On January 10, 2011, BOB HERBERT who writes for the New York Times posted an article online entitled “A Flood Tide of Murder.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/11/opinion/11herbert.html?_r=0 ) In the introductory paragraph of the article he talked about the poisonous political rhetoric of politicians and some of the “news” commentators designed to appeal to the popular fears, desires, conventional “wisdom,” and prejudices, rather than employing rational argument and critical thinking skills to seek meaningful solutions to difficult, complex problems like gun violence. This is an endemic problem which significantly impedes finding meaningful, effective solutions to many other problems in this country and American culture, including the homeless problems, the healthcare situation, and the the unrealistic, biased perceptions of what it means to be poor in America.
As Mr. Herbert points out in his article, “crazies” (which includes, in my opinion, the mentally ill and imbalanced, but also the religious and political fanatics) do not come to the decision to kill in a vacuum. Their ideas, frustrations, prejudices, biases, fears and feelings of desperation are gradually, often unconsciously assimilated or absorbed from the opinions, ideas, and the conventional “wisdom” or “facts” expressed by members of their own family, their friends, neighbors, classmates, co-workers, and from the movies, books, television and other forms of media they attend to. When children and young people are developing their minds and discovering who they are as human beings in our society and the world they are like sponges, soaking up the information, attitudes and relationships they observe around them. They see, hear and emotionally feel the complex, subtle nuances of the ways in which people relate, or fail to relate to one another.
These impressionable young humans are keenly aware of a multitude of verbal and non-verbal social cues for behavior: the way people talk to one another, or don’t; the emotional expressions or repressions of feelings directed toward others and themselves; the manner in which some people shun or avoid certain groups or types of people; their facial expressions while regarding individuals, or groups of individuals; the names they call others and the jokes they tell about them; the way some people characterize or denigrate the inherent value of other people; the way people dismiss or write-off certain groups of people, characterizing them as lazy, “takers”, poor, irresponsible, or the 47%, as a whole, without knowledge or regard for the unique stories of the individuals, which might temper their prejudice with compassion and empathy.
All of these, and the almost infinite, subtle nuances of human communication transmit a large quantity of erroneous, distorted and emotionally-charged perceptions of other people in our own society, as well as those in other countries. Some of this subtle and nuanced information is transmitted without the conscious awareness of the individual. It is similar to the process of dehumanization in the case of nations, where the people are perceived as the “enemy,” and therefore sub-human, and unworthy of the same basic respect, value and dignity every human being deserves – suddenly, its extremely easy and expedient to make exceptions to the American value that “All men are created equal.” Wars with some countries seems to be an inevitable possibility, at least in the short term, but mankind has made some amazing strides in knowledge, philosophy, and scientific, technological achievements. Perhaps it’s time to allow ourselves to evolve to a point where we don’t default too easily to dehumanizing people who are different from ourselves, simply because of cultural, religious or political views.
Today, within our society, we are faced with polarized political and cultural factions, with many Americans on the continuum in between. American citizens holding positions of power, authority, and celebrity, who possess the public trust, use vile, morally bereft, and vacuous rhetoric to create fear, anxiety, and deeply rooted distrust of our government. They demonize, accuse and blame the other side of evil, un-American agendas, and subversive, destructive intent to destroy everything from religion to the American military, and the Second Amendment. They create fear among good people who don’t know who to believe, and think about the issues and the “enemy” other side from an emotional, fear-based perspective. They even create distrust of the major news organizations so many people do not trust any “news” program except Fox “News” and Rush Limbaugh.
This type of “common wisdom” about other people, and classes of people is, unfortunately, ALL too common, and it can spread like a virus through human minds, facilitated by ignorance, fear, lack of critical thinking, and a failure to question the perceived authority of leaders and their “conventional” or “common wisdom.” And by leaders, I mean parents, older family members, neighbors, teachers, religious leaders, politicians, law enforcement, military, and other citizens who are influential in our communities and society. Each of us has a serious and sacred responsibility to carefully measure our words and our values, and endeavor to keep our biases, prejudices, and conventional “wisdom” to ourselves, if we unable to overcome them.
Now I know some will object that I have some “huevos” and audacity to tell others how to behave or what to say to or about others, but I am not suggesting abolishing the First Amendment, or telling people how to behave or speak about other people. Not at all. What I am suggesting is that contrary to the nursery rhyme about sticks and stones WORDS DO HURT and injure other people, and they frequently result in the use of sticks and stones, guns and knives, and bombs. I believe there is a significant connection between the violent behavior of individuals, and how people are treated by others; how they learn to resolve conflicts and differences; and how tolerant they are of others. In that sense, I believe each and every one of us bear responsibility for the relative harmony, conflict and violence in our society, based on each of our abilities to treat others with dignity, respect, equanimity, kindness, equality and tolerance.
How do I know this is true? Well, I’ve had roughly thirty years of empirical experiences in the course of my career in law enforcement. I’ve seen it as the root cause of domestic violence, disturbances, violent assaults and murders. I also believe the root causes of many thefts, burglaries, rapes and robberies can be attributed to learned dehumanization, devaluing, rationalization and targeting of specific types of victims, and groups of people by criminals. I am not excusing these criminal perpetrators. I am only attempting to illuminate the significant possibility that the manner in which individual people and groups are treated by others in our society will ultimately have a significant impact on how they will come to view, care about, treat, empathize, and otherwise relate to their fellow human beings. This process begins within their own families, and extends through all the other people who will influence them throughout their development within society.
Unfortunately, a prevalent conventional wisdom seems to have been adopted in our society based on the arrogant attitude that one has the right to say and do what one feels like saying, or doing, within the technical definition of the First Amendment and our other Constitutional Rights. There is a definite absence of common civility and respect practiced by many Americans. This attitude has even been stretched way beyond legality, into the criminal realm. The prevalence of so-called “white collar crime” is as enormous a problem as it is astonishingly disgusting. One has only to look to the 2008 Wall Street and housing debacle to appreciate the extent of American greed, corruption, dishonesty and destructive disregard for other American human beings. As long as there is a reasonable possibility and the significant likelihood of getting away with the crime, it’s worth the risk. This seemed to be the motto of Big Business, Big Banks and Big Corporations, and they exercised it with impunity.
According to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, more than a million people have been killed with guns in the United States since 1968, when Robert Kennedy and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were killed. That figure includes suicides and accidental deaths. But homicides, deliberate killings, are a perennial scourge, and not just with guns.