Sunday, January 16, 2011

A deal I'll take

Last week Andrew Sullivan posted the following excerpt from a Stephen Budiansky post:

4. For as long as I can remember, I have heard conservatives blaming everything that is wrong in the universe, from violent crime to declining test scores to teen pregnancy to rude children to declining patriotism to probably athlete's foot  . . . upon Dr. Spock, Hollywood liberals, the abolition of prayer in school, Bill Clinton, the "liberal 1960s," the teaching of evolution — in other words, upon symbols, rhetoric, cultural norms, and the values expressed by political and media leaders. Yet from the moment when someone gets a gun in their hands, apparently, society ceases to have any influence whatsoever on the outcome and individual responsibility takes hold 100%. Something is driving the tripling of death threats against congressmen (and the concomitant rise in threats against Federal judges and other villains of the right, from Forest Service rangers to climate scientists) and it isn't the sunspot cycle.

Ah yes.  It's a pity we live in a culture that is so timid about its actions for fears of how they might be eroding cultural norms and impacting others' behavior.  How many couples remain miserably married because they don't want to add to the legitimacy of divorce?  Dr. Spock was certainly shut down and put in his corner, wasn't he?  And we all know how successful conservatives have been at cleaning the and violence out of Hollywood.  I sometimes have to wait until 8 PM before I see someone called a nasty name or openly discuss their sexual conquests on network TV.

Minus the sarcasm -- my point is this is a battle that has largely been lost. The idea that adults should be mindful of the behaviors they normalize for fear of how it may impact the behavior of others is one that's likely to get you laughed out of the rooms where these decisions are made.  Conservatives have been lectured for years about how abstinence-based education doesn't work, you can't stop kids from having sex, homosexuality is an immutable inborn trait, that criminalizing abortion would have little or no impact on the number of abortions, and in general that adults have little or no hope of influencing the behavior of young people..  And those arguments have won the day! 

Citing these arguments as the precedent for inconsistency "gotcha" argument raises the question of why the converse does not apply to those who have taken the opposite positions. (It also assumes that "conservative" is a monolithic term such that the set of conservative supporting cultural norms is equivalent to those denying a connection between harsh rhetoric and violence).  After hearing over and over again how unreasonable it is to expect adults to curb their behavior based on cultural influences, we're supposed to believe that someone would shoot six people because Sarah Palin used gunsights on a map to illustrate that there were targeted districts?

But I'll call your bluff.  I'm not sure I speak for conservatives, since I'm not a particular fan of extreme rhetoric myself.  But I will gladly acknowledge that there is a connection between extreme rhetoric and violence if we can also agree on the following:

  • When leaders regard their marital vows as suggestions, it leads others to do the same, and this can lead to devastating consequences for children.
  • That abortion has been considered a Constitutional right and "perfectly legal" probably is a major driver of the cultural acceptance of abortion and the abortion rate.
  • When almost every movie and TV show displays premarital sex as normal, and indeed refraining from it before things like high school graduation as abnormal, then this will have an impact on teenager's behavior.
I'm willing to do my part to build a culture that doesn't encourage violence, if you'll help me build a culture that doesn't undermine the values I'm trying to instill in my children.  

Acknowledging these things may make it more difficult to deploy arguments like "How does it hurt your marriage if two gay people get married," since it does concede that we are interconnected that our actions have an impact on each other.  But I think it's closer to the truth than the lie we've been telling ourselves the last few years so we can pursue our own interests and get a good zinger in against our political opponents

Monday, January 10, 2011

Rhetoric and Complicity

The reaction to the shooting of Rep. Gifford and others on Saturday reminded me of a discussion I was involved in at Mirror of Justice after Russell Powell wrote that "we" (meaning Catholics) are complicit in the rash of suicides by gay teenagers last fall.

Like Saturday, there was no direct link between any action by the Catholic Church or Catholics in particular and the suicides.  So, Prof. Powell relied on the fact that "we do not actively provide moral leadership as individuals and as an institution to protect human life and dignity."  Of course, the same could be said for every injustice in the world -- warfare, abortion, capital punishment, poverty, euthanasia, etc.  But it did seem to me that Prof. Powell was claiming a more particular level of complicity in these suicides that, for example, abortion.  This is similar to how, failing to draw a line from harsh conservative rhetoric to the shooting, commentators instead pointed to a "climate of hate" and other similar terms.

I found myself resisting Prof. Powell's conclusion, as I found myself resisting the conclusion that conservatives who use harsh rhetoric bear responsibility for Saturday's shooting.  And I also resist the weaker claim that, even if there is no direct complicity, then these events provide a "teachable moment" for people to reconsider their actions.

Is it because I think both the institutional Church and Catholics are blameless in how they respond to gays and lesbians?  Certainly not.  Is it because I am happy with the current state of political discourse and would not welcome a move toward arguments over name calling?  Again, most certainly not.

It is because I recognize what a powerful force people's feelings are in the wake of events like murders and suicides.  And I am loathe to see the energy behind them unleashed on in directions that are only tangentially related to the actual event.

If we want to look for an example of why to be wary of this impulse, we should only look at the last ten years of our history since 9/11.  We responded to that by launching two separate wars, bringing back torture, setting aside many of our principles, and countless other things.  I would think that those on the political left would recognize the danger of being indiscriminate in directing people's grief toward undeserving targets (if you'll excuse the expression).

We can talk about how the Church might respond to gays and lesbians.  And we can talk about how we might bring about a more tame discourse.  But it's not right to do so with the charge of complicity with homicide in the air.  And I don't think doing so is going to lead to anything good.  Don't borrow moral force from the tragedies -- make the case on its own terms.

I am extremely skeptical that a better discourse is going to be built on evidence free accusations on complicity with murder.

Some other scattered thoughts I'm not inclined to pollute my Twitter feed with:
  • It is an interesting statement about the psyche of the Democrats that one of their first reactions to an attempted assassination of one of their Representatives is to attempt to link it to the failed VP candidate of the last election who currently holds no political office.  Has there ever been a politician so successful at getting in the other side's head?
  • I would say the left's demonization of the right is more common, but less severe, than the right's demonization of the left.  The left tends to make charges against the right that suggest they are not fit for inclusion in polite company, whereas right tends to imply some on the left ought to be arrested/killed.  Which is why I found Byron York's comparison to the reaction to the Ft. Hood shooting less than persuasive.  Is there a danger that there will be vigilante justice against conservatives?  I don't think so.
  • The more we learn about these shooters, the less likely I find the possibility that there exists a person who would have never harmed anybody but for things like Sarah Palin's map of targetted districts.  
  • And even if so, I find the idea of letting our speech be dictated by what some crazy person might react to extremely distasteful.
  • If liberals are still having trouble understanding why conservatives react so strongly to these charges, imagine how you might react to a pro-lifer like me posting that the shooting is yet another example of the "culture of death" enabled by our pro-choice culture that says that human life is expendable if it is inconvenient.  IMO, that's a more direct connection than anything Sarah Palin said, but I and the pro-life movement recognize that it would be imprudent to make such a case.