What Stephen Sondheim Can Teach Us About School Violence

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We Americans are used to horrific acts of violence at public schools. Usually this involves one or more kids going nuts with a gun. After it happens, we engage in a lot of navel gazing about what happened, why, who is responsible, etc.

I wrote about one part of this discussion, the blame being assessed on the government, on China/Divide yesterday. But perhaps the quintessential debate that goes on is the old “individual vs. society” distinction. Was it a crazy person or a poor soul wronged by society?

In the U.S., there are political overtones to this debate. Traditionally, the “individual as bad actor” position is taken by the Right (Republicans) in their role as being “tough on crime.” Some of you may be familiar with the “Guns Don’t Kill People, People Do” tagline of the National Rifle Association.

The “society is to blame” position is often taken up by the Left (Democrats). As a Lefty myself, I also gravitate towards the “society” position, particularly since that line of thinking at least offers the possibility of preventing such violence. The proponents of the “individual” theory have to rely on early identification of these†people so they can be locked up and/or treated.

So in the wake of these senseless tragedies here in China, we of course get a homegrown version of the classic debate. Here’s how one writer set forth her position in a Global Times editorial:

Recent attacks against school children have stunned China.

In public discourse, one common explanation for the criminals’ motives has emerged. It’s claimed that they were seeking revenge on society, and many parts of the media focused on the criminals’ personalities and hard lives.

Our attitude toward such child-murderers should be clear. We could not ascribe it exclusively to social problems or the criminals’ weakness. Who is more vulnerable than children? If we judge the question wrongly, our society would suffer a confusion of basic moral judgment.

I’ve been writing about this topic for weeks now, and I think I’ve developed an immunity to the tragic nature of all this. Then again, perhaps I just lack basic morals.

Whatever the cause, what’s the first thing that popped into my mind after reading that editorial? What’s the source I am most familiar with that sets out the different sides in this debate in a succinct and coherent manner?

Officer Krupke On Broadway

Of course it’s the song “Officer Krupke” from West Side Story. Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics set out the theories very well, albeit in a less than respectful manner. It is, in fact, satire.

You be the judge. But first, to set it up for you kids who are not familiar with West Side Story. This particular musical number has a bunch of juvenile delinquents being hassled by a cop (Officer Krupke, naturally). They make fun of him afterward, doing a short skit about how one of them, post arrest, would be processed by the New York City juvenile court system.

These are excerpts only (I took out the chorus, etc.). Full lyrics can be found here.

I. Blame the Parents

ACTION:
Dear kindly Sergeant Krupke,
You gotta understand,
It’s just our bringin’ up-ke
That gets us out of hand.
Our mothers all are junkies,
Our fathers all are drunks.
Golly Moses, natcherly we’re punks!

ACTION AND JETS :
Gee, Officer Krupke, we’re very upset;
We never had the love that ev’ry child oughta get.
We ain’t no delinquents,
We’re misunderstood.
Deep down inside us there is good!

ACTION:
Dear kindly Judge, your Honor,
My parents treat me rough.
With all their marijuana,
They won’t give me a puff.
They didn’t wanna have me,
But somehow I was had.
Leapin’ lizards! That’s why I’m so bad!

II. Blame mental illness

DIESEL: (As Judge) Right!
Officer Krupke, you’re really a square;
This boy don’t need a judge, he needs an analyst’s care!
It’s just his neurosis that oughta be curbed.
He’s psychologic’ly disturbed!

III. Blame society

A-RAB: (As Psychiatrist) Yes!
Officer Krupke, you’re really a slob.
This boy don’t need a doctor, just a good honest job.
Society’s played him a terrible trick,
And sociologic’ly he’s sick!

IV. Blame the individual’s actions

BABY JOHN: (As Female Social Worker)
Eek!
Officer Krupke, you’ve done it again.
This boy don’t need a job, he needs a year in the pen.
It ain’t just a question of misunderstood;
Deep down inside him, he’s no good!

So there you have it. A complete exposition of the various positions taken by all the commentators out there on the school violence issue. All kidding aside, it’s actually a damn good summary, all things considered. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by this; West Side Story‘s main plot deals with inner-city gangs, racism, and violence.

Things haven’t much changed on this front (i.e. the basic argument) since the 1960s, and probably long before that.

3 responses on “What Stephen Sondheim Can Teach Us About School Violence

  1. Hank

    Amusing to see Officer Krupke portrayed by a black. Of course, Chinese not familiar with the play will get the wrong message but that doesn’t matter.

    Also the name Krupke is the Germanized form of Slavic krupka. This black policeman must have come from the German Black Forest.

    Stan your premise is that the Chinese “government” shouldn’t be singled out for the sole blame in the recent rash of attacks on the school children.

    In fairness, you say the US “government” also shouldn’t be blamed for the shootings that took place at its various schools.

    Maybe you’re right but I believe all governments set a social “mood” which allows or encourages certain types of social behavior including the bizarre and pervrted.

    I believe some social pathology in America can be traced to the “excessive” freedoms that exist and are allowed in US society.

    I also believe some social pathology can be traced to the “excessive” restrictions and controls that exist in the PRC society.

    The particularity or special features of these pathologies will reflect themselves in the uniqueness of the culture or society.

    Chinese men chopping up little children is definitely bizarre. Could this be connected to “death by 10,000 cuts”?

    Muslims and Africans performing clitoridectomies on little girls is perverted.

    Russian serial killers eating their victims is weird.

    In Thai society, Thai women have a reputation of cutting off the penises of unfaithful husbands and boyfriends.

    American society experiments with novel, technical ways of executing prisoners – electricity, gas, lethal drug injection, etc.

    Governments provide a “mood” that allow certain types of behavior, no matter how bizarre, to exist.

    The answer, if there is an answer, on why some societies commit bizarre crimes must be buried deep in the historical psyche of that culture.

    1. Stan Post author

      It might be useful to separate government policy from political structure from the actions of certain leaders, etc. Generalizations here are problematic on both sides.

      Also, certainly government and society are intertwined. You get what you pay for, in some ways. Or maybe social compact theory explains it better. Regardless, the “society is to blame” argument shouldn’t be used to go after the government, but by specific policies or structures, in addition to social trends, etc.

      Probably doesn’t need to be pointed out, but the jury is still out on “nature vs. nurture,” so in many ways, we are engaging in a lot of mindless speculation — and I’m encouraging it!