The aftermath of the Tucson shootings continues to demonstrate that our [public] understanding of why people do what they do still rests on an old model. To say that people’s actions are entirely internally motivated is to ignore much evidence to the contrary. I am not writing this to take aim at the specifics nor partisan aspects of the discussion, but to argue that all are off target.
To say that one is not responsible for the consequences of some action is not the same as saying that societal norms play no part. Anthropologists and sociologists have long noted that community norms are very strong motivators of private acts. In many of the cultures these scholars examined, the norms are relatively clear to all and form a coherent package. That is not the case with our highly diverse culture in the US. The libertarian end of the political spectrum would perhaps voice only a single norm–mind your own business–my life is mine to do anything I want other than what is illegal, and I question the legality of much of those laws. But others that create and maintain our norms have a more varied story to tell.
The point I want to make is that there are a lot of conflicting norms flying about. Some people will listen to and heed one set; others will follow another. My amateur sociologist side tells me that the louder and most authoritative presented norms will be the ones that show up more in action often than others. The shootings are an example of conflict resolution, gone terribly badly, but not so abnormal as to entirely dismiss the role of society in Loughner’s acts.
Conflicts of all sorts are an inevitable consequence of social life. Private property and the laws associated with it emerged as a general way to avoid and settle arguments over material goods. But when the conflicts are over ideas, it’s a different game. There are few laws to guide the arguments and counterarguments. As long as the conflicting parties claim that their idea is the only possible truth, the conflict can be settled only by the exercise of some sort of power. The Inquisition and religious wars were all justified on the defense on a particular interpretation of God’s word.
But it not only the case for big conflicts; it is the same for two individuals that cannot coordinate actions toward a common goal. In the case at hand, the common goal is what kind of government should we have. There has never been a consensus on this. There has always been and always will be differences. Our democratic form of government was designed to live with this context without always going to war or to the use of some alternate form of coercion.
It has become different today. The arguments about what to do about governing have become increasingly full of strident and absolutist claims about what’s the right (correct, not the opposite of left) answer to everything needing attention. The stakes in winning these arguments are immense in terms of control of the vast economic machinery of the US. We have seen an extraordinary period of conflict in our political system and expect to see even more in the few years ahead.
Now look at what are the norms to settle conflicts of all kinds. Violence has come to play an enormous role. On the big scale, we have become the warrior of the world, settling our differences at the end of a gun or lately via a drone. Our news media, the institution that was important historically for informing the nation, now shouts and rants as the norm. The content of much of goes for entertainment is filled with violence. Many, if not most, of the video games played by the young are based on violence. Bullying, both a physical and verbal form of violence, has reached a point where legal intervention is called for. And so on. It is not just the violence that matters; it is the message that one settles differences with a stick.
So back to Loughner. We do not and may never know what difference of opinion he was driven by, but that he chose a violent means to resolve it should not be surprising. The omnipresence of guns (some 250,000,00 in public hands according to the NRA) adds normality to the use of guns as a means of resolving irreconcilable differences. Armed robbery is a case where a robber believes that private property laws have no weight and, so, what you have should be mine.
All of this is not a defense of Loughner. I argue that the prevalence of guns and the degree that violence is promoted as the means to settle things contributes to individual acts of violence. We are not entirely free to act. We are always acting out of our own history. The history of insanity and its role in societal abnormal acts hinges to a large degree on the extent to which someone claims to be compelled to act. To claim that a societal context of violence, including speech, is not part of the “cause” of “senseless” acts is to ignore much of what we have learned about being human.
I have not become a political commentator all of a sudden. The way this terrible incident is being played out in all sorts of places is closely related to the “causes” of our unsustainable state of the world. The failure to recognize the cultural roots of actions and the role of norms has created institutions that produce pathological outcomes for both the humans and for the Planet. We are consumption addicts, not because we want be by free choice, but, at least in part, because the cultural voice keeps saying more, more, more. . .
It’s the same process that promotes the use of violence to win arguments. We do need governments to keep us civil. We have known that ever since Hobbes wrote about the state of nature, where life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” If we are not to return to that kind of society, we need is a culture than replaces the norm of violent settlement of differences by some other non-violent way. It’s almost January 20th, Martin Luther King Day. It’s ironic that we will celebrate his life at the same time we are shutting our eyes to the prevalence of just the opposite way of settling differences, large and small.