The Horror of Tuscon– and the Horror of How Tuscon is Being Used By Others
Within the first hour or so of coverage of the Tuscon shooting tragedy– the one that killed 6 people and wounded 14 others, including Congresswoman Giffords– news commentators were asking leading questions of their interviewees about “vitriolic political rhetoric” and its effects. Within a few hours, the blogosphere– or at least the little bitty part of it I pay attention to– was posting the Sarah Palin poster with 20 congressional districts targeted (literally) by gun sight diagrams, and the exhortation to “reload” and to “take down the 20.” Another item focused on the Arizona republican Party Fundraiser during the last election– one held to fund the campaign of Giffords opponent– which offered donors the opportunity to shoot a loaded fully automatic M-16, with the exhortation to take down the democrats in 2010.
Pretty quickly, the dead and wounded became (for the national media coverage) simply an excuse to create controversial conversation about “vitriolic political rhetoric.” Tea Party folks were quick to disavow any responsibility for this guy in Tuscon– even as more liberal types were almost immediately identifying this guy as a Tea Party member. And now, thank goodness, the Westboro Baptist Church has weighed in with their “god’s” view– they will be present to protest at the funeral for the 9 year old girl killed by the shooter, proclaiming their god’s hatred for Catholics, “fags,” and others that their god has notified Westboro Baptist about. Their view is pretty simple– every dead person who can attract a media crowd is an opportunity given them by the god they worship to come and shout ugly and hate-filled slogans in the name of “freedom of speech.”
Let me be real clear, as a reasonably well-educated theologian and as a faithful Christian: whatever god Westboro Baptist worships hasn’t got anything to do with the real God, and it might be an appropriate theological response to their hatred and ugliness to pray that at the very least their car breaks down on the way to whatever event they are trying to soil with their hateful and useless presence. The God I worship calls me to refrain from harming (or wishing harm upon) any other person, and to leave such things as vengeance in God’s hands. But I think praying for a flat tire might be OK, is and perhaps even appropriately humorous enough to happen.
Two Conversations– Related, But Not The Same
It seems to me that there are two parallel conversations here–one having to do with the shootings and the shooter who committed them, and the second about the larger issue of “civility.” The shooter conversation is pretty simple, it seems to me. Early on, once the location of the shooter’s website on Youtube was published, I visited it and watched the videos he created to explain his worldview. They are chaotic, perhaps even inchoate– mad ramblings with no resemblance to anything even remotely political.Yeah, he talks about currency and the gold standard, and he references the Constitution, and uses words like “Federalist”– but the usage of those words in his ramblings make no coherent sense at all. The vast majority of his posts are about grammar, and how if one confuses grammar and misuses words one can be free of control by the “government.” He seems to think that “mind control” is effected by words and grammar, and that if he can use words and grammar to suit himself, he can exercise “mind control” over others. I think this supports his contention that “no one is literate”– i.e., no one understands language as he uses it.
Whether or not he is legally insane in such a way so as to not be held responsible for his actions,I cannot even begin to say. But he is certainly “crazy” enough to be an isolate from others, to be alone in a crowd, alone in the world in which he finds himself. He is a person who others found impossible to deal with or to befriend. In contrast to what we think of as typically “political”– the ability to win friends and influence people– this young man was almost literally “apolitical,” unable to influence anyone or connect in any meaningful way with those around him.
So his actions are, I believe, the actions of a disturbed and deranged personality. Tea Party people should no more be associated with this guy’s thoughts and actions than real Christians ought to be associated with the insane assertions of the Westboro Baptist church. (And by the way, I am vehemently opposed to the agenda of the Tea Party– this is not an apologetic work for them. I’m just trying to be fair here.)
So that’s the first conversation, and it seems to me it is fairly straightforward– this guy was dangerously deranged,many people were afraid of him before he went off, and what he did was simply the outgrowth of his deranged and disturbed personality.
The Power of Langauge
The second conversation is about how we speak to one another. It is a conversation that is not negated by the realization that a deranged and disturbed man and not a political party or movement is responsible for what happened in Tuscon. Perhaps the necessity for such a conversation is heightened by such a realization.
I believe in the power of words. I believe in that for practical reasons– all you have to do is observe how your emotions can be affected by kind or hurtful words directed in your direction to see that the child’s rhyme isn’t quite true. Sticks and stones can break bones, and words cannot; but words break things in us that are far deeper and more vital than even our bones. Listen to a grown-up talk about how their parents never gave them encouragement as a child and you can still hear how much that hurt them even today. Watch someone’s eyes light up when you give a true compliment for the work they’ve done. Pay attention to how the words of an advertisement cause you to want to buy what is being sold.
Words have a practical power. Words have a uniquely constitutive power as well. It seems to be a growing consensus among those who study such things that human language and the way humans organize, interact, even “create” or constitute the world they inhabit are intertwined. Language and the cultural system it creates is the framework human beings use to create a world full of meaning, a world that makes sense.
Maybe this is why ultimately ( in Jewish/Christian theology, anyway) the creative force God exercises is Word. Word is how the infinite, transcendent, and unknowable God creates and interacts with the finite, immanent, and known world we experience. By uttering simple words, one after another, the Divine brings order out of chaos in Genesis 1. And in the opening chapter of John’s Gospel, we are told that Jesus is “Word” made flesh– the transcendent become immanent, the invisible made visible, the creative force taking up residence (literally “pitching his tent”) in the creation.
Words are important. This is beyond dispute. Wizardry and witchcraft are practices by which persons use words (incantations and spells) to create and transform reality. Because they seek to play with the power words have to make and create, they are forbidden within the Jewish-Christian scriptures. Only God may use the power of Word to create reality. We who are created by that Word must live within the reality that Word has created. In some sense, the modern use of words to create an enemy out of an opponent, to create a thing out of a human being, to create permission to vilify and villainize the honest viewpoints of another is to engage in a kind of “black magic,” a wizardry that transforms a person and a situation from one thing into another.
The Language of Violence, and the Violence That Arises From It
It troubles me to hear our leaders talk about hunting down and killing others– and yet, we have heard them speaking that way publicly since 9/11/2001. Like a Roman emperor offering prisoners of war for the theater of the Colosseum to appease and please the masses, our leaders have sought to please and appease us by promising to hunt down, kill, and destroy our “enemies.” Maybe not so coincidentally, over the last decade and a half or so, the rhetoric of political contests has also become more and more militarized and less “civil” (after all, aren’t these the words we use to demarcate those realities–”military”and “civilian?) Elections are verbally militarized campaigns to “take back what is ours,” to “take down the opposition,” to “destroy”what our “enemies” have done and build up instead what people like us want.
This language reflects a deep and inherent human trait– to divide the world into “us” and “them.” One of the ancient Germanic tribes were known as the “Allemanni,” literally “all the men” or “the only people.” So, if you were not one of the Allemanni, you weren’t really a human being and whatever was done to you was OK. The word “barbarian” is a Greek word that communicated the same powerful idea. To the Greeks, who thought themselves the only truly civilized people, the languages of non-Greek speakers sounded like the babbling of children– as if they were saying “barbarbarbarbar.” Hence, the name for all non-Greek speaking peoples–”barbarians.” They don’t speak our language, they must not be real humans.
This is not only a problem for the ancients. As recently as the 19th century we can see this at play. In his book The Artificial Ape, Timothy Taylor tells of the encounter between the technology-rich European explorers and the indigenous Tasmanians in the 19th century. The Europeans who discovered the Tasmanians determined them to be a kind of fallen humanity because of their seemingly primitive and “degenerate” way of life. Isolated by great distances and for a great amount of time, the Tasmanians exhibited an apparent lack of technology and social structure. They lacked clothing and even permanent structures such as houses. Because these indigenous Tasmanians were viewed as degenerate– not merely less-evolved but as having even fallen backward toward a non-human animal nature– they were exterminated by the Europeans within a few decades of their discovery. The bones of the last Tasmanian were kept on circus display into the early 20th century as an example of a kind of “missing link,” a sub-human hominid.
The sad truth is that these human beings were highly specialized in the way they had evolved culturally. The lifestyle that made them appear so backward to the Europeans who found them was in fact an highly specialized and well-adapted lifestyle for the environment they inhabited for tens of thousands of years.And even though the Europeans saw them as completely lacking in technology, the name of the last Tasmanian was, in her language, “Tool-maker.”
Need we go on– linguistic and cultural structures that justified the enslavement of Africans because they were thought to be less than fully human persisted throughout the 19th century and arguably were at the root of the American civil rights struggle of the 20th century and beyond. Linguistic and cultural structures that see females as “less qualified” human beings than males have persisted into even the 21st century. (Cardinal Ratzinger, before he was Pope, suggested that one reason females couldn’t be priests is because they were constructed of “insufficient matter” when compared to males.) American citizens of Japanese descent were put in concentration camps in our own 20th century. And rampant fear of Arabic terrorism causes us to speak of a “culture war” between the West and the Middle East. (To be fair, that rhetoric of misunderstanding flows both ways. Within the Arabic world, this clash between civilizations is understood to have been occurring at varying levels of intensity for nearly a thousand years. apparently we see each other as equally uncivilized when compared to ourselves.)
Policy Implications–In Other words, What does It All Mean and What Should We Do About It?
All of this is to say: when our political rhetoric heats up in this way, we lose touch with the one quality contained within our national idealism that could actually make a new way forward into a more sane future. Our founding fathers– so often quoted and yet so seldom read– insisted that all human beings possess inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Further, the ability of those rights to be enjoyed by all human beings depended upon a government that ruled with the consent of the governed, and that our uniquely American form of government was structured so as to protect the rights of any and all minorities against the will of any and all majorities. This is the reality we have sought to create by our particular and powerful use of words.
All of the political and social wrongs we have committed in American society have been corrected by our appeal to and recognition of these principles. Even if it angers the majority– perhaps especially if it angers the majority– we are not a “majority-rule” civilization here in America. If the rights of even one person inconvenience and disconcert the majority, then so be it. (That explains why the reprehensible Westboro Baptist Church gets to shout their theological obscenities at public events.) Throughout our history, our own American political rhetoric has heated up in dangerous ways and with disastrous results. Race riots, lynchings, prejudice against Irish, Italian, and Slavic immigrants– all have created historical events over which we grieve and of which we are ashamed today.
Because of this, over and over in American political discourse we argue over who is truly deserving of the rights we proclaim as belonging to all human beings. Do they belong to persons of African, Asian, Slavic, Irish, Italian, and Indigenous Indian descent? Do they belong to Women? Do they belong to Children? In other words, are such people fully “human,” since these are rights that belong to all human beings? This has been argued as part of our civic discourse in the past 200 years or so.
Do those rights which belong to all human beings belong to those who are in America without official permission? Do these rights extend across the globe, and if so, to what extent do we as an American civilization accept responsibility for asserting and supporting those rights? Should we do governmental business with other governments who do not affirm or recognize these “inalienable” human rights? Such discussions have guided our foreign policy decisions for as long as we’ve been a nation.
“Vitriolic political rhetoric” is not a new phenomenon. We have used it before, and have seen what it produces, and have apologized and promised to never do it again. And yet, when our fear grows– when our emotions carry away our better and more reasonable nature– we fall almost immediately back into such destructive language.
A climate of anger, hatred,mistrust– “vitriol”– does not cause a deranged person to become deranged. But such incautious and careless speech creates a climate where the deranged and alienated personality can justify whatever actions he or she might take. Such angry words are part of the “game” of politics. (Notice– when popular radio and TV personalities are called out on their use of such langauge, their first defense is that it’sjust a “game,” it’s only jokes or entertainment. Notice when politicians are challenged over such words, they will immediately claim that “others do it,” thus making it “fair play” in the game of politics, which is after all a “contact sport” where peopleplay “hardball.”)
The problem occurs, of course, is that such “playful” words become the fabric of reality for the many who think the “game” is real.
When people see the great figures of our society–political and social leaders, powerful entertainers who sing songs and tell stories of a better world– using such language they assume that the words being used have import and meaning. Some of those people are the deranged and unstable person in our midst– but most of these are simply unsophisticated, uncritical in their thinking, poorly educated or easily overcome by their emotions. Because they are useful as a mass to power elites, such language is used to manipulate this mass toward whatever purpose suits those who use words to create this flawed reality.Because of this, you see low-income skilled and unskilled workers demonstrating for the benefit of those who pay them too little and use them up and throw them out. You see the phenomenon documented by many social scientists of people acting politically in ways that are detrimental to their best interests because they want to identify culturally with a particular group.
All because of the power of words.
1. While I will not lay the Tuscon shootings at the feet of Tea Partiers and the militant Right, neither will I excuse anyone on the Right or Left who uses overheated language to inflame passions and then want to back away when such passions bring a horrifying result.
2. Our better and higher selves are made manifest when we reason together, not when we shout at and threaten one another. Our better and higher natures are expressed when we understand that we’re all in this together and that we are all pretty much alike, not when we divide ourselves into groups and see the Other as less worthy than ourselves, perhaps even less human than ourselves.
3. Those who create these negative and overwrought realities by their injudicious use of words do so because it “works” — it sells product, it gets votes, it produces results. Fighting back by engaging in the same use of words to serve our own purposes is to dirty ourselves by playing the same dirty game.
4. Let’s do something different, something radical, something that really is Christ-like:
- Overcome hatred with real love
- Meet anger with compassion
- Offer calming words to those who are overwrought
- Meet irrationality and non-rationality with reasonable thought
- Resist the false reality of division and anger not by violence against it but by creating a better and truer reality by words and deeds of love and peace.
The only real way forward is really to go forward– away from our repeated past of division, anger, hatred, and rash actions which produce regret and recrimination and that feed a seemingly never-ending cycle of violence and oppression and forward to a real society of equals, a real community of interdependent persons, a real appreciation of the differences of viewpoint that our different ways and places of life and living creates.