I am struck by the lack of data in the gun-control conversation I have heard on TV and radio lately. Perhaps this is because, as my friend Ethan wrote, “the dialogue on gun laws in the US is locked between two positions that are both completely divorced from reality,” and there is no room for data in that kind of dialogue. Whatever the reason, casual listeners like myself hear a lot of talk and very little statistics.

What kind of guns fire the bullets that kill people in this country? If for some reason we’re only interested in mass killings (which most of the time seems to be the case), what kinds of guns fired those bullets? What percentage of the guns were purchased (new? used?) by the shooter? What percentage stolen? How many killings were “good guys” killing “bad guys”? In other words, how much of the killing that has happened would be have been effected by each set of proposed gun-control regulations?

What are the media diets of murderers? Do they differ in any real way from non-murderers? Is there any hint of a dose-response relationship between media violence/1st person shooters and murder? In other words, do you increase your chances of killing someone by playing Half-Life 2 for 900 hours?

I am in a similar state of frustrated ignorance about mental illness and mass killings, or murder in general. This is a subject that interests me greatly, as I work in the mental health system. It is somehow much more controversial to increase the regulations on guns than it is to create a national database of people who have been diagnosed with mental disorders. I can’t think of a better way to reduce the number of people who get help with psychological troubles that to create a database of them.

Maybe I could be swayed, though, if I had some facts to work with. How many murderers have been diagnosed with what disorders? What psych meds were they on? How many had inpatient vs outpatient treatment? How do those numbers compare to the general populations? Clinical populations?

One thing no one seems to talk about is that mass killings could be a trend the way methods of suicide have trends. I find this idea plausible and quite disturbing. Now, in the US, when you realize that you need to do something spectacularly evil, the obvious thing to do is go to a school or mall and kill a bunch of people. I went to school in the 1980s, before this trend established itself, and I feel lucky to have gotten out when I did. I remember at least one kid who was bullied so bad I’m surprised he didn’t bring a gun to school. It just wasn’t what you did yet.

From that perspective, it seems unlikely that making it more difficult to buy certain guns will make much of a difference. (Of course, I have no empirical evidence to back myself up there, and I am happy to be swayed by evidence.) From that perspective, the most and perhaps only effective intervention for the problem would be the media refusing to report the incidents. This seems way less likely than gun-control legislation, and media-control legislation is more obviously unconstitutional.

The question of constitutionality of gun-control is also confusing to me. Assuming “arms” was synonymous with “weapons” in 1791, there was a pretty good constitutional argument against any kind of weapons-control 200 years ago. That argument is long obsolete. I don’t hear anyone advocating unregulated access to rocket launchers or nuclear weapons. So we’re left in this zone that is not mentioned by the constitution, where we have to draw a line between weapons we want to regulate and those that we don’t using the democratic process. That process doesn’t seem to be about the constitution any more, except when gun-rights advocates invoke it without getting into the issue of rocket launchers or Adam Lanza with a combat drone.

Finally, I am most baffled by the folks who are talking about “starting another civil war” if the government tries to “take our guns.” It’s not just that no one of any consequence is talking about disarming anyone. It’s the most clear example of the pro-military-anti-government disconnect in the right wing. Just like conservatives never seem to be thinking of the military when they mention government spending or government employees, they must not be thinking of our military as “the government” when they talk about a civil war. A civil war would not be fought against corrupt, middle-aged bureaucrats and politicians, it would be fought and lost against the United States military.


I’m taking a couples assessment class this summer, and right now I’m reading about a tension between family therapy models that Sciarra and Simon (in Handbook of Multicultural Assessment) call either idiographic or nomothetic.

Nomothetic models say that families have problems because they get out of whack in ways that families do. That is, each nomothetic model has its own list of ways that families can get out of whack and a therapist using that model is to keep a sharp lookout for those things. Structural therapists look for dysfunctional boundaries, for example. Strategic therapists look for incongruous hierarchies. Bowenians look for emotional reactivity. Emotionally-focused therapists look for maladaptive attachment styles. Each nomothetic model says that the therapist needs to assess for these underlying problems, treat them, and therapy should be successful.

Idiographic models call nomothetic models “cultural imperialism.” That means nomothetic therapists are just teaching (or tricking) their clients into thinking, feeling, and acting like them. Nomothetic therapists are forcing their culture on their clients. Calling someone a cultural imperialist is about as close to an accusation of pure evil as a post-modernist will make. Further, idiographic models say that culture (any culture) is oppressive of individuals, and that this oppression is the only reason families seek therapy. The ideographic therapist’s job (Sciarra & Simon list language-systems, solution-focused, and narrative therapies as idiographic) is to have a conversation with families about the ways they are being oppressed by their culture.

There are a couple of funny things going on here, but to understand it, first you need to know that nomothetic models are mostly “old-school” models that emerged in the 1950s and 60s, while ideographic models are newer, postmodern, all the rage, and emerged as a consequence of this nomothetic/ideographic conversation. In the 1980s, postmodern family therapists started saying that family therapy was arrogant and hierarchical and created the idiographic schools.

The first funny thing is that the old-school, nomothetic family therapy models emerged in much the same way, as a reaction to the arrogant and hierarchical field of psychiatry. The founders of family therapy said to psychiatry, “Human problems exist in the context of families. Your pathologizing medical model is not appropriate here.” Now the ideographic models are saying to the nomothetic founders, “Human problems exist in the context of cultures. Your pathologizing medical model is not appropriate here.”

Who is right? Well, that depends on your epistemology. So far, the nomothetic models have more experimental evidence to support them, and they are undeniably effective. To be fair, they have had more time to collect evidence, so in time things may go either way. And to be extra-fair, real post-modern idiographs can reject experimental evidence on philosophical grounds; experiments are so modern, so medical-model. What value system produced your research questions, anyway? That’s funny thing number two.

Funny thing number three is that, as Ken Wilber says, everyone may be right. Perhaps problems happen at every level of complexity, from our bodies to our minds to our families to our larger social systems, and nomothetic models just specialize in the family level, while idiographic models specialize in cultures. It’s a neat idea, possibly too neat, and difficult to tease out. I’ve written a little about it here.

The fourth funny thing is that the idiographic models, while broadening the scope of consideration in some ways, put the focus back on the individual in therapy. They say that culture is intrinsically dehumanizing, and that dehumanization is what an idiographic therapist talks about, but the other parties in the process are not part of the conversation. If I’m a narrative therapist and you send your depressed son to me, we will talk a lot about that depression. We will externalize it, maybe give it a name like “Mr. Funky,” talk about how Mr. Funky speaks with the voice of oppressive culture, talk about times when your son was able to overcome Mr. Funky’s influence and work on ways of increasing that ability. In the end, if I’m a good therapist, we have probably helped your son, but we’ve also focused on how your son thinks, feels, and behaves, where a nomothetic therapist would have been focusing on the whole family–how do they interact? Do the parents get along? How might this symptom of depression make sense in your son’s immediate system of relationships? Who all has a stake in this behavior and can we get them in the room too? And so on. There is a way that by ostensibly moving the location of pathology out of the family to the larger culture, ideographic models have brought the clinical focus back to individuals, which may seem like regression to the founders of family therapy.

On Friday I had my first Wellness & Spirituality Throughout the Life Cycle class in my couples and family therapy program. We had an open discussion of the meaning of spirituality that got pretty tense. I admit that I was pretty confused about what was making things tense–I was not in the clearest of minds, as I’d just taken comps the day before. It did get me thinking about Ken Wilber’s essay in Integral Spirituality about the four meanings of the word spirituality. In it, he says that there are at least four very common ways that people mean that word, and that if the specific meaning is not made clear it can lead to confusing and confused arguments. Here’s my paraphrase of his four common meanings:

1) Any human intelligence, skill, or ability taken to the highest level. Think Einstein’s intellect, Carl Rogers’ empathizing. In Kosmic Consciousness, Wilber mentions Michael Jordan playing basketball as an example of this meaning of spiritual.

2) Spirituality as its own kind of human intelligence, as in James Fowler’s Stages of Faith. Wilber cites Fowler’s stages  as just one example: Humans have a capacity for faith that can progress throughout their lives, from an “undifferentiated faith” at infancy through stages like “mythic-literal faith” and eventually, possibly, to “universalizing faith” as his furthest potential.

3) Spirituality as a state of consciousness, as in meditative states or other meaningful altered states. Also peak experiences.

4) Spirituality as a facet of personality or personality type. People who are very compassionate or loving, for example, might be described as spiritual.

If you believe in the unconscious mind, or one of its many permutations, subconscious, non-conscious, pre-conscious, extra-conscious, (and maybe even cognitive schemas or implicit memory), if you believe that any of your thoughts, emotions, or behaviors are caused by or motivated by factors of which you are not aware (and if you don’t, let me know and I’ll send you a week’s worth of reading, research showing you are almost certainly wrong), then you cannot rationally believe that you have free will, because even if you did have free will, you could never know it. There will always be that possibility that each action you take is guided by something that is not your will. You can still believe that you might have free will, and you might,* but not that you do have free will.

*In fact, you may be better off pretending that you do.