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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Guest Column: ‘Culture of violence’ shoddy scapegoat for shooting

    The UA’s National Institute for Civil Discourse, honorarily chaired by two former presidents, represents a massive opportunity and an equally massive waste of talent and resources.

    It has become fashionable to call for increased civility in political discourse following the Jan. 8 shooting. Violent rhetoric from the right (and, in some cases, from the left) has been tenuously connected to a “”culture of violence”” and this, presumably, caused the shooting.

    But this reasoning is symptomatic of an unfortunate tendency in social commentary to use the phrase, ‘X contributes to Y, which causes Z,’ as in, ‘Violent political rhetoric contributes to a culture of violence, which caused the Tucson shootings.’

    There are two fallacies here: First, merely showing that two things might be related and that one preceded the other does not establish a causal relationship.

    Second, “”Y”” in this sentence is an abstraction, not something that actually exists. There is no such thing as a “”culture of violence.”” What actually exist are the attitudes and beliefs of individuals.

    It might be correct that violent political rhetoric makes individuals more likely to commit violent acts. But that’s an empirical question, one that has to be resolved by research, not something that can be asserted just because it seems to make sense.

    In this case, it’s not correct. Jared Loughner wasn’t a fan of Glenn Beck or similarly outrageous pundits, as many liberals (myself included) wrongly hypothesized that he was.

    He was a mentally unstable individual; furthermore, as Mark Ames suggested in a Vanity Fair article, his shooting bore many similarities to the various workplace and school massacres of the post-Reagan era. Ames noted that Loughner claimed to have been bullied in school and accused Pima Community College of violating his Constitutional rights. Such massacres have typically come from individuals with a history of being oppressed, dehumanized, humiliated or intimidated, exactly what one might expect given the massive inequalities of the post-Reagan workplace culture.

    Yet in the aftermath of the shooting, there has been very little push for a “”National Institute for Bettering Mental Health”” or a “”National Institute for Stopping Bullying and Dehumanization in Schools and the Workplace.”” Civility is what we get stuck with. Somehow, a lack of politeness is the problem, even though there is no reason to think it had anything to do with Loughner’s rampage. Then again, if the shooting isn’t the inspiration for the establishment of the institute, what was so wrong with the level of civil discourse, and why does it suddenly need fixing?

    The truth is that the bluster about “”civility”” is empty posturing. Furthermore, civility is not necessarily a good thing. Americans absolutely have a right to be angry. They have a right to be foaming-at-the-mouth, eyes-crimson-with-rage, completely berserk with anger at how politically and economically disenfranchised they are and how unlikely this is to improve any time soon.

    It would be pleasant if this anger manifested in constructive ways. But gone are the raucous protests of the ‘60s and ‘70s, replete with marches, giant banners held by groups of people and countless drawings of fists. Today, as Eileen Jones noted in a recent article from The eXile Online, we’re stuck with lukewarm chants of “”Hey-hey! Ho ho! These budget cuts have got to go!”” and hastily scribbled posterboard signs. Yawn.

    It might even have been nice if Loughner had taken a page from the late Marvin Heemeyer, a welder in Granby, Colorado. When Granby officials were cruel and unjust toward Heemeyer, forcing him to lease his business to a trash company and sell his muffler shop, he spent the next eighteen months attaching steel and concrete plates to a bulldozer. He then used this bullet- and explosive-resistant “”killdozer”” for a nonviolent rampage in which he knocked down a dozen buildings.

    “”Civility”” is not only soundly ineffective in protest discourse: it doesn’t help much in politics, either. Civility didn’t block the passage of the $700 billion Wall Street bailout package that is now widely agreed to have been a farce — rather, there was strong bipartisan consensus surrounding it. Civility didn’t make last year’s health care bill better; it produced a watered-down mess that meets no one’s needs but manages to piss everyone off. Too much politeness, not too little, was the problem.

    Civil discourse simply isn’t what’s needed. Sure, we ought to respect all points of view, but it’s better to devote resources toward figuring out which of those perspectives is correct. Or, in the UA’s case, better to save the money during a budget crisis.

    The National Institute for Civil Discourse will, in all likelihood, rise and be forgotten, like so many similarly lofty-minded institutions. Good riddance in advance, I say.

    — Taylor Kessinger is a former Daily Wildcat opinions columnist. He can be reached at

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