the bus to our Super Bowl performance, one of my best friends in the whole world kept making snide comments such as how much I “suck at this game” in a brutal attempt to break my concentration and cause me to fail. And it worked. It’s gotten so bad that the smack talk has spread to social media. Exchanges like this are now commonplace:

Much of the things that used to interest me have since been consumed by Flappy Bird. Writing on this blog? No time, I need to get my score up. (I’m surprised I haven’t yet taken a break from writing this to play a few more games). Listening to good music? Too distracting–I need to focus on navigating this difficult section.

In fact, I find that the game has robbed me of much of the joy in my life. The low point came at the Syracuse-Notre Dame basketball game last night. Rather than being invested in the game or in conversation with my friends, I instead stood there with my nose buried in my phone, furiously tapping that bird through those pipes. Like I said, this game is a life-ruiner.

There are rewards, however. Yesterday, I got my high score up to sixteen. Sixteen. And today, by God I got that high score up to twenty four.

The moral of my tale of woe? Avoid Flappy Bird at all costs. It’s not worth the pain and suffering. My girlfriend warned me about this, and I should have listened. But I didn’t, and must now live with the consequences. I only hope that you, dear reader, will heed my solemn warning and save yourself while you still can.

Big Guy

My grandfather and I were never particularly close—at least not for the majority of the time we were both alive. The awkwardness of our relationship always left me uneasy. I always thought grandfathers and their grandsons were supposed to be close, but it wasn’t so with us. Was there one specific reason for this distance? No—as I look back, there were myriad reasons he and I weren’t that close.

For most of my life, my grandfather’s health was terrible. Lighting up multiple packs of Marlboro Reds a day usually has that sort of effect on people. It seems like he was always in and out of the hospital. First it was heart trouble. He had a heart attack, then another, then bypass surgery, then this procedure, that procedure. When he died, they should have taken his heart out and put it in a museum—that thing was so goddamn resilient. And while all these heart problems were going on, other conditions began to manifest themselves. Emphysema was one of the early ones. Diabetes came next. Kidney failure was the last major one. I swear, it’s a miracle he never had to deal with cancer on top of everything else.

His health problems kept him largely confined to the recliner in the living room. Every time we’d go to grandma and grandpa’s house, you could almost count on the fact that he’d be plopped in that chair, probably watching Wheel of Fortune. It must have been such an awful existence—such a terrible quality of life.

It was this confinement that largely separated us physically. I’d known him for fifteen years, and the hours we’d spent talking could probably be counted on two hands. Not that I blamed him for that, though. He wasn’t able to go outside and play catch with me when I was a kid. Nor could he come to band concerts at school, or do anything that required him to be out of the house for more than a little while. His failing health meant we never really had any time to form that grandfather-grandson bond.

The two of us couldn’t have been more different, and our relationship was characterized by contrasts. He was advanced in years, but I was young and growing. He’d been a farmer—a man who worked the land and was fiercely self-reliant. I, on the other hand, hated physical labor and usually spent my time running around playing games (or, in later years, with my nose buried in a video game or my phone). Grandpa was the rugged outdoorsman and I was the kid who preferred to toss around a ball and play Pokemon.

The few times we’d actually sat and conversed were awkward. After compulsory discussion of the weather, how school was going, and all the other goings-on in my life, we were resigned to desperately try to find something to talk about. Sure, I wanted to try to get to know him better, but our differences complicated the matter. Our differences created a distance that was difficult to narrow.

My grandpa never communicated love very well. In fact, I’m not sure he fully understood the concept until the very end. He was always so emotionally distant—so removed from the family. Now, I’m sure he genuinely cared about all of us, and I’m sure he was capable of feeling affection, but those feelings were never conveyed. It’s like he wanted to show us that he cared, but he didn’t know how.

In the last months of his life, however, we all began to notice a change in him. In mid-autumn of 2007, we were over at my grandparents’ house for one of our usual visits. I hadn’t seen him in a while, and there was a marked change in him. He was kinder, more engaged, and more energetic than I’d seen him in months. It was a pleasant change, but the real surprise came as my parents and I were leaving. As I was pulling away from my usual goodbye hug, four words escaped his lips. “Love you, big guy.” (‘Big guy’ was his nickname for me for as long as I can remember.) Those words echoed in my head. Love you, big guy. For the first time ever, he told me that he loved me, which is something I had seriously doubted until that point.

Awestruck, I managed to say, “Love you too, grandpa.” We turned and left the room, saying goodbye to my grandma. Again, my grandpa blindsided us.

“I love you all. I really appreciate you coming over to visit.”

The gravity of these words was too great to process in that moment. As my whole extended family exited the house, there were murmurs among my aunts, uncles, and parents.

“Did you hear that?”

“I know, there’s definitely been a change in him.”

A change in him. I wasn’t the only one who had noticed how out of character he had been.

Over our next few visits, grandpa and I became closer than we’d ever been. I would sit on the couch near his chair and we’d talk for hours. We talked about anything and everything—school, sports, my upcoming trip to Europe—we left no stone unturned. It was like I was really meeting him for the first time. He told me about his time in the Army, and how he was stationed in Europe during the Korean War. It turns out we did have something in common: music. Grandpa came from a very musical family. His brother Ronnie attended Julliard and could play a host of different instruments. My grandpa had even led a local big band in the 1950s. This family talent had been passed down to me—I play both the piano and trumpet. Music became the thing that bonded us together. I was absolutely fascinated to hear about all his experiences. Smoking and alcoholism aside, he’d led a pretty interesting life. I loved this newfound closeness between us—everything was great.

In early December of the same year, the phone rang as my parents and I were at home, busily preparing for the upcoming holiday season. My dad answered, talking only briefly with the person on the other line. He came into the living room with a somber expression—I knew it could only be about one thing.

“Dad’s taken a turn for the worse—they aren’t sure he’s going to make it through the day.” Grandpa had been in the hospital for a few weeks, but it had seemed like one of his routine visits and it wasn’t something I was much concerned about. After my dad hurried to the hospital, my mom burst into tears and hugged me.

“We need to pray for your grandfather.”

Later that afternoon, mom and I joined our extended family at the hospital. After a few dull hours in the intensive care waiting room, we all headed to the cafeteria for dinner. Despite the circumstances, everything seemed fairly normal. It was as if nothing at all was wrong. Looking back, I suppose it was because grandpa was in such poor health that none of this was out of the ordinary anymore. It had become routine–it was the norm. I guess years of him being in-and-out of the hospital had desensitized us to it all. And as the years went on and his body found new ways to fail, “when” became more of an appropriate word when pondering his eventual death.

Halfway through the meal, we heard an announcement over the intercom—a code blue in the ICU. Knowing that a code blue means a “respiratory emergency,” my dad, aunts, and grandma hurriedly left for that wing of the hospital. The rest of us later found out that they had to resuscitate him.

I sat in the waiting room of the intensive care unit with my mom, an uncle, and two cousins. We sat there for hours and hours. We had our diversions—my cousins with their video games and me watching television—but those were long, long hours. At one point, my mom and uncle left the room rather quickly. “Where do you think they’re going?” asked one cousin—she was nine at the time, and matters of death were still new to her (I, on the other hand, was fifteen, and had at least a cursory understanding of the subject). “I’m not sure,” I replied, “But wherever it is, it probably isn’t good.” Almost as soon as I uttered those words, my dad appeared at the doorway of the room, beckoning me over. He looked strangely calm, even though it was obvious that he’d just been crying.

“David, grandpa’s about to pass away, and I came to see if you wanted to say goodbye to him.” I could feel the tears began to well up in my eyes, and I just stood there in silence. Words completely failed me. I’d been expecting to hear something like this for a long time, but my numbness in that moment froze me. I’d been completely blindsided.

“Oh, Dad, I don’t know. I don’t know if I can do it.”

“He’ll still be able to hear you if you come and squeeze his hand and say goodbye.”

The tears began to roll more freely. Was I ready to face the reality of losing him? Did I have the courage to go tell my grandfather how I felt? The past few months of growing closer had been so wonderful—how could I take him by the hand and say goodbye so soon? After standing in solemn silence for what seemed like an eternity, I managed to say,

“I don’t think I can do it. I just don’t think I can.”

“That’s okay, son. I understand.”

My body now began to tremble; speech became even more difficult. I wanted Grandpa to know how much I cared, even though I couldn’t say it to his face.

“Dad, please tell grandpa how much I love him. Please tell him that.”

“I will.”

And with that, my father went down the hallway, heading back toward my grandpa’s room. I turned around and sat back down, knowing that I had made a mistake. Part of me wanted to run after my dad and go say goodbye to grandpa one last time, but I didn’t.

It was only a few minutes later that my mom and uncle came back to the waiting room with tears wetting their faces, and I already knew. They took us into a little side room. “Briana, Nathan, grandpa just passed away.” They started to cry—even my youngest cousin, who was only four. I, too, began to cry, but I felt so conflicted. Part of me was almost relieved to see him pass. Grandpa had suffered physically for so long, and death had relieved him of that suffering. But sorrow also filled me. I wasn’t ever going to hear another one of his stories, or hear his raspy but warm laugh. God, I was going to miss those little things. After a few tearful minutes, I turned to my mom and asked,

“Did dad get a chance to tell grandpa that I loved him?”

“No, grandpa passed just before he came back.”

My heart sank even deeper. I’d frozen when it mattered most—stood there like a deer staring into the headlights of an oncoming car. I’m the reason my dad wasn’t there when his father died.

I was filled with a whirlpool of emotions, each of them swirling, surfacing, and then disappearing, only to surface again later. Devastation, heartbreak, and anger coursed through my veins. Why did he have to die now, when we were starting to grow closer? None of this seemed fair at all. Death had snatched him away. What other stories could we have shared—what other memories could I cling to?

My mom led me down the hall toward the intensive care unit. I’d managed to collect myself, even though I knew that it would all come unraveled when I saw my grandpa, grandma, and the others. As we approached the room, I dreaded going in. I dreaded to not only see him, but also to face the guilt of knowing that my father had perhaps missed out on a chance to say one last goodbye.

Everything about the room reeked of death. The air was marked by a heavy presence that I had never before felt, and have only felt once since. My eyes were drawn to the pallid corpse that was my grandfather—his once-bulky frame now thinned from the wear of deteriorating health. I ran over to my grandma and let out deep sobs, saying, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” As I embraced each of my relatives, their calmness struck me. Witnessing my own emotional breakdown had moved them all back to tears, but their expressions were filled with an air of acceptance that I’d not expected.

My dad approached me. “Would you like to say goodbye?” I walked over to the bed and took hold of my grandpa’s frail, lifeless hand. I managed to choke out the words “I love you, grandpa. I hope you’ll always know that.”

Putting his arm around me, dad said, “He knows, son.” He looked up. “He’ll always know.”

I’m a Terrible Blogger…

…For the sole reason of neglecting this blog that I’d promised you, dear reader, I would attempt to update regularly.

It’s unfathomable that it’s been nearly a year since I’ve written on here. And yet, so much has happened in that year. Aside from the usual “everyone I know got a year older and wiser,” life has had its fair share of ups and downs.

I’m now a senior (!) at Syracuse, and this is my last undergraduate semester. I find myself in disbelief at how quickly things have gone, especially when considering how much has happened in such a short amount of time. The fall semester was jam-packed, as usual. Marching band took me all over the place–from a Buffalo Bills game, to Montreal, and to the Meadowlands in two weeks for the Super Bowl, where we will be performing the pre-game show with the Rutgers University Marching Band. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime, and I feel so fortunate to be able to take part.

Academically speaking, last semester was interesting. I’m done with my political science major requirements, so my coursework was devoted to completing my writing major and remaining liberal arts requirements. I took an introductory-level philosophy course that actually ended up being somewhat fascinating. The topics we studied included the philosophy of religion, epistemology, and theories of reality. The whole experience opened my mind to new ways of thinking about things, especially when it comes to logical reasoning.

I’m still planning on attending law school next year (because ‘more attorneys’ is just what the doctor ordered for the world, right?). Where I’ll end up, I’m not completely sure. I’m planning on applying all over the Northeast, simply because I don’t want to be too far away from home. I’m currently in the thick of the application process–be watching for angsty jeremiads about how applications are the worst thing ever.

On a personal level, I’ve forged many new friendships this year. One of the things I love about marching band is that it gives you a vast social network simply by virtue of being in it–you automatically recognize two hundred faces around campus. This year has been no different. I’ve met some wonderful new people and connected more with people I already knew. I’ve also very recently started dating this girl, Natalie, and she’s just wonderful. Really. I’m not going to spend too long gushing about her (probably because she’s going to read this at some point and call me out on it), but suffice it to say that I’m pretty happy with where I am in life right now.

I should probably wrap this up because I’m playing at a basketball game later this afternoon (in the pep band, not on the court. That would just be hilarious.). I hope you have been enjoying the new year, and I promise you that I will try to be a better blogger in 2014.

Cheers!

–DS

The Bootstrap Illusion

America: The country where anyone–even the poorest of the poor–can make it. The land of opportunity. Ah yes, using our superior free-market system, the ones on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder can “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” into the middle class, or even wealth. But this America, characterized by a vast, even playing field, is no more. No, that America is long dead, and in its place is a new land, filled with inaccessible privilege and growing poverty. The love-affair we’ve had with bootstraps exists only as an illusion.

I was browsing through Facebook the other day, and the below image popped up in my News Feed. It’s a map of these great United States–each state is color-coded according to the work hours per week at minimum wage required to afford Fair Market Rent. The data is really quite striking:

Source: National Low Income Housing Coalition

Source: National Low Income Housing Coalition

In the United States, it is impossible to afford a two-bedroom unit at Fair Market Rent by working a minimum wage job for forty hours a week. In most cases, working well over the forty-hour threshold, or even taking on additional jobs (a difficult prospect where there are children to raise), is required. Admittedly, my knowledge of the history of minimum wage is rusty, but I’m almost certain that it was established as a safety net for workers–a means of protecting them from being paid wages that would nearly force them into poverty. Minimum wage, however, has not been doing its job in this respect. What happens when groceries, transportation, medical bills, daycare, and other expenditures are added into a minimum wage workers’ budget? Enrollment in social programs such as welfare and food stamps nearly becomes a necessity.

This is not “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps”–at least not in the traditional sense of the phrase. We’ve heard stories from politicians and other successful businessmen and -women that go something like “I started out in the lowest levels of the company, and then used old-fashioned hard work and determination to rise through the ranks and be successful.” Usually included in these stories is how they waited tables to pay for school and things of that nature. (I won’t even go into the exorbitant price of a college education and how waiting tables would never pay anyone’s way through most public four-year institutions in the present day.

How are we to fix this problem reasonably? Some (such as myself) advocate for a living wage–a wage that allows workers to meet all the necessities of life through that wage alone. I recommend taking a look at the Living Wage Calculator created by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In Syracuse, New York (where I go to school), the living wage required for a single parent and two children is $27.81 an hour–much higher than the existing $7.25 an hour minimum wage in New York State.

The drawback for living wages, however, is cost. Even in the city of Syracuse, living wages are much greater than minimum wage, and this added cost is seen as a burden on businesses. For some small businesses who are already struggling, paying a living wage to workers isn’t always a possibility. It’s quite the conundrum–if not a living wage, then how are the poor to rise out of poverty?

Impoverished Americans exist in what I call a state of institutionalized poverty–that is, they are in a nearly-perpetual (and permanent) state of poverty because of existing public policy. An alternative to requiring a living wage is raising current minimum wages–especially as inflation continues to rise. Although this seems like a reasonable plan to some, such proposals nearly always result in a political slugfest where the rhetoric is peppered with references to “burdening employers.” In addition to this argument, some opponents to raising minimum wage actually argue that they have the best interests of workers in mind. In 2012, Republicans in the New York Legislature blocked a plan that would raise minimum wage to $8.50 an hour, arguing that raising wages to that level would hurt workers in the form of having to pay more in taxes.

So if raising minimum wage is too difficult, what about increasing the strength of social safety nets? No, this can’t be done, either. According to the rhetoric of the right, social programs such as welfare and food stamps must be cut, because they’re burdening budgets and are ineffective at teaching the impoverished to take care of themselves (I’ve heard the argument that National Parks tell visitors not to feed wildlife for the exact reason). Moreover, opponents of social safety nets often argue that the system is full of people who abuse it, and therefore these programs should be weakened or eliminated altogether. The possibility of strengthening these programs only looks politically salient in perhaps the most liberal of states.

With the prospect of strengthening social programs looking like a long shot, how about addressing the problem of rent? If we aren’t to pay a living wage, raise minimum wage for inflation, or strengthen social safety nets, then subsidizing housing could help alleviate the problem, right? The construction of government-owned housing with reduced rent means more money in the pockets of individuals working at minimum wage living in those complexes. Such plans, however, are often met with resistance. Besides the issues of increased spending for these projects (remember that spending is evil and must be gutted, unless it’s for military purposes), there are deeply rooted cultural stigmas attached to them–the common complaint is that they attract “undesirables.” And I won’t even get into the whole other can of worms that is the “this is socialism” school of thought. This course of action, like the others, looks to be largely implausible, at least on a broad level.

Such is the state of institutionalized poverty–nearly every sort of proposal to help the poor rise out of this state of existence is met with opposition that sometimes borders on fierce. Can we raise wages? No, it’s a burden on those paying the wages. Can we strengthen social programs? No, it’s a burden on the budget, and those on them are parasites, anyway. Can we subsidize housing? No, it’s also a burden on the budget, and the people who live in the housing aren’t desirable to have around. When so many potential solutions to help the poor out of their current situation are shot down, poverty almost becomes state sanctioned–no solution is good enough, so the poor must find their own way into the middle class. We can just ignore the fact that it’s nearly impossible to get there.

A minimum wage worker shouldn’t need to put in hundreds of hours per week in order to be able to afford their rent (in addition to every other necessary expense). Making a living on a forty hour work week is the standard in this country, and our wages should reflect this by allowing those who earn the very lowest wages to do just that: make a living. Whatever course of action is taken must be comprehensive, and truly accomplish the goal of helping the poor out of poverty through their own hard work. We live in the world of the bootstrap illusion–getting out of poverty with no assistance is a near impossibility. I dream of an America where the poor can truly raise themselves out of poverty–even if government is giving their bootstraps a little tug along the way.

Let’s Talk About Guns (and Mental Health)

In the wake of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT, we’ve been inundated with rhetoric about guns from both the right at the left. At the most extreme ends of the spectrum, we’ve heard people calling for the complete ban of all firearms, and we’ve also heard people calling for their complete deregulation. Neither of these scenarios are plausible. Instead, we need a combination of two things: more regulations for guns, and increased access to mental health services.

Gun violence is a problem that must be addressed. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S. has 3.7 gun-related homicides per 100,000 people. While this number appears fairly low, it’s high enough to place us at fourteenth in international rankings (just ahead of Costa Rica, whose rate is 3.32 gun-related homicides/100,000 people). When we compare the United States to other highly-developed countries, however, we move up significantly in the rankings. According to U.N. data, the United States ranks first among other developed/industrialized nations–including former members of the Soviet Eastern Bloc, where the firearm-related homicide rate is well below 1 per 100,000. This is similar in non-European (but developed) nations such as Canada and Australia.

Compared to these other developed countries, the United States has the loosest gun control laws and the highest rate of gun ownership–88.1 guns per 100 people. In Japan, most guns are illegal, and almost no one owns one. In that country, there are 0.6 guns for every 100 people. In 2008, there were eleven firearm-related homicides. Total. Let me say that again: Japan had eleven firearm-related homicides in 2008.

In the United Kingdom, there are 6.72 firearms for every 100 citizens. Gun control in Britain is much stricter than in the US–in order to own a gun, you must obtain either a five-year firearm certificate or shotgun certificate from police. In order to obtain these certificates, the police must be convinced that “good reason” for owning the firearms exists, and that the individual can be trusted with it “without danger to the public safety or to the peace.” Good reason, according to British law, consists of sporting purposes, collecting, or work-related needs. But that’s not all: After the previous steps have been completed, the individual applying for the permit must provide a verification of their identity, two references who can verify their good character, an approval of the application by the applicant’s family doctor, an inspection of the premises in which the guns will be stored, and an interview by a Firearms Enquiry Officer. A background check on the applicant is then completed. If the certificate(s) are issued, they must be renewed every five years. Perhaps these strict regulations (and complex process for obtaining a gun) are why only eighteen Bretons were murdered with a firearm in 2009.

The logic of the pro-gun movement is that we’d be safer with more guns, not less–that shootings in Aurora and Newtown would have been less severe if a bystander had been armed. But when compared to other highly developed nations, this logic doesn’t make sense. According to the argument that more guns = more safety, less guns should mean less safety (and that has been almost explicitly articulated by the “if only someone had been carrying…” rhetoric). Almost the opposite holds true, however. In Europe, Canada, and Australia, less guns have meant more safety.

Since the incident in Newtown, I’ve also heard the argument usually articulated as “criminals carry out these shootings, and criminals don’t obey the law, so therefore more laws aren’t the answer.” While I could go on and on about the ridiculousness of such a statement (I mean, murderers are criminals, and criminals don’t obey the law, therefore we should get rid of laws that prohibit killing each other), there have been numerous studies to dispute (or disprove) this line of thinking. According to a study done by Mother Jones, the overwhelming majority of individuals who committed mass shootings over the past two decades in the U.S. obtained their weapons legally. In fact, 49 of the 63 shooters obtained their weapons through legal avenues. Of the 142 total weapons used, over 75% of them were legal. Below is a chart detailing the weapons used in the attacks.

Of the 63 mass shootings that have occurred in the U.S. since 1982, over 75% of the weapons used were obtained legally.

Of the 63 mass shootings that have occurred in the U.S. since 1982,                                                                   over 75% of the weapons used were obtained legally

Based on these statistics, it’s clear that the vast majority of mass murderers use legally obtained weapons to commit their respective crimes. The one incident in Newtown (in which the shooter stole his mother’s guns) cannot be used as a textbook case to justify the deregulation of firearms.

One proposal that’s gained some traction (but has also seen severe backlash) is a ban on assault weapons–namely semiautomatic weapons. Such weapons are quite popular when it comes to mass shootings, according to statistics published by Mother Jones. Of the 142 weapons used in the mass shootings in the U.S. since 1982, 103 of them have been semiautomatic handguns or assault weapons, while revolvers and shotguns account for only 39 of the weapons. These numbers are broken down below:

Mass shooters overwhelmingly prefer semiautomatic handguns and assault weapons.

Mass shooters overwhelmingly prefer semiautomatic handguns and assault weapons.

Of course, at the center of all this debate is the Second Amendment and its interpretation. The Amendment reads “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” This Amendment is rooted in the bygone era of militias as the primary form of defense from foreign belligerents. At the time, the primary form of defense in the United States were minuteman militias, composed of volunteers who could (and were) readily activated into service. The muskets of the time were the primary weapons of these units, and the peoples’ right to own them was of great importance.

Fast forward to the present day, when the United States has one of the largest and most well-regulated standing armies in existence. When the muskets of yesteryear (which could take up to fifteen seconds to load) are treasured antiques, and the weapons of choice have the capability to kill dozens of people in the time it takes to load one musket. Doesn’t complete deregulation seem a bit extreme? Would the Founders really be supportive of the peoples’ right to own automatic weapons capable of mass murder? I certainly don’t think so.

And I’m not wholly anti-gun, don’t get me wrong. I understand that firearm ownership is an embedded cultural value in this country. We live in a country where a lot of people (including some of my own relatives) are avid hunters and gun enthusiasts, and regularly exercise their Second Amendment rights. However, I simply cannot believe that the intent of this Amendment was to stick an assault rifle in the hands of anyone who wants one. The Founders intended for people to be able to defend themselves at a time when an army of our current class did not exist, and police forces were largely nonexistent. A more modern interpretation is necessary, and this interpretation includes restrictions on gun ownership, including licensing, education on how to use guns, mental health screenings and comprehensive background checks for all guns, not just some. Such regulations would not infringe upon our right to gun ownership, but would better weed out the mentally ill people who perpetrate crimes like the ones in Aurora, CO or Newtown, CT.

And a note about mental health–the study done by Mother Jones indicates that a majority of the mass shooters of the past two decades were mentally ill, and exhibited signs of this illness prior to their crimes. Adam Lanza, the shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary School, also showed signs of mental illness throughout his life. These people need help, but treatment is wholly inadequate. According to an anonymously written open letter (I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother), the author’s own son has severe mental problems, but help for him is virtually nonexistent. She writes, “When I asked my son’s social worker about my options, he said that the only thing I could do was to get Michael charged with a crime. ‘If he’s back in the system, they’ll create a paper trail,’ he said. ‘That’s the only way you’re ever going to get anything done. No one will pay attention to you unless you’ve got charges.'” The criminal justice system is not the answer for the mentally ill–that’s punishment, not treatment. And prisons are now becoming hubs for the mentally ill. The author writes “With state-run treatment centers and hospitals shuttered, prison is now the last resort for the mentally ill — Rikers Island, the LA County Jail and Cook County Jail in Illinois housed the nation’s largest treatment centers in 2011.”

The United States needs a better mental health care system. The only way to accomplish this is to do what nearly every other industrialized nation has done by adopting universal health care. In the United Kingdom, all mental health services are free of charge. The same holds true for Australia, Canada, and Japan. In fact, nearly every country with lower rates of gun violence (mass shootings, in particular) have more universal health care systems which allow individuals to seek mental health treatment. In the United States, cost serves as a big barrier to mental health treatment. According to a study published by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 45% of those who needed mental health treatment but didn’t seek it cited cost as the main barrier to seeking care. Isn’t it plausible that the reason we have so many mass shootings in this country is because our mental health care is inadequate?

Much of the rhetoric from the pro-gun lobby features the phrase “I’m fat, and it’s the fork’s fault.” In other words, the anti-gun faction places too much blame on the gun and not on the person holding it. Some middle ground between the two must be forged. While we should be placing all the blame in the world on mentally stable individuals who go out and shoot twenty people, we cannot be so quick to blame the mentally ill who do so. Yes, what they do is evil, and I don’t by any means condone their actions or sympathize with them. But we need to recognize that this is a broader societal issue–these people go largely without any kind of help, simply because our system cannot meet their needs. These people need our willingness to help before they commit crimes, not our hatred after it’s too late. A friend of mine recently said that Adam Lanza’s mother should have “locked him up a long time ago” to prevent something like this. This could not be a more ignorant stance–Lanza’s mother is one of the victims here. She was killed at the hands of her own son. We cannot know the hardships she faced and the battles she fought raising her son. How do we know that she didn’t seek help, but was turned away or ignored?

Mass shootings have become an alarming trend in the United States–in the past twenty years, there have been 63. That’s an average of 3.15 per year. If we’re going to stop future slaughter, future bloodshed, we need reform now. We need to reform our gun control laws and make them stricter. Evidence from around the globe indicates that such action is effective at reducing overall rates of gun violence. But we can’t stop there–we need health reform as well. A comprehensive, universal health care system can provide the treatment to mentally ill individuals who might otherwise enter a crowded mall and open fire. In light of the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, our biggest mistake would be to pretend that there isn’t a problem and take discussions of reform off the table. We need to talk about this, and the longer we wait, the less likely we are to get anywhere. How many more innocent people have to die before we’re ready to talk?