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Here’s the story:

The first priority now, of course, is taking care of all the people affected by this, showing support, being there for those who need it. Everyone able to offer that moral or material support should do so.

Our second priority is making sure that it never happens again, or happens with far less frequency. We shouldn’t fall into the habit of thinking of this as “an isolated incident,” and treat it the way we might treat a natural disaster, as if it just happens from time to time, and merits mourning but no changes in how we frame our shared existence. Rep. Rhonda Fields, who of course lost her own son to violence, was just on 9-News reminding us that we have to work to ensure that this DOESN’T happen, that we are not a society in the grip of random violence.

And the obvious way for us to stop being such a violent society is for us to stop being such a violent society, in thoughts, in beliefs, in ideology, in how some of us fetishize instruments of destruction, and in actions.

There will be those who insist that it is “wrong” to use this as a catalyst for discussing the underlying social problems involved, but if we don’t draw attention to them in the moments when their consequences explode upon us, then they are more easily minimized by those so inclined in times when their consequences are more remote from our thoughts.

Kyle Clark on 9-News just suggested that we all say or do something nice for someone today so that that ripples out and creates a more caring and mutually supportive society, and Kyle Dyer added that we should do so every day. They’re right; we make our culture and our society through our thoughts and actions. But we shouldn’t live dual lives, one defined by trying to be nice to those around us, and another defined by callousness and a lack of compassion in how we arrange our shared existence.

We need to work to become a different kind of society, a society that believes it’s important to reduce the levels of violence that we suffer, a society that is defined more by how much we care about and support one another than by how much we fear and loathe one another, a society that believes in BEING a society more than it believes in some moral imperative of mutual indifference. We all, as members of a society that participates in the creation of the culture in which we live, share some portion of responsibility for every event of this nature that occurs, either for what we’ve done to cultivate such a violent culture, or for what we’ve failed to do to cultivate something more rational and humane.

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Though I had intended not to make any new posts until after I take the Bar in late February, the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona raises an issue that truly does require our attention, and every voice of reason and goodwill in this country needs to urge in unison that we attend to it.

The question is not whether this shooting was influenced by the overheated rhetoric of an implicitly violent right-wing movement currently infesting the United States, but rather whether there is a reasonable concern that the violent rhetoric and imagery of that movement, the ten-fold rise in membership in armed militia movements in this country in recent years, the anger and vitriol spewing forth from radios and social media accounts and one television broadcast network in particular, contribute to an environment conducive to violence and not conducive to civil discourse and rational self-governance. The answer is, clearly, “yes,” and an incident like this one, regardless of what the impetus for it turns out to have been, serves as a wake-up call for all of us.

One thing needs to be made clear about this incident and this conversation: It makes absolutely no difference what the explanation turns out to be for Loughner’s attack. The fact remains that we are a violent society suffering the disease of a (thus far mostly implicitly) violent political movement, and the probable result is an increase in incidents such as this one (as indeed is already in evidence, even independently of this incident). We are a society in which reason and goodwill have been sacrificed to blind fanaticisms, a society in the throes of an angry mania.

It is natural that when a member of the group that those infected with this cognitive virus call every pejorative imaginable gets shot in an act of predictable and predicted violence, the inference will be that it was probably a direct symptom of that implicitly violent political movement. Whether it was or wasn’t doesn’t matter; the probability remains intact. It’s the same as the original assumption that the Oklahoma federal building bombing was committed by Middle Eastern terrorists; the fact that it wasn’t didn’t mean that the danger of attack from Middle Eastern terrorists wasn’t real (and that recognition of that danger led many to make an inference that turned out to be mistaken in the particular, but correct in general). Similarly, in this case, if it turns out that the most probable interpretation is incorrect, that doesn’t change the fact that it was the most probable interpretation, and that the danger and general dysfunctionality it recognizes still exists.

There is nothing wrong with people feeling and arguing passionately in service to their beliefs about what best serves the public interest.  We can all hope that those beliefs will be as informed as possible, as reasonable as possible, as committed to humanity as possible, but whether or not that is always the case, we live in a country that thrives by having a robust marketplace of ideas, and all ideas are fair game. Vigorous debate on matters of public interest and public policy is good and proper; let it ensue. But we must strive to remember that we are all entitled to be participants in that debate, that those who disagree with us are not our enemies just for disagreeing with us, that none of us has a monopoly on the one infallible truth, and that usually others with whom we disagree have something of value embedded somewhere in their perspective. We need to strive to be less certain, and more open to the possibility that we each may be wrong about some things, and that others with whom we disagree may be right. We need to be civil.

But this incident is relevant beyond how we engage in public discourse and debate. It is relevant to the substance of the ideas held and expressed in that debate as well. The Tea Party is not just about the rhetoric and imagery of violence, it is also about an attitude of social disintegration, of extreme individualism, of indifference to the welfare of others, to a dismissal of a sense of mutual responsibility to one another. And, in that way, it contributes not just to violence in service to a political ideology, but is a political ideology in service to violence.

We are interdependent, and our actions have consequences that ripple outward, beyond their immediate vicinity. When our words or actions implicitly or explicitly condone violence, they contribute to the violence that actually occurs. When they try to reinforce mutual goodwill, or reason, or generosity, they contribute to the mutual goodwill, reason, and generosity in the world. There are reverberations, feedback loops, in human systems, amplifying our words and deeds in how they affect others. No one is all of the sudden, after the fact, noticing the potential for inciting violence that this violent imagery and rhetoric carries with it; many have been very aware of it for quite some time. When the predictable and predicted consequences of an attitude and mode of behavior actually result, it makes perfect sense to say, there you go, this is what we’ve been talking about.

In The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions and The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, I described how memes spread through the social institutional landscape, defining and redefining it constantly, and how our own words and actions contribute to that process. This is an example of how that works: People churn the waters with certain ideas and attitudes, and our world is transformed by the cumulative and sometimes mutually reinforcing effects.

Blaming Sarah Palin for this is a distraction, and beside the point. I have no way of knowing and no reason to suspect that Palin’s rhetoric itself, directly and sufficiently, inspired the actions of the shooter. But I do have reason to know that she contributed to an atmosphere conducive to those actions, whether they were relevant in this instance or not. And that is on her; that is her culpability, by contributing to the creation of a hateful and violent cultural context. More importantly, it is the responsibility of all who have participated in that dynamic to step back, take a breath, and recognize that it’s not what we want to be as a people.

We all have a responsibility for doing what we can to increase the roles of reason and goodwill in our world, and decrease the roles of anger, hatred, and irrationality. We all slip up (at least I do), but underneath all of the politics and rallies and fighting for certain policies, what I hope we’re all really struggling for is a kinder, gentler, and wiser world. Few things are more frustrating than the extent to which humanity inflicts suffering on itself. And every unkind word, every attempt to put someone else down, is a drop in the ocean of anger that crests, as it did today in Arizona, in acts of violence. Let’s all strive to do better.

(See A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill and The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified for specific ideas about how to do better.)