Archive for January 11th, 2011


Motives Don’t Matter

January 11, 2011

The chorus of right wingers defending the actions of the shooter in Tucson as mere insanity is beginning to blow my mind. Repeatedly, politically sympathetic folks seem to be emphasizing Jared Loughner’s mental illness and not the nature of his act; or, at least, divorcing the two: he was sick, and he did a terrible deed as a result of that sickness. Others have taken the opportunity to cry politics, or to claim that we must wait to establish causality.

The left, on the other hand, is taking a somewhat stronger stance. Sandhya Somashekhar at the Washington Post asks whether it stemmed from the state of politics. Vaughan Bell at Salon makes the case that all this talk of mental illness is mostly an easy dodge. Paul Krugman has an eloquent piece arguing that it’s all been building for a long time. Steven Cohen, of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, has this to say.

Much as they may want to hang on to the idea that this was “merely” the act of a mentally ill person, there is at least one fact that cannot be accounted for by the mental illness of the shooter. That is, Giffords was targeted in political discourse, repeatedly, as someone who ought to be taken out. She was also the target of the shooter.

Was she the random target of a deranged person? Possibly…but highly unlikely. She was selected by a mentally ill person in large part because that mentally ill person was under the impression that Giffords was someone to be rid of. That’s what happened. That is an undeniable fact about Saturday’s shooting… and you don’t need to know much about mental illness to acknowledge that fact.

Friend and fellow philosopher Jeremy Bendik-Keymer (Case Western Reserve) put it to me this way:

My partner, Elaine, is a seasoned therapist. We watched Loughner’s YouTube site last night. He’s insane. But Elaine had no doubt that politics *channeled* or *guided* the direction of his insanity. Imagine your head has gone wild with internal anxiety -even voices. You cast about for a direction, an outlet, some way to turn the mess into relief. Now comes a message that for some idiosyncratic reason speaks to you and allows you a modicum of rationality inside your paranoia. And it tells you that you feel so bad because the government and the system –anything that’s not your head- has warped reality & that you must tear it all down. And now there’s a target over this one public officer’s face. And others have shouted -others who say things like you- that she should be shot, or “taken out”. And now you think one day when your head is going nuts — this has been building for you for a while, you may even have been planning it as an apotheosis- this is the chance. Now I will do this. I have been planning to take out the government as the voices advise. I will do it. It follows from my logic, I will start to take down the system. That’s how Palin & co. are responsible. & all of us in this country too — not directly responsible, and not liable, but politically responsible for cultivating an ethos of respect in public debate & in the media. There’s a 9 year old girl who was elected to her student council who is dead because of the way violence in the public sphere glommed onto to some sad, paranoid man’s mind.

I buy this argument, as I think it offers an entirely plausible causality. But it is susceptible to the all-too-frequent objection that the causality is nevertheless unclear. I think there’s a fair bit more to this.

That Loughner’s act may have been caused by mental illness doesn’t suggest that there is no blame to lay at the feet of those who incite people to violence… like Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, and most of the others. What I mean is that causal responsibility is not the core issue here. Rather, moral responsibility is.

A comparison: if I tell a child that he is worthless and should kill himself, I am being grossly irresponsible. If he does kill himself, there’s certainly a sense in which I can’t be held causally responsible for his decision to do so. He did it himself. Many children would likely hear such a claim and brush it off as nasty talk from a playground meanie. But there’s also a critically important sense in which it is morally wrong of me to say this to the child, not because he does in fact kill himself, nor because I have for certain caused him to kill himself, but because if it were the case that I caused him to kill himself, then I would be responsible. The fact that he did kill himself isn’t doing the heavy lifting.

Similarly, if I wander through the halls of an insane asylum shouting that the doctors are plotting to harvest the organs of the inmates, that they must be stopped by any means necessary, I am committing a wrong. Again, I am committing this wrong whether or not the inmates do kill their doctors. If the inmates do in fact kill the doctors, they may have been plotting so for other reasons–perhaps their craziness was what motivated them–but my hands are dirtied in the killing of the doctors by my act of shouting falsities and inciting crazy people to take action even if the causal link is not made.

Finally, if I screech over the airwaves that some politician is destructive to the fabric of America, and must be targeted and stopped, or that we must not retreat but reload, or that we must begin the revolution, then I open myself to culpability for willing this rule, effectively, into a law; into execution; for having universalized it.

It’s my right to do this, of course, just as it is anybody’s right. It is my right to say awful things to children and my right to tell insane people that they are being persecuted, but it is still grossly irresponsible, terribly immoral, unacceptably impermissible. The banshees of the airwaves—Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, and the many others—as well as their defenders, must acknowledge this.

The forward-looking question that we really should be asking is what reasons we might have for defending vitriol and hate speech? Is it an essential part of our political discourse? Does it serve an important role? Is it vital that we paste targets over our political opponents?

Those who profit off it surely have a reason to defend their hate. That’s how they make money. If the public catches wind that what they’re saying is wrong, or morally suspect, this may damage their bank accounts. Here’s a timeline of such talk since 2008. But the rest of America ought to know better.

We can have a sane discourse about differing public policies in this country without resorting to characterizations of one or the other position in Nazi terms.

If I can find any solace in the shootings, it is this: that these sorts of crimes don’t happen more often. Evidently, Americans aren’t as loony as we may sometimes seem. There are thousands of mentally ill citizens in the United States, some of whom have murderous thoughts. Only a few of these, thank goodness, move to take action on these thoughts. Given the state of the political discussion, with all the targets and vitriol, we can thank our lucky stars that more of our brave political figures aren’t victims.

UPDATE: Protevi has a nice piece on this too.