It's all about systemic realities

This morning on The Culture War segment of the John Oakley show we discussed the accusation by the left that the tragic shooting in Arizona was deeply rooted in the vitriolic rhetoric of the conservative right and the swift reaction to that accusation.  I posted the following on my Facebook page.

The voices of the right have been swift to claim that the horrific Arizona shooting that has left 6 people dead and 14 wounded, including Democratic Congressman Gabrielle Giffords, is the work of a lunatic, lone gunman. Their rhetoric castigates those on the left, like Keith Olbermann, for using the “tragic deaths” as an opportunity to make political gains by identifying vitriolic references and inappropriate statements made by right-wing politicians and broadcasters as a major factor influencing the behaviour of gunman Jared Lee Loughner. It’s a popular argument used by the right in the face of tragedy and violence.

The truth is that no individual who goes on such a rampage, mentally ill or otherwise, does so in a vacuum. And no individual who beats his or her partner, who commits suicide, who grabs a gun to settle a drug dispute or carve out a gang’s territory, no individual whose alcoholism destroys a family, functions in a vacuum apart from the norms accepted within their cultural milieu. We live and function within systems that influence our behaviour whether or not we wish to acknowledge them.

Immediately prior to the Culture Wars segment during which Charles McVety and I debated this issue (January 11, 2011), John Oakley engaged his listeners in conversation about the Halton Catholic School Board Chair’s remarks that likened Gay Straight Alliances to Nazi groups. Rather than remove Alice Anne LeMay from her position, the Board instead issued a statement emphasizing their desire to create supportive environments within which LGBTQ students would feel safe and supported. It will be a difficult thing for them to accomplish within the Catholic Church which regularly identifies homosexuality as a sinful lifestyle choice.

McVety is often quick to point out the hazards of a gay lifestyle, quoting statistics to reinforce the “lifestyle’s” high incidence of suicide, the dramatically shortened lifespan of LGBTQ persons and other disproportionately high risks the group experiences. What McVety is trying to do with his rhetoric is dissuade individuals from “taking up” a gay lifestyle but he refuses to accept the reality that sexuality is not a “lifestyle choice”. It’s a predisposition that leaves individuals vulnerable to the vitriolic language employed by the Christian right and the Catholic Church to describe them. Hearing that one is “an abomination”, “evil”, “aberrant”, and “sinful” is enormously stressful. Add to that stress the bullying undertaken by youths who have not been offered a worldview that accepts difference but that thrives on domination, and the recipe for disaster is set. Yes, it takes an individual’s own determination to take their own life but the milieu in which they live either supports their right to life or denies it. No LGBTQ teenager will feel safe in a school board with leaders like LeMay who, regardless of their subsequent retractions, clearly deny them rights. It is a systemic problem that needs a systemic answer.

Similarly, the shooting in Arizona did not happen in a vacuum. Comments made by Tea Party candidate Sharron Angle that people might need to undertake “second amendment” answers spoke directly to individuals eager to take up arms to “defend” their idea of democracy. Sarah Palin’s map of the United States with the crosshairs of a gun sight over top of states where  democrats had voted in favour of healthcare reform contributed to the poisoned atmosphere that was created in the wake of that vote. Those states included Arizona and Giffords had referred to the inappropriate use of gun sights in an interview last March. (A similar Democrat map used archery targets to identify those states where then-President Bush won by narrow margins as “behind enemy lines”. Both maps have been removed from official websites.)

McVety’s argument that demanding a reduction in the use of such “metaphors” is a dumbing down of public discourse is ridiculous. There are innumerable ways for us to have meaningful debate without resorting to images that can and will be understood by many in our society who are vulnerable to such language - those struggling with mental illness - as an incitement to violence. The truth is that, as we explore less violent imagery, we will raise the level of public discourse rather than diminish it.

What happened in Arizona is a tragedy but Jared Lee Loughner was no an island unto himself. He was part of a system that influenced and created him and those who shore up that system, who use it for their own personal gain, who prefer to keep it in place because they benefit from it, who refuse to acknowledge their part in it must be addressed in a way that both exposes their complicity and calls them to accept some of the responsibility. Whether either side will be able to engage the other in such a conversation remains to be seen. The early indicators aren't encouraging.

Original post by gretta vosper