Who is Responsible?

After any tragedy, this is what we ask ourselves. We are rational animals (sort of), so even if we don’t approve, we can understand crimes of passion, crimes of necessity, and (however grotesque) ‘collateral damage’.

We want to know why. Hopefully because this will help prevent similar acts in the future.

In light of the recent appalling murders in Arizona, some commentators are suggesting that the violent rhetoric used by various rightwing people creates a climate in which violent acts are implicitly encouraged.

It is easier to see the link between the odious hit-lists of abortion providers created by the ironically ‘pro-life’ crowd, where the rhetoric goes beyond ‘these people are murderers’ to, explicitly, ‘murder these people,’ than the one between people like Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin’s political rants (whereby those who disagree with them manage to be both fascist and socialist) and some psychotic 22-year-old with a gun.

Our environment guides our behaviour: our society and culture create rules – boundaries within which we are expected to confine our otherwise free choice. Some of these rules are made explicit in the legal code, and our peers socially reinforce others, as do the media and figures of authority.

But what happens when these guides seem to contradict one another? Murder is wrong, but having semi-automatic weapons with thirty shots in a round is a Constitutional right! (Ignore that bit about a well-organized militia). Voting is how we make sure the government looks after our needs, but the person I voted for didn’t win, and instead there’s a socialist/fascist having a socialist/fascist public meeting!

Obviously, this does not lead everyone to buy a gun at Walmart and go on a rampage.

Does speech cause violent action? Speech in and of itself can be violent action. (See: It Gets Better). Violence is about power. What could be more powerful than taking someone’s life, with words or with bullets? If you are convinced that there is only one, rather irreversible way, of being heard, and that this need to be heard supersedes the right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of everyone around you…

Even if every conservative (and liberal) pundit starting speaking like reasonable, rational people (as lovely and refreshing as that would be), I don’t think that would prevent people from being violent. People are assholes. Scared, stupid assholes.

We can’t entirely stop people from being stupid, or angry, or scared. We can’t stop people from thinking that they are an exception to the rules (see: Crime and Punishment), or that they are immortal (see: teenagers).

If we could eradicate guns, or, perhaps more realistically, give everyone a futuristic impenetrable personal force field, maybe even the pathologically violent would be forced to express their displeasure with words. Maybe then we could help the stupid get information, the angry get therapy, the scared feel safe. Maybe the sense of immortality and exceptionalism could be used to encourage feelings of responsibility rather than entitlement.

To be clear, I don’t think a national policy of psychotherapists and teddy bears is what murderers deserve. Everyone is responsible for his or her own actions, and looking too much at social causes can lead one to forget the immediate cause – i.e. someone has decided to murder. People should not have to guard their tongues because a select few do not understand metaphor, heightened rhetoric, or irony. However, there should be something in place to protect the many from the select few, and if that in turn makes the select few ever fewer, so much the better.

If everyone, not just media pundits and authority figures, were more respectful, and treated those who disagree with them like rational human beings rather than some kind of Nazi Yeti, would violence in general decrease?

I’d like to think so. Surely it’s worth a try?


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