Under the Influence
I haven’t had much to say here since the shooting in Pima County, for several reasons. For one thing, I don’t like to jump to conclusions absent evidence. For another, I don’t like to talk about problems without offering solutions.
I read an article in Slate that brought things more into focus for me, though. Jacob Weisberg pointed out that it’s not only the violence suggested by the words “Second Amendment remedies,” but also the implied illegitimacy of government that goes along with those words.
One explanation often given for the right to bear arms is that we need to be able to be armed in order to rise up against an oppressive government. Add to this claims of the Obama administration being tyrannical, headed by someone who is questionably a citizen, and it’s not hard to see where this can go.
You get members of the armed forces refusing orders. You get rallies with people carrying threatening signs. And you get people who shoot at people working for the government that they believe is illegitimate.
I certainly believe that the bulk of the responsibility falls on the shoulders of Jared Loughner. The man clearly has issues. But much of what we do is influenced by external social pressures. If you’re the only one you know who believes that the government is illegitimate, then you have external pressures to keep it to yourself and you are unlikely to act upon it. The more people around you who admit to sharing your belief, the more likely you are to increase your fervency and the more likely you are to act on the belief. This is especially true if the people you’re listening to are secondarily legitimized by being given airtime. Celebrities are more influential than “mere mortals,” which is why they get paid so much to endorse products.
Evidence abounds to illustrate the impact of external influence. The Free Republic website is an especially overt (and extreme) example of this, but there are many others of varying degrees of subtlety. Humans are social creatures, and are typically powerfully influenced by a desire to be accepted as part of a community. Those external influences are part and parcel of that acceptance. It’s why parents worry so much about peer pressure from “bad influences.”
Efforts to discredit the legitimacy of elected government in the United States has been on the rise since the prolonged recount in Florida in December, 2000. As I’ve noted before, the right has focused on reducing voter turnout, primarily by claiming that significant numbers of illegitimate votes are cast. The left has focused on claims of institutionalized fraud, ranging from removal of legitimate voters from the rolls to fabricated vote tallies made possible by electronic voting machines.
The degree of validity of those claims is a topic for another day. Today, I call attention to the claims themselves as evidence of chipping away at the legitimacy of our elected government. The longer this persists, the greater the likelihood of our nation’s citizens concluding that they are no longer being governed under consent. Couple this growing belief with imagery of revolution and armed insurrection, and it is hard to deny that more tragedies of this sort are on the way.
I’m convinced neither that Loughner was pushed over the edge by such rhetoric, nor that he wasn’t. Regardless, the events of this past weekend provide an opportunity for some consideration. We owe it to the very fabric of our nation to step back and pause, to think about whether such hyperbolic bloviation is ripping us apart. Each of us has an opportunity to change, in a small way, the methods by which we as a nation will decide what to do. We can choose to cheer when “our side” wins a battle at the expense of civility, or we can choose to denounce lack of civility, regardless of whose “side” wins in the short run.
I choose civility.