On Political Rhetoric, Mental Illness and Guns
In the wake of the horrific events in Arizona, a predictable storm has brewed over who, or what, is responsible. Is it the vitriolic political rhetoric that has reached new heights of bile in recent years? Is it mental illness and signs of the unpredictable outburst of a sick man? Or is it the profusion of guns in the general community, one that happened to legally fall into the hands of an unstable and ultimately murderous individual?
It is likely all these things.
While both the Left and the Right leapt to brand their political nemeses as the catalysts for this shocking act, naturally both have reacted with indignation and utterly rejected the notion that their words or creeds were in any way responsible.
Even if it turns out that Loughner’s motives were remote from rhetoric, what is worth noting is the readiness which which politicians and commentators have speculated as to the influence of rhetoric on the Tuscan shooting.
This suggests that there is already an awareness of the distemper overtaking American political discourse today. This suggests that even if Loughner wasn’t motivated by contemporary rhetoric, it seems plausible to many that he could have been; or that someone else, at another juncture, could also be.
This, alone, reflects something about the state of US politics, and should give reason for pause and reflection on how commentators, politicians and pseudo-politicians, like Sarah Palin, conduct themselves.
Regarding mental illness, it’s unlikely to not be a causal factor; Loughner appears to have held obscure and extreme political views that someone of a stable mind would be unlikely to endorse. Even as some warn us from explaining everything away as mental illness*, it was likely a pivotal causal factor, and one that reflects poorly not only on America’s failing treatment of serious mental illness (a failing shared by Australia and other developed countries, I might add), but also on the cultural forces that serve to isolate troubled individuals, that shun expressions of vulnerability in favour of those that tout competitiveness, happiness and success (even if disingenuous), and that allows someone who is showing fairly clear signs of trouble being allowed to buy a gun.
Which brings me to gun control. I’ve heard all the arguments for and against. I’m sure you have too. The thing is, the arguments against gun control are typically banal, incoherent, choose selectively from the evidence and are fuelled by an emotional attachment that identifies guns with freedom – a long leap in itself, were not freedom itself a problematic concept in its own right, particularly when adhered to dogmatically.
The vicious political rhetoric, mental illness and the ready availability of guns to those who would misuse them are all deep and seemingly intractable problems for the United States, and the negative effects of all are reflected in the shooting of Gifford.
Perhaps the tragedy of Gifford’s shooting will serve as a wakeup call and see Americans reflect on themselves, which is an important first step for change to take place. Let’s hope that, amidst the horror, some good might come from this.
*The Slate article is right to point out that mental illness isn’t an exhaustive explanation of any particular act, but it is precisely wrong in its argument. Saying that the presence of mental illness doesn’t imply an increased risk of that person committing a violent act is one thing. But such a generalisation is irrelevant when considering the proximate causes of a particular event. If Loughner has some kind of mental illness, and that mental illness contributed in some way to the decision making process that led him to pull the trigger on Gifford and the 20 others, then mental illness is a causal factor. True, we shouldn’t generalise about that, and we certainly can’t generalise from Loughner’s actions to those of others who happen to have a mental illness. But reverse-generalisation – the denial that because there’s no connection between x and y at a population level implies there’s no connection between x and y in an individual – is also false.