A Plague on Both Your Houses


Shakespeare foresaw the tragedy of unmitigated anger to innocents caught in the ties of family conflicts. Gabrielle Giffords was a member of the extended political family we call our two-party system in the US. Political, like family, feuds can end up in bloodshed and harm, whether real or fictional. Anger is a powerful emotion that is commonly ascribed to action that leads to violence and produces harmful results.

According to many observers, we live in a particularly angry time. Stories of domestic violence or global terrorism are daily news. Efforts to calm seem less and less effective. One reason for this might be rooted in President Obama's comment following the shooting in Tucson when he said, "We will get to the bottom of this." He said something similarly after the financial system collapsed. But our fact-funding methods cannot do this job effectively. Nor can our systems of punishment, remedy, or compensation.

The problem lies, in part, in the failure to understand complexity. This tragedy and other sudden catastrophic or tragic events have no bottom. The causes lie somewhere outside of the analytic sphere. There is often no reasonable explanation why these events happen. But there may be if one looks at complexity as the context for the actions. Sudden shifts occur in complex systems when the system is stressed or stretched to a point where its stabilizing linkages (negative feedback) can no longer keep the system in a more or less stable state. In an instant in its relevant timescale, something snaps, in terms of a common metaphor for such noticeable changes.

The common error in analyzing catastrophic events is to stop whenever some part of the system appears to be the culprit. In the financial collapse, excess leveraging, was singled out as a principal cause. It may have been a major contributor, but surely many other factors were involved. Reading the stories about the shooting of Congresswoman Giffords, the cause is already presumed to be anger. Our politics is said to be full of vitriol or bile, ancient signs of anger, rooted in the body. The earliest healers had the right idea, based on their theory of humors, that the way to rid the patient of symptoms was to drain the appropriate humor. That their basic model of humors was wrong could explain why so often the patient failed to recover or improve.

So it is with anger today. We have the wrong model. We look for the cause of an angry act as an emotional response tied to the act itself. But anger does not come from the immediate context: it lies buried in the stories of the past in the actor's unconscious. What might the symbols in Palin's map (shown in the photo) have meant to the shooter? If he saw these as a target in the cross hairs of a scope would his interpretation been deemed abnormal? The metaphorical equivalent of a scope was everywhere in the political rhetoric of the past few campaigns. What led to the shooter's action will be the subject of much amateur and professional psychoanalysis. But that it took place in a political context, best typified by anger, strongly suggests that the roots causes lie much deeper than the aspects the news media and the fact-finders probe, especially at a time when instant answers are expected.

I don't know what the roots of the broad, societal anger are, but they are certainly deeper than unhappiness over health reform, taxes, the deficit, big government, and on and on. Anger management by throwing a slavering dog a bone won't work. In this case, the bone is usually some political promise to assuage the symptoms. It may work for a time, but the roots of the anger will linger and will trigger some action again.

I will hazard a guess where the roots lie, coming from my work about sustainability. Anger always comes from some unkept promise whether spoken by a real person or coming from the cultural voice. The American Dream is an example of the latter. These unspoken promises are the more serious in provoking anger because the person on whom the anger is laid is never the one that made the promises. I'll stick with the American Dream as the culprit, but only as a surrogate for whatever promises of the future we hear coming from the culture. The American Dream is the end of a process taking shape over many historical eras. Every culture has its dreams, the stories that constitute these cultures.

My book and its explanation for the unsustainable state of the world is based fundamentally on the failure of moderns to recognize that the stories that fuel societal action are just that, only stories. Two primary consequences follow. One is that most people live unsatisfying lives, never able to step off the treadmill of modern societies. The second is that the dissatisfaction eventually shows up as angry acts. Why is the United States the most violent domestic culture in the world? Maybe for this reason.

Polities as large as the United States cannot make promises they can keep. Even small families struggle. Anger is inevitable, but can be managed better than we do at present. Superficial efforts at turning the dreams to reality can't and won't work, except momentarily, perhaps. The dichotomous political system of the US cannot do more than offer Band-aids. Finding solutions in the dead words of the Constitution or of Adam Smith or Montesquieu is bound to be fruitless. Whatever these meant to the original speakers is now woven into the fabric of a different and ever-changing complex world. It is virtually impossible for explanations and solutions that might have worked far back into the past to work today.

Getting to the bottom of the system that causes angry and other untoward breakdowns in our cultural system will take coordinated and prolonged work. Getting to bottom of what causes anger in individuals will take a hard look at the story we use to create our identities and to justify our actions. I have written that the source of unsustainability is rooted in an existential error in the way we moderns believe we think and operate in an objective world. This shooting adds to the evidence that our system is broke and needs fixing, but not in the way we have been going. We are not Republicans or Democrats, liberals or conservatives, Americans or Afghans, rich or poor, Jew or Christian. We are simply human beings, seeking to discover what that means, and finding ways to flourish in a world full of all sorts of obstacles: some real and others manifest only in language--the stories we tell to ourselves. The tragedy in Tucson shows how far away we still are.

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Ralph Meima said:

John, now that I have access to the world of pre-teens and teens - the world Loughran knows well - I am staggered at the amount of time they spend (especially boys) in extremely violent, realistic shooter games. Hundreds or thousands of kills a day with all sorts of automatic weapons and plenty of cursing and blood is quite ordinary for perhaps millions of boys and young men. Hungry to play Call of Duty, Halo, Red Dead Redemption, etc., they are drawn inexorably to the nearest XBox360, Wii, Play Station, or ordinary PC. How does this affect our society? I believe that a portion of their brains cannot distinguish between reality and simulation, and takes this daily shooter conditioning in stride uncritically.