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.