Saturday, January 15, 2011

Crosshairs and Causality

The January 8th shooting in Tuscon Arizona of Representative Gabrielle Giffords has grabbed the nation's attention in a big way. Predictably, pundits are punditing, politicians are politicizing, and academics (like me) are academizing as to the cause and meaning of this tragic event.

Mass shootings are sadly not new to us, but they still evoke horror and revulsion. And this one has an added impact because of its political context. I think much of the social turmoil in the wake of the shooting can be seen as a desperate effort to cope with the uncertainty and unpredictability it represents. The threat that horrific unexpected events pose to our understanding of the world around us is one of the most unpleasant of human emotions, and we go to great lengths to reduce it, sometimes by adopting simplistic causal theories that we believe can explain away the event's initial incomprehensibility.

The causal theories we adopt are likely to be those that are in line with our general world view, and also that serve specific psychological functions for us. The January 8th shooting occurred in a climate of political rhetoric that has become increasingly vitriolic, and some have suggested this as the primary cause. Others, particularly those who have been noted for using such language (like Sarah Palin) have vigorously rejected rhetoric as a cause and instead label the shooter's behavior as simply "insane," or "crazy," thereby absolving anyone of culpability.

The cultural and psychological context of causal theories becomes particularly apparent when you look at the way the Giffords shooting has been reported in the foreign media. Analysis of world media coverage by The Global Post, found that "Many commenters in the foreign press around the world said they were little surprised given America's lax gun laws and recent history of mass shootings. Still other media outlets ignored the American tragedy entirely. For example, in Europe the story has generally been covered much less than in the U.S. According to the Global Post's Michael Goldfarb, "The French press is consumed by the murder of two Frenchmen murdered in Niger by an African subsidiary of Al Qaeda. The German press has major flooding along the Rhine to contend with. But the lack of prominence given to the story could be down to this: For many in Europe, violence of the sort that occurred in Tucson on Saturday is almost expected in America." Ouch.

In other parts of the world the media reflected on the meaning of the event in terms of their own social dynamics. Global Post correspondents Erik German and Solana Pyne noted that in Latin America, "Lima’s El Comercio, Peru’s biggest newspaper, published a profile of Daniel Hernandez, the young Gifford staffer who held a bandage over the Congresswoman’s wounds before paramedics arrived on the scene. The “Hispanic angel,” El Commercio wrote, “saved the life of congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.” As to causal analyses, Argentina’s biggest daily, Clarin, published a 500-word piece by their Washington correspondent, Ana Baron, who focused heavily on Arizona’s tough stance on Latino immigration and what she described as the “growth of hatred and intolerance in U.S. politics.”

These examples illustrate (a) how the emotional impact of an event is moderated by the personal and culture context in which it is perceived, (b) the motivated nature of causal analysis, and (c) how simplistic explanations can satisfy our yearning for clarity and understanding. But the true situation is most certainly far more complex and not amenable to sound bites. One of my favorite columnists (E.J. Dionne) has as usual offered what I regard as an astute insight into these things and I'll close this blog with his words:
It is not partisan to observe that there are cycles to violent rhetoric in our politics. In the late 1960s, violent talk (and sometimes violence itself) was more common on the far left. But since President Obama's election, it is incontestable that significant parts of the American far right have adopted a language of revolutionary violence in the name of overthrowing "tyranny."

It is Obama's opponents who carried guns to his speeches and cited Jefferson's line that the tree of liberty "must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."

It was Sharron Angle, the Republican candidate against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada, who spoke of "Second Amendment remedies." And, yes, it was Palin who put those gun sights over the districts of the Democrats she was trying to defeat, including Giffords.

The point is not to "blame" American conservatism for the actions of a possibly deranged man, especially since the views of Jared Lee Loughner seem so thoroughly confused. But we must now insist with more force than ever that threats of violence no less than violence itself are antithetical to democracy. Violent talk and playacting cannot be part of our political routine. It is not cute or amusing to put crosshairs over a congressional district.

Liberals were rightly pressed in the 1960s to condemn violence on the left. Now, conservative leaders must take on their fringe when it uses language that intimates threats of bloodshed. That means more than just highly general statements praising civility.


PaddleDoc said...

I read a high-satirical piece in our local paper that ended with your basic conclusion and a call for more help with mental health issues, not less as is on schedule in California with the new budget. Many people with serious (not many are violent) mental health problems will plague our streets for decades to come. Our cultural violent context added to the personal despair of an unbalanced individual provides a formula for concern.

On another tack, our Turkish visiting student and his family were frightened when he was assigned to California in the US as they all saw this as the most violent place he could be. This from a country often seen by Americans as having a history of violence well beyond our own. Perspective from abroad does change.

Coleen Hanna said...

I like Dionne too and I remember that column on the Giffords shooting. I am always at a loss when someone says to me, "So what did you think of the Giffords shooting" (or Aurora, or local outcast James Corasanti, etc.) because I feel that no matter what I think, it is overly simplistic, based on my own filters and biases, etc as you note. But when I say that I am choosing not to comment, I am left out of the conversation and somehow that feels weird too. Often I feel that too many people have too much to say about too many things they don't know much about....and that includes me!