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Impenetrable Cloaks, Inconsiderate Language, and Bullying

Recent events in Tucson, Arizona got my attention in a way that was quite disturbing. The wanton murder of six people and wounding of 13 more at the hands of a deranged assailant was hard to ignore, especially when they were gathering to discuss democracy. Undoubtedly, because Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and Judge John Roll were two of the shooting victims, it ensured that the visibility of this heinous crime would be more than that given some drug related drive-by shooting in an impoverished neighborhood. However, the tragedy became even greater when one of the victims was a child, a 9 year old, who was only in attendance because of her love for politics and desire to acquire insight into how our democracy works. What would she think of our democracy if she were home watching the aftermath of Tucson instead of becoming one of its victims. After all, no matter how we slice it, the shooting occurred at a political gathering, which makes it some sort of statement about our politics. Whether the shooting occurred because of a crosshairs map, because of heated political rhetoric that disturbingly reflects violence, like “if they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun,” “don’t retreat, reload,” or something as inconsiderate of a economically bereft populace as a politician publicly stating the number one goal is to make sure that a sitting president only serves one term, when/where does it stop?

When President Obama, in his closing remarks at Tucson’s event memorializing the victims, stated that “We should do everything we can to make sure that this country lives up to our children’s expectations,” the film Crash came to mind for me. There are only a handful of films that every time I watch them, they invoke in me emotion. The ending scene of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” saturates my sight, especially when George Bailey realizes that his life had much deeper meaning through his journey of witnessing how the world would have been without his loving, unselfish presence. The scene in “Castaway” when Helen Hunt is responding to the ultimate dilemma, being restrained by her new husband from her first true love, who she has just recently discovered is actually alive after being thought dead for years. And the most powerful one for me, the scene from Crash, where the little Mexican girl is shot trying to save her father because he isn’t wearing the invisible cloak he had recently transferred to her to protect her from the random violence that far too often occurs in their neighborhood. Unfortunately, I must watch the “Crash” scene every semester during the Race theme in our Examining Diversity through Film course. We show it because it symbolizes how pathetically inconsiderate we are of our children when we constantly put them in harm’s way as a result of our actions. Prior to that scene, the little girl’s father, a locksmith, and a Persian store owner have a disagreement that actually is over more than whether the lock on the Persian man’s business can be fixed. What they are actually arguing over is the stereotype in the Persian man’s mind associated with the Mexican man’s trustworthiness, exacerbated by the frustration of the Persian man being stereotyped himself earlier by a gun store owner. It is stereotypes like these and the frustration accompanying them that contributed to the attempted murder of the Mexican father in “Crash,” resulting in his daughter using her body to shield her dad.

How do we avoid/avert the type of hurt inflicted on little Lara in Crash, or ironically, the innocently politically curious Christina Taylor-Green in Tucson? Are their shootings more about the randomness of the universe, or inconsiderate references and disrespect within our language? Is there a cause and effect relationship between our inability to systematically eliminate our propensity towards negativity when we frame those different from us as “the other” and our then somehow justified or rationalized actions?

In schools all across the country educators are working feverishly trying to eliminate bullying and the language that exemplifies it. “Trailer trash,” “retard,” “ the F-word,” “the B-word,” “the G-word,” and “N-word” have all been thoroughly engaged and targeted as problematic in their further perpetuation of dysfunctional attitudes and behavior. Finally we are focused on the bullying that takes place in our society, obviously as a result of school shootings. At what point will we stop to ponder the fact that it may be virtually impossible to end bullying at the adolescent level if we are clueless about our modeling of it at the so-called adult level?

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JW... I wish I had the answers to these questions, but like everyone else who sat watching and horrified at what they were seeing in Tucson, I don't. What I do know is that for the last two years, I have become sickened, on more than one occasion, while watching the nightly news, the political campaigns and quite honestly, while sitting in my office and listening to the conversations and "attitudes" of students passing by in the hallways. There is hatred and violence and bigotry and disrespect; a "my way or watch your back" attitude at all levels. You ask if the victims in Tucson were a part of the "randomness of the universe"; the being in the wrong place at the wrong time, kind of thing? I would have to say that to a degree, their being in a place where a shooting would take place is a part of the randomness of life; much as it is each time we take the wheel of our car and begin a journey down a road. We don't and can’t know if there will be an event that will alter (or end) our life, for that is simply part of the privilege of living. Life is not without risk. However, it also occurs to me that for the majority of the victims, they were in a place of their choice, for the right reasons. In all cases, if reports are accurate, each of them was there to be a part of our political process; to meet a person that votes on their behalf, to see what a person in such a position does, or to voice an opinion or ask a question of someone they recently elected. Can we hold accountable our elected officials the behaviors and words they use? I say yes! Their rhetoric has become increasingly more violent, and is full of hatred, bigotry and a gross lack of respect toward each other. To me, it appears that they have become bullies of the worst type. Are they responsible for a seriously sick man picking up a gun and firing it at the head of an elected official and then randomly blowing people away? I honestly can't say that they are directly responsible, but what I can say, and I firmly believe, is that they have most certainly set a horrible example, not just for children, but for everyone, by inferring that the only way to settle disagreement is to "get rid of those that disagree" with sometimes blatant and sometimes subtle verbiage that includes guns, hatred and a total disrespect for another person's right to freedom of speech. Then we have media sources that repeat it and/or perpetuate it, or in the cases of some radio talk show hosts, spew lies and/or create their own vile dialogue. I am so worried for our youth, who are becoming more and more afraid of going about the ordinary tasks of living... but what I think I am most saddened by is that they will not be able to feel as I did when I was growing up...That I lived in a great country that I loved and was proud of, where I could state my opinion and not fear that I would be endangered for doing so.

It is impossible to draw a straight line from caustic political discourse to the events in Tucson. However, that makes the President’s words, and this discussion, no less important. Our media culture plays a huge role in the problem but is ultimately powerless to offer a solution unless we as individuals impose the solution on ourselves (NOT each other). Here are a few moderately disjointed observations:

The internet has allowed a type of anonymity that is unprecedented. One can post just about anything about anyone for any reason without fear of consequences. Public figures have no protection from electronic assassination. Remember that kid on the playground who would walk over to the school-yard tough-guy and say “did you hear what that kid said about your mama?” just to stand back and watch the fight. I think a whole bunch of those kids grew up to be political bloggers.

Reporters are not so much lazy as they are over-worked. 24-hour news-and-public-affairs channels are unforgiving beasts that must constantly be fed content. Substantive content takes time – days, weeks, months, even years – to research and newsrooms are more strapped for cash and personnel than ever. But if someone says something controversial, regardless of merit, it’s very easy to get reaction to that controversy and then reaction to the reaction, and so on. In legal circles there’s a phrase that goes something like “the cover-up is often worse than the crime.” In our current media and political culture, the reaction is spun up to be far more controversial than the original event. Case in point – a lot of us probably remember the shout of “you lie!” from a member of Congress to President Obama during a State of the Union address. But do you remember specifically what the Congressman thought the President was “lying” about? What was the substance of the argument? Was the President, in fact, stretching the truth? All of that got far less coverage than the incident itself.

Talk Radio plays on people’s fears. The real irony of this is that Limbaugh, Beck and their ilk are about 50% show. Rush calls his listeners “ditto heads” because they believe every single word that comes out of his mouth. But even RUSH doesn’t believe half of what he says. He and Beck’s hyperbole is marketed as stunning insight, and, is in fact, designed to incite our fears. Neither of them began their broadcast careers, or even their talk shows, with their current bent. Only when they realized they could make lots of money doing what they do did they take on their current pop personas.

It is simply not accurate to say that each side of the political spectrum are equally guilty of wronging the other in word and deed. Can you imagine a Democrat congressman standing up in the middle of a Presidential address and shouting “you lie” at a Republican president? When was the last time you heard about a pro-choice activist picketing a church? Or blowing up a Birthright clinic? Or assassinating a staunch pro-life advocate? Do legions of gay-right’s advocates picket the funerals of Fred Phelps’s children? How many doctors or nurses have been targeted for carrying out capital punishment sentences vs. abortions? How many Mosques in the United States have held “Bible Burning” parties? Indeed how many people have ever protested the construction of a church or cathedral in the U.S.? Just this weekend in Plattsburgh, the spiritual leader of the Catholic Community in the North Country called Planned Parenthood part of a “culture of death.” Last week a Plattsburgh City Councilor suggested people stop firefighters on the street and accost them for not making the “right choice” (actually, less expensive choice as the councilor saw it) for their health insurance coverage. Now tell me that someone who’s just a little unhinged might not hear that and act upon those two incitements in a manner outside the bounds of what any of us would consider “civil” ? Once you’ve decided that your actions are guided by God or any other higher cause, you can do no wrong, in your own eyes and you can justify any action as long as you believe your ends serve the Creator or some other greater cause. That mindset requires a self-assured righteousness of purpose beyond any self doubt or reflection. Conservative ideas of right and wrong – seeing everything in black and white; all absolute truth and no grey areas - lend themselves to this righteousness of purpose. To improve our discourse, we will need to question our own righteousness of purpose; question our own ideas of right and wrong. It will require nothing less than every one of us being able to admit our own fallibility. Paraphrasing New York Times Columnist David Brooks on Meet the Press – the root of civility is sin, or rather, recognition of one’s own sins.

Liberals, too, can be guilty of absolutism – that is, absolutely everything goes; everything is OK, if it feels good, do it. If you can’t wrap your head around it, then you’re backward, uneducated, narrow-minded or something-o-phobic. Liberals are so anxious to understand people (themselves?) they often ignore common-sense truths that some behaviors just aren’t good for society. For example, all things being equal, is it really better for a child to be raised in a one-parent or a two-parent household? When a person makes the conscious decision to conceive or adopt a child with no partner in the picture because they want to experience parenthood, are they giving any thought to what the child might be experiencing? I once heard a leader at Planned Parenthood say that the day that abortions were performed was her favorite day of the week because she’d fought such tough battles to ensure abortion rights. But, strictly medically speaking, an abortion is not a particularly good outcome. It means that either, something has gone wrong with the pregnancy, or, the child was conceived by mistake. Either way, I don’t think most people would call it a cause for celebration. Liberals can be snarky, elitist, intellectual snobs. If you don’t see things the way we (I consider my self a Liberal) do, you’re just not smart enough to understand.

There is a Bible verse that goes something like “before reaching to remove the splinter in your neighbor’s eye, take care to remove the plank from your own.” Perhaps “to live up to our children’s expectations” we will need to emulate not only a child’s idealism, but also a child’s uncertainty about themselves, the world around them and their purpose in it.

What I see going on is all too human, but is also something that we might be able to change given time and effort. I understand the existence of bullying, in its child or adult forms, as the result of our social nature. As a species, we naturally form groups. This creates a very normal in-group/out-group dynamic, and it is also very normal for us to prize our in-groups regardless of how we define them (family, religious sect, nation, sports team, ethnicity or race, etc.). Where this becomes dangerous is when we start to identify the "other" as inferior. It doesn't matter whether I root for the Jets and you root for the Pats as long as we both recognize the others basic humanity and intrinsic value, but the minute I think that because you root for the Pats you are somehow inferior or evil there is great potential for harm to result.

Language ties into this, because it has power. Words are symbols that have meaning for us, and we use them to convey that meaning to others. As such, they can be both based in our own emotions and state of mind and influence the emotions and state of mind of others. Hateful and discriminatory language thus both expresses our opinion that the other we are targeting is inferior/evil, and is an attempt to influence others into also believing in their inferiority or evil.

In the case of Loughner and the Giffords shooting, I don't think the toxic political climate and adult bullying really had much to do with it, from what has been reported to date. However, there has been a dramatic escalation in other politically motivated violence including threats against elected officials in the last two years, so it is quite clear that the rhetorical climate is reflecting and probably feeding into the real violence and potential for more violence.

So, what do we do? It seems to me there are two ways to deal with bullying at either child or adult level. First, we can try to expand group identification to be more inclusive. Politically, we Americans have far more in common than you would believe if you paid attention to political commentators and activists, and when we remember that we immediately get more civil.

Second, we can be more aware of language, and call out those who engage in hateful rhetoric. While you can't eliminate ideas of bias by controlling the language, you can affect their spread because social acceptance is part of their appeal. The minute it is no longer acceptable to bully, you will see much less of it. That applies to both kids and adults.

I watched a 60 Minutes piece on this last night, and from that I can safely say that this was a very disturbed individual we are talking about. Too often I think people are labeled "crazy" or "insane", just because we don't understand how they commit the crimes they did. From what I gather, the killer in this case was very disturbed. He believed that life is completely pointless. There is no reason for living, and thus death is just as pointless. He isn't afraid of what fate awaits him, and actually may be looking forward to it. From that, I think it is safe to say people should have looked into his behavioral patterns well before they did.

Something interesting I found out while watching the show is that he also believed in what his friends called "nothingness." Not that he doesn't believe in anything, but that he truly believes in "nothing", and I think there is a difference. He believes life has no meaning, and that words have no meaning either. JW, when you talk about how powerful "The F-Word" "The G-Word" and the "N-Word" are, I think it's also important to realize that to some people, they really aren't that powerful. People get careless with how they speak because the emphasis on the importance of the words they are using was never illustrated for them when they were growing up. Now, when I hear someone hurling around racial slurs or homophobic remarks, they strike me differently than they did when I was younger and didn't really understand how powerful words can be, good or bad. It took some maturing for me to realize how important, not only what you say is, but also how you say it.

Some of the most offensive language I have heard is from people much too young to be carelessly throwing around words they can't possibly know the true meaning of. Kids who use words that they hear in movies or on TV or in songs or even from their parents. I think the best way to fix the problem would be to start with people as young as possible and let them know the true power of their words. But how do you do that? Do you just say "I don't want you to curse"? Ever have someone say "Don't think of the color green"? What's the first thing you think of? The color green of course. Tell a 10 year old what not to say, you can rest assured they are going to get some serious mileage out of whatever you told them not to say as soon as you turn your back.

I don't believe the reason Jared Lee-Loughner killed those people was as a result of any kind of bullying. He just seems like a social outcast who lost his way in life and turned into a very dark person. Could it have been prevented? There is a chance, certainly. But the same sort of thing is going to happen in the future. Is there any fool-proof way to prevent anything like this from happening? Of course not. But I definitely believe parenting has a great deal to do with it. From showing your children the love they need, proving them with stability, teaching them right from wrong and helping them grow into the best man or woman they can be. There is no handbook on how to raise a child, but I can't help but think the tragedy in Arizona could have been prevented. Not necessarily right before it happened, but years before it ever got to that point.

The Tuscon shootings may serve as a blatant reminder of the ability to remove oneself from the empathy and respect that ought to be expressed towards another’s life. However the shooter’s mental-state comes to be defined, his actions may say something about one’s ability to believe that their interpretation of the universe is accurate, while not questioning the fallibility of one’s own nervous system or the beliefs that may be derived from it. As humans, we tend to communicate and operate in a system of words and symbols, but if we do not stop to challenge the effects of problematic language on our personally held beliefs and biases, then it appears possible to become removed from the humanity of others, especially if they are “the others” that Aristotelian logic tends to produce.

The shooter in Tuscon seemed to believe in something, so strongly and dogmatically, that he was able to shoot and kill others, with what appeared to be a clear conscious. This may very well be an extreme example of the type of belief-system that can stem from the common rhetoric one may interpret during a lifetime, but his ability to remove himself from the humanity of his victims, to a point-blank range shooting, may be able to show us something about our own abilities to remain apathetic to those that we may dehumanize, in any form. Putting somebody in any category of “other”, a derogatory term, a dehumanizing name, or any label that can create a distinction between the privileged and the oppressed, may be a way removing oneself from the equality and humanity that should be granted to all people.

Therefore, whether it is the result of the illogical thoughts and rants of a disturbed individual that leads to the point-blank range shootings of innocent people, or the logical political discourse often blanketed with “moral” ideals that leads to the bombings of civilians thousands of miles away (many of whom are children); we will most likely interpret the events to fit so they fit into our own belief-systems, or ignore them incompletely because they are incompatible with how we view the world.

As adults, who may very well be setting examples for children, I think we need to work out a more effective system of communication and understanding that tries to utilize an objective language to express the subjective minds of each individual.

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