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The Oregon shootings and functional competence

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    By Kent Parker - Posted on 04 October 2015

    In fifty years time, researchers who look back at the recent Oregon killings will be confounded at the lack of functional competence in our society today.  Chris Harper-Mercer, the shooter in this case was known in the community for unusual behavour and had attended a school for teens with emotional disabilities.  His mother was open about her gun collection and support of open carry laws and the shooter himself owned 13 guns.  After the tragedy a number of statements the shooter made prior to the incident were made public.  There will no doubt be an intensive investigation at a later date, but in the meantime these few statements give a little indication of what might have motivated him.  These are some statements of interest:

    He wrote that he was 'in a bad way' and 'had no life'.

    He is also said to have complained that he did not have a girlfriend, adding that 'he felt the world was against him'

    And in another report he venerates another mass shooter with the comments:

    'On an interesting note, I have noticed that so many people like him are all alone and unknown, yet when they spill a little blood, the whole world knows who they are. A man who was known by no one, is now known by everyone.  His face splashed across every screen, his name across the lips of every person on the planet, all in the course of one day. Seems the more people you kill, the more you're in the limelight.'

    Neighbors said [the shooter] was a visibly ‘anxious’ and friendless loner who lived with his mother and surfed dating sites looking for love.

    From the above it is apparent that the shooter had unmet emotional needs and he decided that mass murder was the only way to get the attention he craved.  There is really nothing else to find out about his motivation.  We have the answers.

    The researchers from the future will wonder how this known dysfunctional person was able to legally obtain so many lethal weapons in a society so advanced as the United States is at this time.  But then they'll recall that in 2015 developed society was still largely functionally incompetent.

    What do we mean by Functional Incompetence?

    Despite all our advances in science and medicine, we, in the year 2015, do not fundamentally understand human functionality. We do not understand much about what makes one person functional and what makes another person dysfunctional.  In reports on the Oregon shooter, there are the usual allegations that he suffered from Asperger's Syndrome, but how does that help?  Is that a way to offload blame from society onto some "objective scientific fact" outside of our control?  Regardless of his "syndome", the shooter was still a human being with the same full spectrum of human emotional and physical needs as every other one of us.  Allegedly having Aspergers does not stop him from wanting and needing love, from wanting and needing to be useful and to succeed and diagnosing him does not protect us from the consequences of his behaviour.

    Functional competence compares with literacy in that a functional person is able to both read dysfunction in others and to impart functionality within themself. They may or may not always succeed at this task but at least they can understand and recognise it.

    When we educate our children we expect them to be literate (able to write) when they leave school, yet there is no minimal expectation of functional competence, because there are no reliable tests and a considerable dearth of knowledge of functionality.  Ensuring our children are literate is a task of both parents and schools, because we all understand that the ability to read and write is fundamental to surviving in our modern society.  In contrast, schools and parents are often indifferent to functional competence, and will pass over or do very little about odd or self-destructive behaviour.  When we do attend to functional problems in children it is often in the form of pharmaceutical treatments but it is possible that this is not actually dealing with the dysfunction but simply repressing it until some later date, when the person is no longer a child but a fully fledged adult with potentially lethal abilities.

    It should be obvious from incidents such as the Oregon shooting that being functionally competent is as important to survival in our society as being reading and writing literate.

    How do we teach functional competence?

    Universal reading and writing literacy only became a goal in Britain in 1880s when schooling became compulsory for 5 to 10 year olds.  Now the literacy rate is 99%.  That may not be 100% but it should be possible to say that, unless those other 1% are living on some lonely isle in the Hebrides, then those people too know what is required in order to become literate, even if they aren't themselves.  When it comes to functional competence, we do not know what proportion of the population are sufficiently functionally incompetent that they cannot successfully participate in society in a meaningful way, however we do have statistics on sickness beneficiaries and numbers suffering from different disorders such as depression and schizophrenia.  These do give us some indication of levels of functional competence and incidents such as the Oregon shooting indicate that we have a lot of progress to make.

    Comparing functional competence with literacy helps us to understand that the school is the best place to start with teaching functional competence.  For a child, the school needs to be a safe and supportive place.  Work towards this is well under way with programmes against bullying taking place in most developed countries.  The school has much greater resources at its disposal to help with the emotional and developmental needs of a child than the family home.  Teachers at schools need to support all students with unconditional positive regard so that they support the student in a positive manner through thick and thin. We hear stories from friends of how, when they were at school, a teacher once said to them that they'd never amount to anything.  There is no need for a teacher to make such a destructive comment; society at large gives us plenty of that kind of feedback.  Often the most disruptive students have the most challenging family environments and are in the most need of school and functional competence.  If we fail them at school they may end up Oregon shooters.

    Given the free availability of knowledge on the internet, school teachers have less and less need to be containers of knowledge, and in a functionaly competent society, should be focused more on teaching functional competence, so that the children that leave at the end of high school are more likely to be emotionally balanced and productive people.  The researchers of the future will be able to look back and observe the kinds of functional competency programmes that are missing from the curriculum in 2015.  Definitely, for most of us, while still living in 2015 are not able to see what it is that we still do not know about human functionality and what it is we can do to help children to become more functional than they might otherwise be.