The Arizona Shooting: Why Words Matter
The World Outside and the Pictures in our Heads
In the aftermath of the shooting that ended the lives of six people and injured 14 more people in Tucson, Ariz. recently, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, many people have suggested that people like Sarah Palin have blood on their hands, because the thought is that nasty rhetoric coming largely from the political right may have inspired Jared Loughner to kill these people.
At the outset, I am not going to say that Sarah Palin, Sharron Angle (she of the "second amendment remedies" fame) and other conservatives are directly responsible for Loughner's actions. Loughner and Loughner alone made the decision to attack Giffords and the citizens who were there to meet her, along with her staff. However, if people like Palin, Angle and other conservatives truly do love Americans, they will tone down their rhetoric.
Walter Lippman was a journalist, philosopher, and social scientist who was one of the great media theorists of the 20th Century. Lippmann was one of the early people to consider that the images we see on television may have an effect on the people who view it.
Lippmann wrote an important piece titled "The World Outside and the Pictures in our Heads." In this work, Lippmann theorized that if you live in a violent neighborhood and you read media reports full of news of killing, destruction, the old "If it bleeds it leads" philosophy espoused by most media, your view of the world in general will be more dark, and your perception will be that the world is a dangerous place. Conversely, if you live in an area where the crime rate is lower, or if you choose not to watch the violence-laden coverage that dominates the media, your view of the world will be more optimistic than the other person.
Someone like Loughner has additional variables such as mental illness entering into the dynamic. It has been said that perception is 90 percent of reality, and the glasses through which Loughner viewed the world were skewed by the voices and pictures inside his head. In the end, I suspect, hearing the likes of Palin and Angle and others using gun metaphors in their rhetoric may have made the attack a couple Saturdays ago to seem like a reasonable course of action.
Palin, Angle and others have asserted their first amendment rights to use whatever speech they feel is appropriate to advance their second amendment philosophies on the right to bear arms. The problem is that we know there are many Jared Loughners out there who will listen to someone like Sharron Angle who suggests that if the Tea Party doesn't get what the Tea Party wants from the legally recognized political process we call elections, they may feel compelled to turn to "second amendment remedies," and someone like Loughner will take her seriously.
That does not mean that Palin and Angle should even be considered accessories to Loughner's crimes. What it does mean is that they have lost sight of the fact that when you yell fire (or perhaps ready, aim fire) in a crowded theater, some people will react badly to their call to become "armed and dangerous," as Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann has suggested.
Mental illness has been a part of society as long as there have been people on this planet. That piece to the equation will not change, although as scientists learn more about the causes of mental illness, we may develop more effective means of treatment to help people live with these diseases of the mind. What needs to change is the rhetoric. Is it really necessary to call President Obama a fascist, a communist, a socialist, a Kenyan? Is it really necessary to put cross-hair symbols on a map to identify members of Congress a political animal like Palin would like to knock off?
It was not so long ago that people in the two major political parties could agree to disagree but not be disagreeable in the process. Those were the days when bitter rivals on the floor of the House or the Senate could battle it out by day and socialize together by night. In these days, what reason would they have to have a drink together after the legislative session is over for the days when the attacks opponents use toward each other has degenerated to such a personal level? I wonder how Gabrielle Giffords felt about Sarah Palin as a person when she first saw the map with a gun's sight plastered above her legislative district.
If the likes of Palin, Angle, Bachmann, and others really do care for Americans as much as they claim, they will recognize that even if they are not directly responsible for Loughner's attack, they certainly did not help matters very much. And before the next Jared Loughner decides to take a gun and shoot a member of Congress and citizens who are participating in the political process as the founding fathers envisioned, it would be wise to turn down the rhetoric. We don't need to inspire those voices people like Loughner may be hearing. They are capable of getting themselves ramped up all by themselves.