Monday, January 10, 2011

Psychosis and the problem of metaphorical violence

This weekend, a young man opened fire at a public event hosted by Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords at a Safeway in Tuscon. Giffords was shot and is in intensive care. Six are confirmed dead, including a federal judge who just happened to be stopping by, and a nine year old girl who had just been elected to her student council and wanted to meet Giffords.

The shooter, Jared Loughner, is clearly mentally deranged, as evidenced by the weak grasp of basic reasoning he displayed in five text-only youtube videos, mostly consisting of syllogisms with weird axioms. Many on the right wish to insist that this disturbing ad has nothing to do with Saturday's events. Same for this.

I think that there is evidence supporting a connection between them. It is at least clear that he wanted to target Giffords, as it was a "Congress on Your Corner" event she was running, and he was aware of the number of his Congressional district, unlike most Americans, so he probably knew who his representative was, unlike most Americans.

I think it is also clear he identified more with the American political right than with the left. He clearly picked up several words from the media, using them frequently without displaying any understanding of their actual meanings, in particular I note "currency" and "unconstitutional". He complained that people in his district did not know "English grammar". He declared that he would not use a currency that was "not backed by gold and silver". These are conservative positions on the gold standard and apparently on immigration.

Objectively, it appears that he was unsuccessful in life and did not know who to blame. He made a cryptic remark about being "unable to find the subject" - in light of his disdain for his non-English speaking neighbors, it seems he was bitter about his own inability to understand grammar at the technical level; he quickly followed it up with an observation that "most students can't find the subject". He was upset about paying fees at a community college, and insisted that charging fees to students at a public college was unconstitutional. Perhaps he thought that by changing money, he could somehow fix his money problems. He seemed to have a cognitive error which many if not most people fall prey to - seeing agency in self-organized, bottom-up systems. It's an error magnified by the conspiracy theorist, and running rampant in a schizophrenic.

How his station in life, which he perceived to be imposed on him from outside, rather than due to his mental illness and how it hampered his ability to benefit from his education, led him to the attempted assassination of his representative in Congress, I doubt can ever be fully explained. But the behavior of psychotic people doesn't admit of consistent rational explanation. Reportedly he is being "uncooperative" in custody, i.e., he is not talking. Perhaps he was satisfied that his act would draw attention to his videos, which are barely comprehensible, but which are, in his mind, revolutionary.

I do not claim that his political views and SarahPAC's ad constitute a smoking gun that should legally implicate Sarah Palin in Saturday's shootings. But I do claim that the rhetoric of violence as metaphor is a problem. People like Jared Loughner do have access to guns, as libertarians and political right want to ensure that they do. The ability to read violence as metaphor is something that a sane person with a grasp of cultural and social norms brings to the advertisement; it is not found in the advertisement itself. For this reason, different metaphors must be used, and I am concerned that we accept the imagery and language of violence as a norm, and that lobbyists and lawmakers as of yet see no need for a legislative solution.

If Sarah Palin and her PAC see no connection between their actions and Loughner's, why was it necessary to quickly remove the ad from their site after the shootings? Why do they suddenly feel the need to expedite the disappearance of violence-inciting tweets into the memory hole?

1 comment:

  1. One test for thought disorder in psychosis is to ask for the meaning of 'a rolling stone gathers no moss'. Disturbed thought processes are revealed by any literal interpretation. In the same way, metaphors of violence may be interpreted literally by some and therefore always carry a risk of provoking direct responses. Why a multifactorial model of causation is neglected in favour of single incidental factors in the US remains a mystery, except for the defence of a Society that carries systematically many unsuccessful preoccupations and justifications.