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Quite the World, Isn't It?

The problem with the discourse of hatred

I’ve been watching with the predictable sense of outrage as the events in Tucson have unfolded over the past 24 hours or so, and share in the anger about the circumstances in which the killings and attempted killings took place. As others have noted, our political discourse carries the bile and venom of a marriage ending badly. It is not the framework for progress. But we also can’t say for certain yet whether it was the impetus for violence.

So it is with a bit of revulsion that I’ve been watching the reactions of many on the left who are quick to see political motivations in the actions of what appears to be a mentally ill man. It could well turn out that this was indeed the willful attempted political assassination of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. But it could also turn out that her politics had nothing to do with it. We just don’t know enough to draw those conclusions. One friend referred to the attack as a political assassination. But is it? Can we conclude that? Did the gunman even know Giffords’ politics? Could he have just as easily targeted a conservative Republican, if that happened to be his congressional representative? We don’t know enough to even say whether there was any rational process involved. Was he coldly and delusionally anti-government, a Timothy McVeigh, and thus any political figure could be a target? Or was he, in the end, a John Hinckley seeking in his illness to impress a starlet?

We don’t know.

This rush to judgment is born of the very same sharp divides in political discourse that the outraged believe to be the gunman’s motivation. Similarly, friends have reacted with sharp condemnation over the initial erroneous reports that Giffords had died, chastising the media outlets that ran with the information (apparently based on a reporter’s conversation with a sheriff’s department official; unclear whether the official or the reporter got it wrong). Mistakes get made. Does each mistake really require a pound of flesh?

It is human nature to want to understand why these events happen. But it is also our nature, as a society, to leap to the easy conclusion, and to not probe deeply to understand true causation. We are quick to assign blame, slow to forgive, happy to reach out for the evidence that supports our conclusions. We demonize and dehumanize, and every subsequent turn reinforces our view. We choose not to use our mirrors for self-reflection. We use them to blind ourselves.

When did we become a culture of the misinformed? And why are we so satisfied to stay that way?
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