On Political Rhetoric, Mental Illness and Guns

Published by timdean on

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.


John S. Wilkins · 11th January 2011 at 3:06 pm

Political distemper – a great metaphor.

James Gray · 11th January 2011 at 4:18 pm

I think that we already have some gun control. The argument against gun control depends on what sort of control is taken to be “excessive.” The argument is incredibly simple – We have the right to bear arms & we should be given maximum freedom possible (within reason). This is not such a horrible argument and it’s not a simple issue to answer. It tends to be easy to kill people for those with that interest and “gun control laws” could be broken by anyone who wants to become a criminal or revolutionary.

The right to bear arms is partially based on a revolutionary mindset. People have a right to rebel against tyrannical governments using guns. Tyrannical governments often want to disarm citizens to prevent revolution.

Tom Rees · 13th January 2011 at 8:46 pm

Regarding mental illness – part of the problem is that the definition of mental illness is the holding of deviant beliefs that have a deleterious effect on your ability to function within society. Since, in the US (unlike Pakistan), shooting a politician & entourage is a pretty deviant thing to do, it’s almost axiomatic that anyone who does so will be ‘mentally ill’. Whatever their reasons for doing it, they are going to be deviant.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t help us understand why mentally ill people in one part of the world kill politicians, and in another part of the world go and live up a tree with squirrels. That’s what we really want to know.

Michael J. Kerrigan · 18th January 2011 at 3:48 am


Reflecting on Wednesday’s Tucson Memorial for the victims of Saturday’s tragic shooting at the Safeway, it occurred to me that the event also marked the death of our nation’s Judeo-Christian identity in our public universities. In the name of religious tolerance, this identity has been marginalized to minimal over the past few decades. This is why a 15-minute opening on national television was given to Carlos Gonzales, the Native American offering a “blessing” to “father sky” and “mother earth” instead of asking a religious leader to pray for our dead. The University of Arizona, a state institution, chose to exclude a Catholic priest, a Protestant minister, a Jewish rabbi in a memorial service for victims who were primarily Judeo-Christian. I am not aware of any Native Americans as being among the dead or wounded. I suspect to balance the pantheistic blessing; Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano and Attorney General Holder were permitted by the University to quote briefly from the Old and New Testaments respectively. But the tone was already set as secular.

Tim Dean · 18th January 2011 at 10:13 am

Hi Michael. I would welcome a retreat of religion from public universities and schools in American (and elsewhere), to be replaced with a robust secular morality which is tolerant, but not uncritical, of all other views and religions.

Michael J. Kerrigan · 19th January 2011 at 3:03 am

In my opinion, one of the reasons the United States is a truly exceptional country is due to the fact that our founders (as seen for example in the Declaration of Independence, national motto of “In God We Trust,” etc.) crafted our political architecture based on Judeo-Christian values, which for most of our history have been passed down from generation to generation. I acknowledge and am grateful for the secular morality of the ancient Greeks, such as the Stoics. It is my belief, the Sermon on the Mount as witnessed in the Good News of the Gospel surpassed that secular morality. I agree there is room for tolerance… for “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he…” However, the USA’s greatness is dependent upon our staying true to our values.

James Gray · 19th January 2011 at 7:26 am


It’s not entirely clear that the founding fathers did accept Judeo-Christian values and many of them were deists. Christians often want to say, “These values are just like our Christian values,” but many such values are perfectly compatible with secularism and atheism (and most other religions). Exactly what values do you think were so great but incompatible with atheism?

Michael J. Kerrigan · 19th January 2011 at 7:52 am


Not wishing to engage in a tennis match as to the degree the founding fathers accepted Judeo-Christian values and what percentage of them were deists since you are entitled to your opinion as am I. We can both cite our sources to affirm our own views but as Churchill said… ” whoever tells the story defines the culture.” The story of the religiosity of the founding fathers has been well documented, generally since the progressive era when a revisionist view attempted a foothold in academe.

Since you asked… I believe the right to life from conception to natural death would be incompatible with many who believe there is no God.

Tim Dean · 19th January 2011 at 10:47 am

Hi Michael. It seems a strange thing to say: that a lack of belief in god would imply a lack in belief in ‘right to life’. I can readily conceive of a secular morality that does believe in a ‘right to life’, justified along secular lines. Your comment also begs the question in the sense that you seem to assume that any credible moral system would support a ‘right to life’ as you’ve stated.

As for American exceptionalism, there’s not much more that can be said that hasn’t already been better elucidated by de Tocqueville, but here goes. What’s special about America is not Judeo-Christian values, but its Protestant values. There are many nations that adhere to Judeo-Christian values, traditions and culture. There are few that were established by Protestant, meritocratic, middle-class, educated entrepreneurs.

And, if anything, America’s greatness requires a retreat from dogmatic adherence to any absolutist religious doctrine, or dogmatic adherence to the Constitution (which is showing its age and could do with a rewrite), and instead embracing a rational, scientific, pragmatic, pluralist, internationalist outlook that is tolerant and cooperative rather than dominating and competitive.

James Gray · 19th January 2011 at 11:36 am


You said, “Since you asked… I believe the right to life from conception to natural death would be incompatible with many who believe there is no God.”

Almost everyone agrees that humans have a right to life and that human life is “good” in some sense. I personally think human life has intrinsic value even though I don’t think God has anything to do with it. I experience my life as having value and I think many other people do as well. I don’t need God to love me to make my life have value. If God does love me, it’s because he sees that it really does have value.

Michael J. Kerrigan · 20th January 2011 at 12:30 am


Check out those in the USA who support Roe vs Wade as to the preponderance of secularist who support aborting innocent children in their mother’s womb… res ipsa loquitor. Last time I checked Protestants are considered Christians. Tim, you are aware there is an amendment process to change the Constitution. nonetheless it is the greatest political document yet devised by man. As to your view ” requires a retreat from dogmatic adherence to any absolutist religious doctrine…” adherence to the truth, reason and faith are not incompatible.


“Almost everyone agrees that humans have a right to life…” No longer in the US since Roe Vs Wade. Nice of you to grant that human life has value but where we differ I believe God created me to know him, love Him and serve Him in this world. Since God created all things, including you (in my opinion) it is safe to safe He loves His creation, including you.

Study the life of Jesus Christ to better understand the extent to which He sacrificed His life for love of us all. I am certain God loves us, whether we understand him or not. Your life has great dignity because of that love.

I am no preacher and did not expect to go down this track. I wish James and Tim the best.

James Gray · 20th January 2011 at 7:21 am


You said,

First, who said that all atheists are pro-abortion? Second, rights can conflict. The child’s rights can conflict with the mother’s. Third, the immorality of abortion might not be something that should be illegal for practical reasons. It might end up motivating young girls to commit suicide, for example. Four, not all Christians believe in the right to life. They often are for the death penalty, they often think attacking countries is justified, they have little problem with killing animals, and so forth. I realize that not all Christians agree about everything, but neither do atheists.

My life has dignity because Jesus sacrificed himself? I thought Jesus did it to get rid of original sin. Are you saying that murder is only wrong because Jesus was sacrificed? Look at your argument:

1. Human life wouldn’t have value unless something gives it value.
2. Jesus sacrificing himself gives life value because it shows love.
3. Jesus did so.
4. Therefore, we have value.

This is obviously a horrible argument. How could you possibly justify premise 2 in particular?

James Gray · 20th January 2011 at 7:24 am

Michael, to say that human life has “intrinsic” value means that it has value just for existing. When something has value because you love it they are only valued insofar as the subjective experiences are concerned. That is why love is irrelevant. Either we are “worthy” of love based on what we are, or we don’t have intrinsic value. God doesn’t get to decide if we are “worthy” based on his “opinion.”

Tim Dean · 20th January 2011 at 9:23 am

Hi Michael. Thanks for your comments, and your uncommon courtesy even though we disagree. However, I don’t know how much progress we’ll make in our argument because of our fundamental disagreement when it comes to a belief in god.

I’m as confident god doesn’t exist as you are that god does. And that changes everything. Without god we need to find another justification for morality, and that is the guiding motivation for my research (and that of many others as well).

However, I make it a point not to argue about the existence or non-existence of god. That would be a fruitless consumption of my time that would be better spent working on secular morality. And there are many others who have expressed arguments about god’s non-existence elsewhere, so any words I could contribute would be largely redundant in that movement.

That said, I would like to stress that it’s important you don’t misrepresent atheism or secular morality in your arguments, as I believe you have done here (and as James has responded to). I make an effort not to misrepresent theist positions; I can imagine what it would be like it god existed and understand how the arguments hinging on god’s existence would unfold. I just don’t believe god does exist.

Conversely, I think you would benefit from imagining what it would be like if god didn’t exist, and trying to understand how secular moral arguments work in that context. That might benefit your arguments in two ways: first, you can better characterise the difference between your position and theirs, rather than just reiterating what atheists consider a false premise, namely that god exists; secondly, you might be able to find inconsistencies within secular theory, which secular thinkers would have to take seriously.

Thanks again for your comments, and of course you’re welcome to continue commenting on this blog, although you should be aware that any arguments that hinge on the existence of god will likely be readily dismissed by myself and other commenters. However, arguments within the sphere of secular morality are welcomed.

Tim Dean · 20th January 2011 at 9:25 am

I should also quickly add that my position is very different from James’, even though we both don’t believe in god. He’s a moral realist, who believes in intrinsic value. I’m an anti-realist, so I believe value is created by humans and projected on to the world, although in a non-arbitrary way. Besides that wee metaethical difference, me and James are largely in agreement.

Guns, rhetoric & mental illness | baalbek.org · 13th June 2011 at 2:19 am

[…] Tim Dean has a short opinion piece on the recent shooting in Arizona here. I was particularly interested by his footnote. This entry was posted in philosophy, society and […]

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