(*If “massacre” seems melodramatic, recall that the death-toll – so far – is 6; that of the “Boston Massacre” was 5.)
There has been a good deal of heated rhetoric about the role that heated rhetoric played in the attempted** assassination of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords by a deranged gunman, which claimed the lives of six others who fell within the line of fire. Some of this has been rather stupid and offensive; some of it has been understandable and well-meaning, but hyperbolic and imprecise; some of it has been credible, but contestable (and contested). These debates have gotten me thinking about questions of how we think about blame and responsibility, and about what we can and should expect from those who shape the political discourse that predominates in our society. Because these are matters of professional as well as personal interest, it seems appropriate to work my thoughts out more extensively and publicly than I otherwise would.
(** Or so it appears to be at this point, as Rep Giffords remains in critical condition after being shot through the brain)
To the extent that discussion of the role of violent and extreme rhetoric among right-wing politicians and activists in contributing to this horror has involved any verbal precision, such arguments have tended to center on the terms “blame” and “responsibility” (or synonyms for those notions). These words are not identical in their meaning and implications; and the way we use both of them, and the intuitions they evoke when used, are complex and often ambiguous. This in itself is reason to be careful in how we use these terms – and to seek to be as precise and subtle in how we use them as we can. In matters like this, a scalpel is more appropriate than a sledgehammer (to use a metaphor which is appropriately, or inappropriately, violence-invoking). Though we should also remember that the degree of precision we can achieve will be limited.
To be sure, there is a close relationship between blame and responsibility. We tend to think it appropriate to blame people for (bad) things for which they are responsible; we generally don't think people should be blamed for things for which they are not responsible. Yet there is more to blame, or blameworthiness, than being responsible, if by “responsible” we mean causing something to happen, or being necessary to something happening, or effectively contributing to something happening (I'll return to the meaning of responsibility later). One factor in considering blame(worthiness) is intention. We tend to think that deliberate intention deserves a different, generally greater, sort of blameworthiness (this is reflected, most familiarly, in the distinction between different degrees of murder, and manslaughter, in the common law). This, however, is not to say that intent is necessary to any sort of blame. We may blame people for recklessness, or negligence, even for naivete (which may be seen as negligence in seeking to gain a proper understanding of, or grasp on, the ways things are, or are likely to be, in particular cases).
For example: if I intentionally mow down a pedestrian with a car, I am certainly to blame for that death, and my action will appropriately occasion horror and contempt (which may be moderated to the extent that I am not regarded as really responsible for my actions). If I recklessly get behind the wheel while intoxicated, and run someone over, I will be held to be to blame in a different and, for many, less intense way than if I had run the victim over deliberately; but I won't be held to be blameless. Nor, it seems to me, should I be held blameless if I give my car keys to a clearly intoxicated friend, who then runs someone over, or allow a friend to get fall-down drunk and then drive off in his car – cases of negligence and, perhaps, naivete.
In each of these cases, one may hold me to be to blame because I have, to a greater or lesser extent, been responsible for the death. But blameworthiness and responsibility may come apart. I may, for instance, accidentally hit and kill a pedestrian due to circumstances entirely beyond my control; in this case I will be “responsible”, at least in the sense of causing, the death, but not to blame. On the other hand, imagine that I devoutly hope for and plot someone's death – and then rejoice when that person is killed due to events wholly unconnected to me (by a drunk driver I have never met and in no way influenced, say). Here I am not responsible for the death. I think we would tend to say that I am not to blame for the death. Yet my wishing and plotting may still be blameworthy, as might my jubilation. Then again, I may not be jubilant; I may hold myself to be blameworthy, and feel a sense of regret and remorse – though not, strictly speaking, guilt – at having wished for this tragedy.
I tend to think you would hold me to be a much better person if I felt remorse rather than jubilation. You would likely also think me more admirable if my first response to the death was to engage in soul-searching rather than indignantly – if correctly – pointing out my own innocence. But that is another matter.
There may be counter-examples that complicate, if not refute, this view, but it seems to me that when we describe someone as being “to blame” for something, we mean to say that 1) that person has caused the thing to happen (either solely, or as part of a larger process), and 2) the person-who-is-to-blame's causal contribution consists in actions which were not entirely beyond the person's control, actions which reflect decisions, judgments, etc. for which that person may be censured, because the bad thing that has happened was either an intended or a foreseeable result of those decisions, judgments, etc. We should not hold someone to be “to blame” if there is not this sort of connection between them and the wrong in question. But we might still hold them to be blameworthy – as an evaluation of their character – even if this sort of causal and intentional connection doesn't exist.
To return to the present case: it seems to me highly arguable, and probably not the case, that politicians and activists on the American Right who deployed violent rhetoric, and even engaged in rhetorical violence, are not “to blame” for the attack in Tucson. But their behavior may still be blameworthy – and the attack may throw this blameworthiness into relief.
I am reluctant to assert that the use of violent rhetoric and rhetorical violence by politicians and activists on the Right makes them to blame because there is a lack of evidence that such rhetoric is responsible for Jared Loughner taking a gun and shooting nearly a score of people. Loughner, it seems clear, is crazy, and it seems likely his craziness would have led to violence sooner or later. One can place blame on poor mental health care (see here), and the availability of guns (including powerful guns with plentiful ammunition magazines – see here) for making such violence incidents more likely to happen, and bloodier when they do. I think that one should. And maybe the rising temperature of political rhetoric, the suggestion that Democratic members of Congress were the authors of all society's ills, turned Loughner's paranoiac, malevolent attention toward a target like Rep. Giffords, as opposed to a teacher or an object of unreciprocated romantic longing. It's not implausible to think so; but thus far we lack any evidence to that effect – other than some incoherent ramblings about the gold standard (which is not a mania universal or unique to the Tea Party movement). And we may never be able to make sense of the dark tangle of Loughner's mind. To the extent that we can, there is reason to doubt that it will turn out that he fits comfortably into any (coherent) ideological narrative (as James Fallows and Ross Douthat have suggested)
So we can't know if the embrace of over-heated rhetoric is partly responsible for this tragedy (though it should be clear enough that it is not wholly, or even primarily, responsible: Loughner's mania – untreated by medicine, and empowered by a deadly weapon – is). We should therefore be very cautious about blaming the Tea Party movement, or politicians who have sought to win its support – in the sense of holding them to be “to blame”. Yet I think its reasonable to take this occasion to note their blameworthiness – not for being responsible, but for being irresponsible.
This brings us back to the meaning of responsibility. To be responsible in the sense of being held responsible refers to responsibility as a feature of an agent's relationship to certain actions and consequences of actions. I may certainly be held responsible for what I intentionally do, or fail to do. I may even be held responsible for things that happen as a result of my choices and actions without my intending them. But if my actions cannot be shown to have some causal relationship to something happening, it seems dubious to claim that I am responsible for it having happened.
But there are other senses of responsible. First, there is responsibility as a feature of my position – my role, my powers. Let us say that I adopt a child. I am not responsible for this child having come into the world, in that I did not cause it, or do anything to effect its happening. But on adopting her, I am now responsible for this child – first in the sense that it is now my job to look after her, and second in the sense that from now on, what becomes of her will depend, in part, on what I do or don't do.
There is also the sense of “responsible” as a feature – more specifically, a virtue - of character or behavior. Being a responsible person means acting responsibly – which is a matter of taking one's responsibilities (sense two) seriously, and being careful about what one is or isn't responsible for. Having adopted a child – having taken on responsibility for her, even though I am not responsible for her existence – I may now act either responsibly or irresponsibly in my role of parent.
To act responsibly – to be responsible in this third sense – is a good thing. To be responsible in the second sense – of occupying a role in which how things go is your concern – imposes certain demands (that is, certain responsibilities). To be responsible in the original sense I mentioned – to be responsible for a particular state of affairs, by bringing it about (or allowing it to be brought about) – will be good or bad, depending on the state of affairs.
Members of Tea Party groups, Republican candidates and office holders, conservative pundits, may bear no responsibility (sense 1) for the tragedy in Tucson. But they are partly responsible (again, in sense one) for the general tenor of political discourse and political activity – and more broadly, the mood that permeates society, which penetrates (in twisted form) the mind of someone like Jared Loughner. This mood has, of late, been angry, bitter, and (rhetorically) violent – thanks to the deliberate actions of political leaders and activists on the right.
They also bear a responsibility (sense two) for how our politics go. This is because they do have the power to partly shape what our politics are like; and because they have pursued and are pursuing, and in many cases have attained, positions of power – with which come certain responsibilities.
They have not, however, been responsible in the third sense. And many of them continue to be irresponsible in this sense.
I must now back up these claims about the responsibility and irresponsibility I have attributed to some on the Right. I'll leave aside – in this discussion at least – the question of how far political figures assume responsibility (in sense 2) for the state of political life in their nation; I'll simply suggest that those who seek the power to influence the lives of their fellow-citizens also assume some amount of responsibility for how those lives go – and particularly for how those lives go as a result of the particular offices and actions of political leaders. The question remains, how much responsibility do those who have engaged in violent rhetoric and/or rhetorical violence bear for the way our politics are now – that is, how can we attribute major features of the current political climate to their behavior?
First, an explanation of the distinction I make between rhetorical violence and violent rhetoric. Violent rhetoric – rhetoric that is violent in either its emotive charge (calling an opponent a traitor, a criminal, a sinner or a dupe), or its imagery (talking of “targeting” or “beating” opponents, say – or even urging followers not to retreat but to “reload”) – may, in certain cases, have an inciting effect; but it need not. Some extreme forms of it may be intrinsically worrying, or distasteful (talking of exercising “second amendment rights” as necessary to political victory, or suggesting that it may be time for “armed revolution” or to be “armed and dangerous”, or that bullets may work where ballots don't) But milder forms are a commonplace part of political debate – as Jon Chait has argued.
Rhetorical violence is a different matter, though it too can vary from the commonplace and harmless to the dangerous – depending both on how extreme it is, and on the circumstances. By rhetorical violence I mean speech that actually enacts violence. When one engages in target-practice, symbolically directed at an opponent, as a political rallying-point, that's rhetorical violence (e.g.) Putting one's opponent in what appear to be gun-sights also seems to count. So would waving a gun around – without shooting it (or even loading it) – at a political rally (or town hall meeting). Violent rhetoric and rhetorical violence both make the use of violence as a political tool seem less exceptional and exceptionable, easier to contemplate and to accept. When combined with rhetorical Manicheanism – the depiction of opponents as malevolent and threatening – this can make violence seem justified, and indeed reasonable – even necessary.
And this is my point: using such rhetoric may plausibly be thought to foster an increasingly polarized, intemperate, angry, and potentially violent political atmosphere. This is particularly the case if background conditions include economic privation and pessimism (check), a sense that one's society is menaced by powerful and implacable outsiders (check) and that old values and ways of life are endangered as a result (check), a perception of social inequalities (economic or cultural) which fosters a sense of distance and oppositions between different groups in society (check), sharp disagreements over matters of policy that seem to hinge on basic principles about what government should do, or abstract values like “freedom” or “justice” (check), and widespread cynicism about the intentions and competence of public figures (check). These, and other, background features of our current political scene make rhetorical escalation – casting political disagreement in sharp moral terms, issuing overheated warnings of potential disaster and veiled malevolence, and depicting the competition for political power in terms of violent conflict – particularly effective, and particularly dangerous. There is a greater than usual temptation to employ such rhetoric – and greater than usual dangers, too. Under these circumstances – when many people are feeling desperate and fearful, threatened and disempowered – it is plausible to think that using violent rhetoric and rhetorical violence will raise the heat of political debate, and the political consciousnesses of individuals, to a boiling point. Is it not also plausible to think that sooner or later, someone who has been encouraged by the words of others and the general tenor of debate to look upon political opponents or public figures as ill-intentioned enemies – and to see violent resistance (and, specifically, the use of firearms) as a legitimate response to such vile enemies – will feel justified in acting violently?
If there is reason to find this scenario plausible, than acting in a way that makes it more likely – that contributes to the escalation of violent rhetoric and emotions in political life – is irresponsible, and blameworthy.
Now, do we have reason to think that recent events, and the way a number of political leaders, activists, and journalists have responded to them, has created a political climate hospitable to the growth of violence? A number of people – generally on the left – have suggested so. (See here, here, first comment here, and here.)Nor is this all a matter of (opportunistic) reaction to events: people have been warning about this for a while.
But maybe such predictions and warnings, such reports and analyses, don't seem strong enough to show that those who turned the rhetorical dial up should have recognized that they were playing with fire, and that it was possible that someone would wind up getting burned. And, as I have noted, the connection to rhetorical excess – and attitudinal Manicheanism – on the Right, and Jared Loughner's rampage, is uncertain and probably tenuous. Even given that, there is reason to find the recent atmosphere of politics – and behavior of many politicians on the Right – ugly and worrying. And there is also reason, now that we've seen violence erupt, to be particularly careful not to do things to encourage it in future. Calling for unity and a “tamping down” on rhetoric that invokes violence and vilifies opponents seems opportune, rather than opportunistic. Some leading Republicans and Tea Partiers have risen to the occasion. Others have not. Sarah Palin seems a prime example (and one who it seems to me fair to pick on, given how she has embraced – and enriched herself considerably through her embrace – of the tendency toward violent rhetoric in the Tea Party movement, with her gun-sight graphics and talk of reloading). The response of her spokesperson to the attack – before much was known about the origins and motivation of the shooter – was grossly inadequate in its evasion of responsibility (of any sort) and self-reflection, and its attempt not only to totally exculpate Palin, but to depict her as the real victim – and shift blame for violence, more and less subtly, to “the left”.
This raises the issue of partisanship generally – and its role in my own outlook. Some will suggest that the above analysis is undesirable partisan in laying blame only on the Right. This charge suggests that my apportioning of blame here is influenced either by a desire for political point-scoring on behalf of my own side – or by a blinkered view of reality which magnifies the faults of those with whom I disagree, and blinds me to the similar faults of my own side. These are serious charges – and plausible ones, because both sorts of partisanship are common, and damaging, and are as easy to fall into as they are hard to detect in oneself. It is all too easy and common to think oneself innocent of these sorts of partisanship when – and because – one is guilty of them.
Still, I do not think my asymmetrical apportionment of blame in this particular case is partisan in this way. There have simply been too many, and too outrageous, cases of violent rhetoric and rhetorical violence from politicians and activists on the Right – and very little that is comparable on the Left. That certainly is not to say that the whole of the Right – the whole of the GOP, or of the Tea Party movement, or all of those who call themselves conservatives – are implicated in this. (Note that I have spoken of politicians and activists on the Right, and not “the Right” as a single unit.) I may be wrong here – I am open to refutation by appeals to evidence. But it does seem that there has been a fair amount of "eliminationist rhetoric" on the Right -- and not very much of it elsewhere.
But I certainly would not claim to be non-partisan here – or suggest that non-partisanship (or “bipartisanship”) is the answer to our national problems. Partisanship is a good thing – but it should be the sort of modest and thoughtful partisanship, guided by an “ethic of partisanship”, that has recently been argued for by Nancy Rosenblum (who, full disclosure, is my dissertation chair). See her summary of her argument here.
Essential in this ethical partisanship, as Rosenblum argues, is the acknowledgment that one's own party represents one part of the nation, and not the whole – and that other parts, and parties, deserve respect; and a willingness, therefore, to compromise – and to accept the occasional defeat with at least a modicum of good grace. I'd add that a sense of responsibility is also important to ethical partisanship – responsibility for how one's own party behaves (so that to act responsibly is to try to discourage unwise, unfair, and publicly deleterious behavior among one's fellow-partisans), and responsibility for how the whole polity fares (so that to act responsibly is to recognize certain limits on the pursuit of partisan advantage, when the means or effects of such pursuit are damaging to the health of the country as a whole). Fostering the right sort of partisanship, at this point, requires moving beyond petty partisanship -- and beyond self-indulgent self-righteousness, to engage in self-questioning, and practice generosity. (This is admirably exemplified by Russell Arben Fox here.)
In reflecting on the failures of many political leaders to think and act responsibly with regard to the potential of political rhetoric to foster violence, it's worth noting examples of responsible action. One notable example comes from Rep Giffords herself.
A politics in which the Giffords are silenced, and the void they leave filled with unthinking self-promoters and unquestioning zealots, is not a desirable -- or even a tolerable -- one.