Tuesday, January 11, 2011

"Violent White Men are Crazy!" - Considering Ways Violence is Spun

It's been interesting to watch the appearance, rising, falling, and disappearance of thoughts and feelings within myself in connection with the shooting in Arizona. Being someone who naturally starts looking beyond a given event, seeking to see it embedded within it's larger context, my mind has been all over the place over the past few days.

I'm finding that the myriad of culpability denials, political spinnings, angry tirades, and accusations that have been occurring are hard to swallow. Accepting the collective reality we are creating, not just around this issue, but so many others, feels like fatalism. It's astounding to me, for example, that Buddhists who, in one breath, speak of the importance of the precepts and then, in another breath, say that the angry, violent political rhetoric that has engulfed U.S. politics had no impact on the man who shot up a political meet and greet. But then I remember that I fail to see the depth of the teachings in my own life plenty, so why should it surprise me so much.

People wanna pin the crazy label on Mr. Loughner, but I'd say it's the mass dissociation from responsibility for public speech that's pretty damned insane. Freedom of speech never, ever meant freedom from responsibility, but try telling that to members of a nation swamped in a consumerist mentality that equates liberation with being able to do say anything you want without consequence. Where everything from education to romantic relationships to spiritual practices have become subjects of a multiple choice brand of thinking that places more value in ones ability to dispose of people and practices deemed not "the biggest and the best," than it does on commitment and faith in life's process.

When the Fort Hood shooting occurred, it was hard to locate voices calling for patience from any part of the political spectrum calling for suspension of judgments around motives. President Obama tried, to his credit, but was mostly lambasted for it. No, what happened in that case was the swift and mostly united determination that Major Hassan was both crazy and a terrorist. Everything he read, the lectures he gave, and all of his e-mail correspondences were combed for connections with militant Muslim groups from the beginning, with the news media reporting anything and everything that showed a potential link. In fact, when new sources of information dried up, media outlets and pundits resorted to repeating old story lines to keep the general public primed with a view that this guy was probably a terrorist.

I write this not to defend Major Hassan's actions. He is still responsible for those murders. And clearly the violent rhetoric he read and the correspondences he had with a prominent anti-American, radical Muslim cleric had an impact on his thought and decision making processes.

So, why is it that when white men in America commit heinous crimes it's all about them being isolated, crazy individuals? Could it be institutional racism? I say "Damn right it's institutional racism!"

Anyone remember Joe Stack? If not, he's the guy who crashed his plane into a IRS building in Texas. Some deemed him crazy. Others, like his daughter and members of anti-tax groups, continue to consider him a hero and a patriot. And like the current case in Arizona, Stack's writings on various subjects were quickly deemed the ramblings of an incoherent, angry man, and not tied to any larger context.

Let's broadening out a little more. Around the world, members of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities who commit violent acts are often treated completely differently from members of the majority group who commit similar acts. Consider the way violence by Palestinians is treated in Israel, a tiny nation with quite a power military backed by billions of dollars and logistical support from the U.S. Or consider the way members of the ethnic Karen National Liberation Army are treated by the Myanmar government and Burmese elites. Christian missionaries in Pakistan, Iran, and a few other middle east nations have been murdered or put in jail, often not for committing physically violent acts, but for speaking against Islam, or attempting to convert people. These are just a few of the myriad of examples. They all look different due to the social and cultural contexts of their given places. However, what's similar is how the actions of either single members of, or a small group of, a religious or racial/ethnic minority is considered indicative of the entire group.

Thus, a single Muslim's man's act on a military base was considered by many Americans to be a sign that all Muslims are out to "destroy America." A ragtag group of Palestinians set off some bombs, and it's a sign that all Palestinians are out to "destroy Israel." A few small groups of Christian missionaries try to convert people in Iran, and Christians are suddenly considered so much of a threat that the government begins arresting them.

Yet, if you flip over the equation in all three situations, it's treated completely differently. The violence of white men in the U.S. is almost always treated as a form of individual, pathological deficiency. The violence of Jewish Israelis is almost always couched in a rhetoric of defense, often heroic defense. The violence of Muslims in Middle Eastern nations, especially when that violence is aimed at religious and ethnic minorities, is often either spun off as fringe lunacy or is elevated to heroicism as well.

And this trend is not just linked to oppression of religious minorities. Last night, I watched a film about a small group of young radical German socialists who committed acts of terrorism in the 1970s, and who were then protected by operatives from the East German government throughout the 1980's. Based on research done by the director,the film attempted to show how those who committed violence that supported the aims of the East German socialist government were sometimes considered "sympathetic characters" by the authorities, and worthy of state aid. It was quite telling however that as soon as the Berlin wall fell, and the government began to collapse, the same government officials publicly outed the radicals as terrorists, and destroyed any evidence of past connections with them. This is a great example of the ways in which violence done by members of the majority group in a nation can be spun in different ways, depending upon whether it benefits those in power or not.

Had Jared Lee Loughner flipped out as an American in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Pakistan, you can bet the narratives being spun about his actions would be different. Had Joe Stack chosen to crash his plane into the White House or the Pentagon, you can bet the narratives around him would also be different. But in neither case would you find serious questioning of the man's religious or racial background, regardless of the circumstances.

I've long felt that one of the weaknesses of Buddhism in "the West" (I really want to figure out a better term for this, but that's for another day.) - is that too many practitioners have a "privatized" approach to the teachings. What do I mean by that? Well, take a teaching like Right Speech. The average convert practitioner understands that attempting to speak from a kind, compassionate place with those within their immediate lives is an important part of practice. However, I can't tell you how often I have heard and seen discussions around large scale social and political issues where Right Speech gets thrown under the bus because people want to either avoid entrance in politics (an impossible task folks!) or because the words in question came from members of the political group a person most affiliates with. I doubt many liberal Buddhists had much to say about right speech in 2006, when former Presidential candidate John Kerry joked about killing "the real bird with one stone" in reference to then President Bush.

Overall, I'd say the use of violent rhetoric is more prominent amongst Republicans and other conservatives right now, but it's certainly not exclusive to them. And while it's quite impossible, and pointless, to try and point out every act of dangerous political speech that occurs, I think it's vitally important that more people both speak out against the trends of violent social/political rhetoric, recognizing that it DOES negatively impact all of us. And perhaps more importantly, more of us need to make efforts to embody a more compassionate and principled way of talking and doing politics and social issues.

This includes beginning to reject electoral candidates that use personal attacks, hate speech, and violent metaphors as central features of campaigns. It also includes learning about nonviolent social movements of the past and present to come to a better understanding about how people have worked with major social issues across political, racial, religious, and other lines. And finally, it includes working with social change groups to promote more non-violent approaches to framing the issues being worked with. For example, I remember walking away from Anti-War protests and a few groups working on those issues because so much of it was about hating Bush, Rumsfeld, and the rest. If I became involved with another group working on "Peace Issues," I'd make efforts to both embody non-violence myself, and also help shift the tide away from wanting to destroy or demonize another group of people.


Was Once said...

It will be interesting to see if they decide that the mental health care in the US is in dire straights or just continue to bitch about it.
I would not be surprised if Ms. Giffords when she recovers( and I hope she does recover) becomes involved in spearheading this with her experience.

Ji Hyang said...

Yes. We need to look at these cultural narratives-- the narrative that a Muslim man's violence is culturally conditioned, the narrative that a white man's violence is mental illness.

And, write new narratives. The greatest Christian of our time is perhaps Daniel Hernandez, the intern who ran towards the sound of bullets, to save the congresswoman's life-- a gay Latino hero, and true American.

True-- the need for us to engage our practice, as well.

Anonymous said...

Are you wrong because you are a liberal, or are you a liberal because you're wrong?

Nathan said...

Hi anonymous,

Nice try. That bait will not be taken.


Kyle said...

Hi Nathan,

I'd like to take a stab at this, since I think my view in the Buddhablogisphere is probably more towards what you are saying.

"for example, that Buddhists who, in one breath, speak of the importance of the precepts and then, in another breath, say that the angry, violent political rhetoric that has engulfed U.S. politics had no impact on the man who shot up a political meet and greet."

James Oliver Huberty killed 21 people in a McDonalds in 1984. Investigation showed Huberty has volumes of paranoid writings about a Soviet invasion and other weird beliefs.

George Jo Hennard shot and killed 23 people in a Texas Luby's in 1991 before killing himself. Findings showed that he was angry over a job lost and also at the county for several outstanding issues.

Jiverly Antares Wong a Vietnamese immigrant killed 4 people in a NY immigration center. Wong felt degraded and disrespected by Americans, as well as anger over losing his job.

Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 at Virginia Tech. He had become increasingly isolated, and exhibited bizarre behavior since high school. He had written several disturbing letters to female students and keep some writings showing a deterioration of cognitive function.

The list of mass murders, in the work place at school and at public areas has been a plague in the US, and other countries for 50 years.

Loughner was no question was and still is very detached from reality. No one can question that he has a psychotic break. We don't know yet what motives he had, but they had found a letter dated 2007 to Giffords saying she should die.

So what motivates people to do these awful things? Before the political arena became so toxic, people were committing crimes as bad as and worse than Loughner. There is usually, with most mass murderers, a triggering event; the loss of a job, a wife, a psychotic break, a perceived wrong doing to them. Here is what I think is the important thing....what fueled their rage, how did those mentally ill go without treatment, what rhetoric fueled a persons thoughts, was the person motivated by others who fed them stories.


Nathan said...

What I see in three of the four cases you mentioned are signs of how the social/political climate had an impact. Think of how prevalent doomsday talk about the "Evil Empire," as Reagan called the Soviet Union over and over again, was in 1984. And there's no doubt in my mind, after all the years of working in immigrant communities, that the decidedly anti-immigrant sentiment in our nation had some influence on Cho and Wong.

Kyle said...

Hassan was fueled by anti-American rhetoric; Hinckley was fueled by untreated schizophrenia; Charles Whitman of the Texas tower shootings had a large brain tumor which is thought to have caused psychosis; Cho was fueled by a serious untreated mental illness; Stack was fueled by anti-government right wing rhetoric as was Tim McVeigh.So far it appears Loughner was fueled by an untreated mental illness, probably paranoid schizophrenia; the Columbine killers were fueled by an unchecked anger and rage, and a sense that they were being treated less than others.

These two things, the slow building fuel and the event that triggers the violence are primary causes. The secondary things, like the political tension, vitriol rhetoric, living in a culture numb to violence are harder to pinpoint.

Yes, if he was a Muslim or Arab, this would be called terrorism. That part is true and is racism. But a person being white and committing atrocity is not always the "crazy" guy thing, many times it is a person whose anger and rage had built so much, with no outlet and no one to talk to, that an event triggered them to snap. Almost all work place shootings have been attributed to this, which has seen it's share of African-Americans, Hispanics,Caucasians and Asians.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mass_murder Look up mass killings by school, work and public place.

But other countries have had mass murders as well (not counting political or military), and most of them have been attributed to untreated mental illness. What is different about the US and other countries is the work place school killings. Its the pressure of work, the pressure of school, the pressure to "make it" in society.

Also the stigma of seeking help for issues, even if it is anger management is huge in this country. Not to mention the biggest pink elephant in the room, easy access to weapons that can kill on a mass scale.

So I guess my point is, no, not all or even most of white men in the US who commit mass murders are attributed to mental psychosis. Perhaps, it is the perception of serial killers, who are in large part white and overwhelmingly had suffered from an untreated mental illness that may give that impression.

My two cents: Work and school pressure here in the US is absurdly high. Combined with the stigma for getting help for anger or psychological issues and topped off by easy access to deadly weapons makes the US so prone to these events.

The political rhetoric is playing a role, especially in the last twenty years, and a growing one at that.

"However, I can't tell you how often I have heard and seen discussions around large scale social and political issues where Right Speech gets thrown under the bus because people want to either avoid entrance in politics"

Being one of the only political moderate Buddhist bloggers, I find that I am almost always in conflict with others when politics is brought up. Yes part of that is my presentation, but a lot of it is a disapproval of my political views. Go to some of those right wing sites, and I look like Karl Marx. I want to avoid political discussion for many reasons when mixed with practice; one is to show that someone doesn't have to be uber liberal to be a convert Buddhist. Another is my viewpoints are always in conflict with other Buddhists, and honestly, that kind of conflict is not fun. Take Algernon today, disagreed with my post, then said he wouldn't come back to my blog. Maybe thats my fault for not debating more, but not all Buddhists will come to the same conclusions.

That's about it for now. LOL

Kyle said...

"What I see in three of the four cases you mentioned are signs of how the social/political climate had an impact. Think of how prevalent doomsday talk about the "Evil Empire," as Reagan called the Soviet Union over and over again, was in 1984. And there's no doubt in my mind, after all the years of working in immigrant communities, that the decidedly anti-immigrant sentiment in our nation had some influence on Cho and Wong."

True, though Huberty and Cho did suffer from psychological issues that were untreated. The perceptions they had, based on actual real events exploded and became in their mind 10 fold more than it was.

So yea, I am seeing the point of the culture and society around the person acting as part of that fuel. What can we do? Remove the stigma of mental illness, tighter gun control...I don't know what-else.

Nathan said...


Your points about mental illness and the stigmas around having any sort of psychological struggle are very important. I'm right behind you on that. It's gotten to the point where having had any kind of diagnosis can be grounds for losing out on employment, raising health insurance premiums, and all kinds of other things. And I think it when it comes to men, most of us are caught between the old "tough guy" narrative, and the new "sensitive guy" narrative.

I remember how anytime I expressed anger at my previous workplace, where I was the only man on the staff, there were a few women who instantly started cringing and crouching away, totally afraid. The reaction was completely different when anyone else got angry. And so I mostly struggled with how to modulate whatever frustrations.

This is another reason why I feel it's important to consider cultural context and conditioning. In that setting, when a man displayed anger, the first thoughts were of violent rampages like the one in Arizona. Or that men just wanted to control things. The board of directors of the organization actually had a policy of not adding men to the board because they felt men just tried to take over.

I actually had a co-worker basically say that she feared I might flip out and do something violent. Which was a shock to me, and while it was good for me to chill out some, and change how I handled things, it's also the case that I was being framed by some of my co-workers using a lens produced by the extremes in our culture. It sometimes felt impossible because disagreements always felt tinged with the expectation that I'd "go off." And while I know that there were many other specific dynamics between me and the handful of co-workers that we're on edge around me, I'm convinced that this underlying narrative played a role.

So, I guess I tend to write about those underlying narratives because they're really easy to ignore, downplay, or never see in the first place.