Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Is Peace Possible? 1

Sarah Palin’s map using cross hairs to target supporters of the Affordable Health Care Act is one of the most stunning images coming from the media coverage of the Tucson shooting aimed at Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and her guests.   The explanation that the cross hairs were never meant to suggest rifle sightings is not convincing.  Palin’s follow-up tweet, “Don’t retreat, reload” persuades me that the criticism of her imagery and language is justified.   Nevertheless, it won’t help to scapegoat her or the right wing.  Such rhetoric, the first amendment assures us, that uses images of violence cannot be held responsible for pulling the trigger that killed or wounded those people however stunning and persuasive the image appears after the fact.  

People with the kind of serious mental illness that Jared Lee Loughner appears to have are also, by the legal definition of “insane,” not responsible for their acts.  He may have never heard of Palin’s map and still could have found the cultural ammunition to justify in his fragile mind the crime. 

When profiles of Obama's first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, noted that he once sent a dead fish to a pollster who displeased him, a characteristically subtle statement carrying more than a whiff of malice and murder, it was considered a charming example of excessive - and creative - political enthusiasm. When Senate candidate Joe Manchin dispensed with metaphor and simply fired a bullet through the cap-and-trade bill - while intoning, "I'll take dead aim at [it]" - he was hardly assailed with complaints about violations of civil discourse or invitations to murder.

Did Manchin push Loughner over the top? Did Emanuel's little Mafia imitation create a climate for political violence? The very questions are absurd - unless you're the New York Times and you substitute the name Sarah Palin.   (Charles Krauthammer, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/01/11/AR2011011106068.html)

Yes, Charles Krauthammer, Emmuel’s little Mafia imitation does, along with all other such metaphors and acts of violence (legal and illegal), create a climate for political violence.  The question is not absurd.  What is absurd is the assumption that any person, especially those with severe mental illnesses, can act totally outside of the influences of culture.  After the civil rights movements with their consciousness raising, most of us no longer question the centrality of language in creating a climate that influences all of our behavior.  Most of us have learned to moderate our language when speaking of civil rights issues.    Certainly, we ought not to scapegoat Sarah Palin, nor Emmanuel, and we must forgive them; they too are cultural creatures.  But we should not excuse them, and we should judge their language. 

People like Loughner are like canaries in the mine.  They point to the vulnerabilities and dangers of our whole cultural climate.  Loughner does not act in isolation but rather within a cultural context of language, stories, images, policies, and practices, from both the left and the right, that encourages the use of violence.  From the macro global to the micro local, war, assassination, suicide bombings, torture, talk show hosts, Internet games, abusive political talk, and a seemingly infinite stream of imagery persuade too many that violence is not only effective to resolve fears and solve problems; it is also, in the power fix it can give, sexy and fun.  It sells.  It makes a lone gunman famous.

We may never know all the specific motivations of Jared Loughner, but we can already make educated guesses from what has been released about him that he was culturally influenced.  He feared the government, a fear he shares with a large and public segment of the population. With a semiautomatic pistol, a cultural tool, he claimed at least one moment of power over at least one government representative and her local entourage, and he gained quite a few moments of fame.  He forced the world to acknowledge him.  Who knows how many images from movies, TV, Internet games, and other media outlets feed into and support his actions, but it is safe to assume the number is huge.  How could it not influence him?
In view of the pervasive cultural climate of violence, is peace possible, or must we accept a large measure of violence as part of the human condition?  A number of people have attempted to discourage my pacifist activity with some version of the assertion, “You can’t change human nature,” an old refrain that began likely with the original-sin doctrine and underlies the insistence that life is a dualistic fight between good and evil.  Thinkers in the study of human nature have argued various positions about the nature-versus-nurture controversy.  Konrad Lorenz believes violence is deeply rooted in human nature and it has survival value.  Ashley Montague says no behavior is instinctual in human beings, that every action is affected by learning.  Margaret Mead uses field studies to support her argument that war is an invention practiced to resolve international conflict because a better solution has not yet been invented.  Edward O. Wilson says we are products of “bio-cultural evolution,” and all human behavior is affected as much, maybe more, by culture which is learned as by genetic inheritance.   Recent brain studies show that the brain is a plastic organ subject to change throughout life.  Its structure, chemistry, and activity are all affected by experience and learning.   Both Wilson’s work and brain research suggest to me that even a person with serious mental illness and impulses toward violence will make more peaceful choices if there is no cultural encouragement for violence and if there is powerful cultural encouragement for peace.  

My own analysis after reading widely in the area is that 100% of limits and possibilities of human behavior is determined by genes, and 100 % of human action is determined by the interaction of biology, experience, learning, culture, and choice.   Many argue, the famous pacifist Leo Tolstoy among them, that choice itself is not possible because human will is not, contrary to the teaching of the Judeo Christian Bible and promises of our constitution, free.  But that is a subject for another blog post.  Until I see better evidence than I have thus far seen, I will act as if I have free will.  And I will argue that culture has a powerful and in many cases determining effect on human behavior.  When Sarah Palin’s spokesperson asserts that there was no intention of suggesting rifle sights in that map, and when Jared Loughner selects a congresswoman to target and pulls the trigger, it is hard for me doubt that both the map’s composition and the shooting were affected by powerful and likely unconscious cultural influences that support and sustain violent action. 

It looks like peace is not possible without a sweeping global transformation of culture.  But transformation is possible because all of culture is learned.  Human nature can and does change.   The moderation of language that accompanied the civil rights movement has helped to change the culture in a more peaceful direction, at least in some areas.  So I will continue my pacifist activity, and it doesn’t matter if I will likely not see much transformation happen in my lifetime.  It doesn’t matter because I can not think of anything better to do with my life.

© Alice Bolstridge, 1-11-11

No comments:

Post a Comment