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.)

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As the author of a fantasy fiction novel, I carefully avoided the good v. evil dichotomy, because the narratives we use to capture it routinely fail to, reinforcing oversimplifications that are already too thoroughly embedded in our consciousness. Instead, the dichotomy at the center of my mythology was Order v. Chaos, with each being in some ways “good” and in some ways “evil,” but their interplay occupying a more sublime role in the definition of our reality.

However, as I shift my focus from the descriptive to the prescriptive, from analyzing to advocating, the need to define “good” and “evil”  becomes more pressing, the reality that some notion of what serves humanity’s interests v. what doesn’t has to inform both our personal choices and our public policy preferences.

The ways in which I am about to use the word “evil,” and perhaps the ways in which I am about to use “good” as well, may seem exaggerated. The familiar meanings of the words are reserved for more extreme instances, more exceptional degrees. But the point of this essay is to emphasize what an error that really is, that those extreme instances and exceptional degrees are comprised of and catalyzed by all of the small, almost trivial, instances of “good” and “evil” that fill our daily lives and our moment-by-moment choices.

The traditional meanings of the words, and the weight given to what they represent, may also create a false impression that the identification of so much ubiquitous “evil” is oppressive, that it takes life too seriously. This customary reaction to these new, more encompassing, and more useful definitions of “good” and “evil” also has to be revised; the struggle to do “good” and avoid “evil” is a constant of life, embedded in the minutia, and therefore should be taken as much in stride as the struggle to live a healthy life, to earn a living, to be a good spouse and parent and child and friend. We should be able to laugh at ourselves when we fail, even knowing that our failures in this regard make some marginal contribution to the sum total of “evil” in the world. And we should reward our own and others’ successes, as small as they may be, with the acknowledgement due to having truly contributed to ” the good”.

In some ways, we lack the vocabulary to identify the goals that define “the good.” If I say that it is the quantity, quality, distribution, and sustainability of human happiness (and thus of acting in ways which contribute to them), someone will say that it is something more than happiness that we seek. So I’ll co-opt a word to encompass that “something more,” including all that it might entail: Well-being. That which is “good” increases the quantity, quality (breadth and depth), distribution, and sustainability of human well-being. In fact, I would say that it involves increasing the well-being, along all of the aforementioned dimensions, of all conscious entities, to the extent that they are conscious.

For those who want to apply reason and goodwill without any preconceived constraints, this creates a very functional focal point. It avoids both the insinuation of mystified abstractions into our morality, and the convenient biases of various “-centrisms,” including anthrocentrism. It takes nothing for granted, but provides a framework through which to discover a morality which serves the well-being of all those who have any consciousness with which to experience it.

“Good” is comprised of all instances of adherence to this ideal, while “evil” is comprised of all lapses. An important point of departure is to realize that we are all some mixture of the two, all defined by some successes in committing ourselves to the ideal of the “good” as I’ve defined it, as well as by some lapses. I, for instance, recognize that my definition of “good” probably recommends vegetarianism, since when large mammals are slaughtered for my dinner, it is an act which ends the well-being of a somewhat conscious creature. But I am not a vegetarian. By my own definition, I am somewhat “evil.”

“Good” and “Evil” are not a dichotomy, but rather values on a continuum, with higher values comprised of and catalyzed by the accumulation of smaller values. Every horrendous act of violence occurs in a context rather than a vacuum, a thousand trivial cruelties having fed into it. Every glorious act of generosity or nobility occurs in a context as well, one built up from numerous small acts of kindness. To reserve the concepts of “good” and “evil” only to the exceptional dramatic culminations embodied in a few, of all the mundane and trivial choices by all of us over the course of our lives, is to disregard the responsibility we all have for both, and the ways in which our mundane daily choices create both.

But this raises another counterintuitive facet of the paradigm of good v. evil that I am advocating, one which is a rather enormous departure from past conceptualizations: “Evil” is not the inexcusable extreme that our religions have tried to make it, but rather the accumulation of mere ordinary lapses. Our traditional conceptualization of evil as the cackling villain who delights in others’ suffering is both too exclusive, and too routinely disregarded as something trivial and acceptable when it in fact occurs (as it so frequently does). “Evil” is nothing more or less than the surrender to our baser natures, while “good” is nothing more or less than the on-going effort to act with more reason, humility, and goodwill instead.

We should not beat ourselves up for our lapses, or beat others up for theirs. But we should hold both ourselves and others responsible for them. They are ordinary, routine, such a pervasive part of our lives that they become normalized, accepted as just the way things are, often even justified as good clean fun. This happens because we do not want to impose on ourselves the oppression of constant recognition that many of our own actions are in fact small instances of “evil,” and so define their evilness out of existence. Or, in some cases, we recognize that it is evil, and delight in it, knowing that we lack either the will or the discipline to alter our behavior, and so instead, to reduce our cognitive dissonance, alter our judgment.

But these choices erase the opposition to “evil” within ourselves, and instead projects all opposition onto others. Instead of being forgiving of both ourselves and others, we perceive nothing to forgive in ourselves, and no need to forgive it in others. Instead of gently holding both ourselves and others to a higher standard of conduct, we hold ourselves only to the standard we have become comfortable with, and hold others to the standard we are comfortable imposing on them, never noticing the double-standards that inevitably ensue. We lapse into in-groups and out-groups, with those defined as “the other” meriting no tolerance, while both ourselves and those with whom we are identifying meriting no criticism (the classic expression of in-group/out-group biases).

These thoughts are inspired today both by the amount of vitriol directed against me in some places (currently only by people who have never met me), some of it deserved and some of it not, and by the amount of vitriol I have directed at others, usually in reaction to provocations of belligerence, but still lapses that can’t simply be defined out of existence. One thing is certain: We should never experience joy in inflicting harm on others, whether we believe they deserve it or not. And the blogosphere has become a place where recognition of that obvious truism has apparently completely evaporated. Though it may sound hyperbolic, the internet, which has accelerated and amplified so many aspects of our existence, has accelerated and amplified this ordinary “evil” as well. It is a breeding ground of our baser natures, and a place where people inflict harm on others with glee, rarely if ever pausing to be ashamed of having done so.

I am not going to become a vegetarian, at least not yet, but I am going to make a redoubled effort not to feed my own inner-demons, not to acquiesce to my own aggressive or defensive instincts in my interactions with others, particularly in this medium which is so conducive to casual brutality. And, in this moment, I feel no anger toward those who have similarly erred, with whom some mutual antagonisms have grown, who take such continual delight in trying to “take me down a peg”.

This is our true shared endeavor: To seek to lift one another up rather than knock one another down. To forgive ourselves and others quickly. To admit to our own errors more eagerly than we criticize or ridicule others for theirs. To take no delight in others’ weaknesses, but rather to help them find their strengths. To be more committed to acknowledging and addressing our own foibles, without losing our sense of humor in the process. To laugh with one another rather than at one another. To refrain from inflicting suffering as a form of entertainment. To sincerely strive to increase the quantity, quality, distribution, and sustainability of human (and animal) well-being. To be good, and to help one another be good, in our shared effort to improve the quality of our lives.

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One of the defects of our political process is the degree to which it brutalizes us, and we brutalize it. Certainly, as, in essence, pacified civil war, whenever and wherever we succeed in substituting the verbal and ideological brutalities of politics for the physical violence of warfare we have taken an enormous step forward. But wherever we settle for the verbal and ideological brutalities of politics rather than reach further in our ongoing struggle to replace brutality with civility and irrationality with reason, we have cause for shame rather than pride.

Many people seem to believe that being a candidate is something that one does only for their own benefit, and, of course, one’s own benefit is generally a consideration, on some level or in some manner. But more often than not, wrapped up into what one perceives to serve their own interests is their commitment to certain ideals, or goals, that serve some public with which they identify (hopefully, but not always, the public as a whole). Politics is a human enterprise, a human endeavor, not fundamentally different from those enterprises and endeavors with which we all are familiar in our own lives: We aspire, we care, we want, we try, we succeed, and we fail.

Sometimes, we do so in competition with one another. If I start a business that sells widgets, then I am in competition with other businesses that also sell widgets. It is not unusual (though neither is it universal or inevitable) to feel some animosity toward my competitors, since their success comes at my expense, and mine at theirs. But we are both just striving to succeed in our chosen endeavors, and the animosity, unless for other reasons as well, is an unnecessary addition of brutality to a shared existence that is already far too brutal.

In politics, more is at stake. We are competing over how we will define ourselves, over who and what we are, over how we will organize our shared existence. And the emotions of those most involved run very high indeed. Some anger may be inevitable, may even be useful, but when some feel glee not only over the victory of their vision for our state and nation, but also over the loss and suffering of others, they contribute to what we should be trying to transcend rather than what we should be trying to augment.

To be sure, sometimes the animosities aren’t ideological, but personal. During my years posting on Colorado Pols, for instance, a few bloggers there decided that my form of argumentation made me a despicable person, and sought every opportunity to shoot any irrelevant barbs within their reach. On three occasions (twice for having knowingly and intentionally posted false factual assertions about me, and once for threatening me both physically and to virtually stalk me) I mentioned that there are legal limits to how they can express their hatred. Now, “Ralphie” (with the help of  the one who both threatened me physically, and promised to stalk me on Pols, who recently posted a highly revisionist reference to that encounter) wants to turn that into yet one more vehicle for his relentless vendetta.

In the wake of the election, I’ve noticed them coming out of the woodwork on Colorado Pols, creating the same group-think reality, piling on as a form of entertainment (which helped inspire the following two posts: The Battle of Good v. Evil, Within & Without, The Battle of Good v. Evil, Part 2). Initially, I felt a far more muted annoyance than usual, the degree of pettiness appearing to me too obvious to be effective. But, to my dismay, others, including some who have been friends, helped reinforce rather than confront the meme, some casually and carelessly.

It is, in part, the expression of a strange cultural attitude, one which, on the one hand, cheers malice, and, on the other, dehuamanizes certain categories of people, including “intellectuals” and “candidates,” two categories to which I have belonged, or have been perceived to belong. That combination of approved malice against approved targets creates ideal designated scapegoats, against whom it is not only acceptable but customary to vent all pent-up aggressions, and to do so as rudely and crudely as you like.

The anger, and sense that there is a specially exempt political zone in which it is acceptable to express it with as much hostility, as little restraint, and as much indifference to what we consider to be basic decency in almost all other realms of life, extends beyond our attitude toward politicians and intellectuals (see The Politics of Anger). But a special sphere of heightened disinhibition is reserved for them, both, I think, justified by some perception that both are attempts to put oneself above others, and so inviting of being taken down a peg.

How strange and contemptuous that we should reserve our most vicious expressions of belligerence for those who have chosen to work on behalf of the public interest in these two ways, either by trying to understand or directly affect our social institutional landscape with the desire to improve it. And how dysfunctional that we should remain so committed to reducing our public debate over how to govern ourselves to a frothing-at-the-mouth hate-fest, one which not only drowns out reason, but seems most hostile to it.

The irony is that “Ralphie” and “MOTR” and many others like them do not direct their rage particularly at their ideological opposites, but rather at anyone who “contaminates” politics by treating it as something more than a fairly shallow exchange of arbitrary opinions. They perceive analysis as hostility and hostility as reason, in one of many complete inversions of reality particular to political discourse.

At the Jefferson County Democratic Party’s election night vigil at the Lakewood Holiday Inn at Hamden and Wadsworth, I sat with fellow candidates and supporters, in what was a very emotional night for us all. We rejoiced at our party’s victories, and mourned our party’s losses. We felt for our friends in office who were not re-elected, who we knew had given so much, with such a sincere desire to serve others, and who at times lost to opponents who, to our minds, represented the insanity of politics. Those of us who knew we could not win joked about the inevitable, and, if anything, found some joy and comfort in watching the culmination of our small slice of the shared story of this election cycle, one which we agreed was really a pleasure to have lived.

I will continue to argue passionately for the policies and perspectives that I believe best serve our long-term collective interests. And I will continue to seek out all people, of all perspectives, who are willing to engage in an ongoing discussion, in a context of mutual goodwill, as fellow human beings trying to do the best we can, regardless of what policies they believe would best serve the public interest. If we occasionally get angry with one another, let’s not enshrine our anger as the defining quality of our relationships. If we disagree, let’s not turn disagreement into justification for implacable hostility. If an olive-branch is offered, take it. If one might be taken, offer it.

If we err in our treatment of others, let’s use it as a reminder to redouble our efforts to do better. If others err, let’s give them every opportunity to find their way back to civility, and accommodate and encourage their efforts to do so. There is never any justification for viciousness and malice. There is never any need to condemn or mistreat any individual for any sincere belief about what best serves the public interest, but there is neither any need to insulate those beliefs from critical scrutiny and blunt challenges. We need to put everything we have on the table, set aside our animosities, strive to cultivate mutual goodwill, and work together as reasonable members of a single society working together to do the best we can.

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