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.)

  • Elly:

    Those of us who are horrified by this, stand up for common decency and civil discourse. If you are in a conversation with someone who says something that makes you recoil, call them out. You don’t have to be nasty, but it’s time we start letting others know that saying certain things will not be tolearated. Ask they why they feel that way. Engage them in a dialogue. Don’t try to quote facts to prove them wrong- just make them think a little when you share your well-researched opinion.

  • Thanks Elly. Good advice.

  • Here is a comment from a fellow named Nate Marshall on Facebook:

    “the left is completely responsible for the political tone of our country as their anti constitution and american agenda is wrong and will likely leadto a violent and bloody civil war.

    The vitriol will continue until the leftwing recognizes the constitution and stops trying to make the successful pay the bills for the weak.”

    There you have it, folks! The Left is responsible for the violence committed by the Right, because anyone who disagrees with those on the Right should be dispensed with through violence. The Consitutional interpretations of those on the Right are, by definition, correct, because, well, they declared them to be correct. And, the clincher: It is unconstitutional to attempt for our democratic society to choose to direct any public policies toward those most disadvantaged (like, oh, abused children, for instance), because to do so would be to coddle “the weak.”

    What the hell is happening to this country? These notions were marginalized decades ago, relegated to the trash heap of histories horrors. And here they are again, as pillars of the most robust political ideology in America today? What the hell is happening to this country.

  • After spending far too much time debating these issues today on Facebook (and far too little time studying for the Bar), and after tons of vitriol from those I offended and a fair amount of testiness on my part as well, there actually was a kind of resolution with several folks from “the opposing camp,” a calming down, an exchange of ideas, a bit of mutual respect, or at least politeness. It’s reassuring to have ended the day on a hopeful note….

  • Diggeo:

    I too have ended up thinking about Arizona instead of doing other work. I know that the source of this rhetorical violence is fear, but it doesn’t make the suffering of the victims any easier.

  • Elly:

    I think we need to have this national conversation. That’s the only way it will get better. It’s a wake up call indeed. I was pleased to note some public figures referring to a “coarsening of public discourse”. I couldn’t agree more. The Arizona shooter is undoubtedly mentally disturbed, but he does not exist in a vacuum; he represents the ultimate conclusion of spreading hate and vitriol.

  • There has been a recent explosion in right-wing citizen militia membership, complete with grease paint, combat fatigues, and semi-automatic weapons. There is the well-documented proliferation of violent rhetoric and imagery used by prominent Tea Party leaders. Of their millions of ardent followers, inevitably more than a few are mentally unstable. You put all of this into the blender, and not only was it distinctly possible that actual political violence would ensue, it was almost inconceivable that it wouldn’t.

    The Left is not innocent: There is far too much anger and vitriol, intransigence, and contempt for differing points of view respectfully expressed. We have to all strive to be reasonable people of goodwill, all insisting that that is what will define both our means and our goals.

    But civility is not the same as silence. We cannot, in the effort to be courteous, smile at hatred and pretend it is something else. The cultural disease we are confronting is in the substance of some ideologies as well as the form of their expression: On Facebook over the past few days, I’ve seen references to the poor as “the weak,” explicit advocacy of social darwinism, and angry rejection of suggestions that we all strive to be reasonable people of goodwill (rationalized by defining political enemies as incapable of goodwill). It’s time to stop waxing indignant that anyone would dare criticize such a movement, and start asking ourselves what kind of a people we want to be.

  • During the many blogosphere discussions on the topic of the postulated (or refuted) possible relationship between, on the one hand, violent political rhetoric and imagery, and, on the other, actual acts of violence (particularly but not exclusively political violence), I found that it’s important to make a distinction between the way we communicate our political ideological convictions, and the substance of those political ideological convictions. In terms of how we communicate our convictions, there is enough vitriol across the spectrum that trying to argue that one side is more guilty than another ends up being more of a distraction than a source of illumination, easily debated and not really very productive.

    But when you look at the substance of the political ideologies, you see a clearer distinction: There is a basic competition between, on the one hand, an ideology which almost fetishizes deadly weapons and their use, strongly believes in retributive justice (“revenge”), idolizes the military, vilifies outgroups, and opposes empathy-based social policies; and, on the other hand, an ideology which takes seriously the harm inflicted by deadly weapons, favors restorative justice (prevention, rehabilitation, and compensation for harm done), considers the military the recourse of last resort, recognizes shared humanity with all human beings, and favors proactive policies based on the notion that a society is about lifting one another up rather than knocking one another down. These substantive differences can be understood in many ways, one of which is in terms of a difference in reliance on violent attitudes and violent means.

    Now, when you combine this substantive difference with what might be called the expressive similarity among ideologies, you get four basic categories: 1) a peaceful ideology peacefully expressed; 2) a peaceful ideology violently expressed; 3) a violent ideology peacefully expressed, and 4) a violent ideology violently expressed. (By “peacefully expressed,” I mean “without vitriol or violent rhetoric or imagery,” and by “violently expressed,” I mean “vitriolically and/or with violent rhetoric and imagery” as well recourse to actual violence). I would argue that category 1 is the one to which we should all strive to belong, and category 4 is the one which should cause us all the most concern. (Between categories 2 and 3, frankly, I find category 3 more benign: Gun-loving, militaristic extreme individualists arguing their beliefs without rancor and with a modicum of humility and civility are preferable to dogmatic progressives wantonly spitting venom and bile, the latter group being far more a part of the problem than a part of the solution.)

    It’s important also to recognize that the substance and the form either mutually reinforce one another, or are mutually inhibiting to one another. So, a peaceful ideology peacefully expressed (i.e., expressed without rage) is a powerful message, full of credibility and inherently persuasive, while a peaceful ideology angrily expressed loses credibility, and seems to be a false belief in service to a destructive emotional inclination. Similarly, a violent ideology violently expressed is particularly frightening, boding ill for society and for people caught in the cross-hairs of that substantive violence expressed in violent terms, whereas a violent ideology argued by people striving to be reasonable people of goodwill holds the promise of eventually yielding to reason and goodwill, of being dominated by the good nature of the people arguing it rather than by the bad nature of the ideology they are persuaded by.

    This model can be refined in various ways. A slightly more elaborate version would be to conceptualize an ideological plane defined by two axes: how substantively violent an ideology is and how violently it is expressed, representing the dichotomies in this grid as the continua that they in reality are. Further refinement would involve unpackaging what I lump together into “violence” here, creating various substantive axes (e.g., “mutual indifference v. mutual support,” “nationalism/tribalism v. humanism,” “retributive v. restorative justice,” etc). Ultimately, such continuing refinement of model would involve including dependent as well as independent variables (e.g., rates of violent crime, poverty rates, homelessness rates, children’s educational performance, unemployment rates, access to health care and health outcomes, etc.), and try to explore how changes in independent variables affect changes in dependent variables, using a dynamical systems analysis (the paradigm of which I begin to delineate in the series of posts in the second box on the Catalogue of Selected Posts page). But however we conceptualize this political ideological space or these political ideological categories, the challenge remains the same: To continue to strive to be reasonable people of goodwill, both in what we are advocating, and in how we advocate it.

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