Posts Tagged ‘balloon metaphor’

Violent Political Rhetoric

Tuesday, January 11th, 2011

Hey, do you want to read a deeply ignorant article? No? Well, that’s understandable. But here it is anyway: In Defense of Inflamed Rhetoric. It’s written by a person who is apparently capable of looking at the current political climate in America and saying, yep, nothing wrong here. But what’s more instructive, for our purposes at least, is the method by which he has rationalized this view.

Most revealing is the use of the standard argument employed in the defence of a lot of different types of faux-violent behaviour: namely, the personal anecdote about having experienced similar influences (in this case, violent political language) without being driven to violence. So clearly that’s not the root cause of violent behaviour, and we can simply write off people who do resort to violence as outliers, or victims of some other kind of problem – like mental illness, as was immediately assumed in this case. In other words, violent people would have been violent anyway, so we are automatically relieved of any responsibility in having contributed to this problem. Because you know, that guy who WAS violent, well, clearly he was just a freak, and as long as all the normals remain unaffected, we don’t need to worry.

If nothing else, this serves to highlight the general ignorance our culture still harbours towards the topic of mental illness. But it also reveals another, more nuanced level of ignorance: most people just straight up don’t understand how things like implied violence or violent threats and metaphors affect our behaviour. I mean, it is considered perfectly logical for exposure to real life violence to cause trauma, but as soon as you remove that element of reality, the trauma is supposed to become similarly imaginary. It’s pretty obvious, however, that that is not the case.

Perhaps the best way to understand how this behaviour functions is to think of the brain as a balloon, and all of the different social and cultural interactions which affect our behaviour are like hundreds of dull sticks applying light pressure to that balloon. Each one on its own is inconsequential, but when their combined force is multiplied together, problems can begin to manifest. In an extremely basic and unrealistic simulation, we could expect that successive exposure to violent influences would increase the pressure applied by the sticks which represent violent behaviour, until the balloon finally bursts, and the person lashes out with real-life violence. However, that’s not how it works in reality, because exposure to violence is constantly being tempered by exposure to other sources of pressure, including pressure to avoid violent behaviour, because in most circumstances it is considered socially unacceptable. (This is a uniquely modern situation, incidentally; these opposing sources of pressure did not exist in the past – or at least, not to the same extent that they do now – which is why violence is far rarer today than it was throughout much of history.) So in effect, all these different sources of opposing pressure lead to the sticks being placed fairly evenly around the balloon, spreading the load and making it much less likely to burst even when new sources of pressure are suddenly encountered. Assuming, that is, the person is leading a healthy social life, and is therefore under direct pressure to conform to the social ideals of the day. For comparison: in other places around the world, there is much less opposing pressure to balance out the violent influences, and the difference is profound.

This is why it’s so difficult to determine cause and effect in these instances: because each person has a unique array of sticks around their balloon, and so their responses to new sources of pressure can be radically different from one another. Moreover, removing one stick can alter the topography of the whole balloon as the pressure redistributes itself and achieves a new equilibrium, so actually removing seemingly harmful influences can have unexpected consequences, too. The important thing to recognise, however, is that we are dealing with a complex and chaotic system, which means that whilst individual instances can be difficult to deconstruct, a broader, systemic view can still yield identifiable patterns. (In this sense, it’s a lot like long-term climate prediction – even though we know that climate change will produce stronger and more violent storms, determining precisely where those storms will strike is still impossible, according to our current level of knowledge at least.)  As a result, we can reasonably argue that increased violent rhetoric will lead to real-life violence, even if predicting exactly where and when it will occur is a much more daunting task. If you continually stack up the sources of violent pressure, you greatly reduce the strength of the stressor needed to give a vulnerable person that final push and trigger a truly tragic reaction.

It’s also worth remembering that whilst ascribing responsibility to a single source of pressure (in this case, Sarah Palin) is a rather silly and naïve view to take, that’s not the only role Palin plays here. She actively profits from this pre-existing culture of hatred and veiled violence, and uses it for her own ends. That’s still completely obscene. We don’t need to exaggerate her role in this to try and make her look bad – even if there were absolutely no traces of cause and effect here, her actions are still indefensible.

Anyway, back to the article itself – I think this quote really highlights the sheer arrogance, let alone ignorance, upon which it was constructed:

“The great miracle of American politics is that although it can tend toward the cutthroat and thuggish, it is almost devoid of genuine violence outside of a few scuffles and busted lips now and again.”

Note the use of the Juggalo fallacy: this situation is, apparently, a miracle. It’s obviously a very evocative term to drop on an American audience, so I’m sure he’s mostly just using it for rhetorical flourish, but all the same, it still serves to highlight the logical flaw in the central argument being put forward here: the author just clearly doesn’t understand precisely why violence is so rare in American politics. Which is why, as usual, it is simply ascribed to American exceptionalism – we are talking about the shining light on the hill, after all. They’re just inherently superior. Well, unless they have a mental illness, of course – then all bets are off.

The result of this lack of understanding is the surreal situation we now face: we have a subtlely violent culture which has (inevitably) produced violent behaviour, and yet people react by defending that culture and not only outright dismissing the possibility of a causal link, but they seem content to do so by means of some rather uncircumspect logic. This situation should, really, inspire disbelief in all of us – but because we have lived in this same culture our whole lives, we have unfortunately grown used to it, making it much harder for us to see this situation for what it really is.

As with all violent behaviour, the violent rhetoric currently dominating American political discourse simply serves to highlight the position of extreme fear from which these people are operating. It might seem counterintuitive, but just compare it to a similar phenomenon, like how narcissism actually stems from very low self-esteem, rather than the overabundance of it that you might otherwise assume at first glance. These types of behaviour are designed to compensate for the absence of, rather than the imposing presence of, the emotional trait they appear to be built upon. In this case, deep fear equates to a lack of courage, which is why people will then try to appear courageous by putting forward outlandish rhetoric. But of course, it would be a mistake to confuse these actions with actual courage. Back in my day, we were taught that Simba, being brave doesn’t mean you go looking for trouble.

So, to sum up: if you’re looking for a simple equation to explain cause and effect, you’re going to be disappointed. But trying to argue that violent rhetoric has no effect at all is just… well, it’s deliberate ignorance, there’s no other way of putting it. People would easily reach this conclusion if they didn’t have a vested interest in believing the exact opposite. The real problem here is that it’s simply much easier to change rationalizations than to change behaviour, so people just continue along the same old path, even when confronted with the thankfully rare, but still brutal consequences of their actions.

The thing to remember is this: when you walk away from a car crash, you don’t go around telling people car crashes are awesome. You remind yourself how lucky you were, and you examine the cause of the crash in order to prevent it from happening again.

ETA one day later:

I’ve done a bit more reading on the subject of violence and mental illness, and I found this paper particularly illuminating. It basically trashes the popular link between violent behaviour and the mentally ill. In fact, people with mental illnesses are actually more likely to be victims, not perpetrators – and when they do act out violently, more often than not, it’s due to the exact same stressors that trigger violent behaviour in healthy people.

Much more telling, however, is the observation that the general public often draw comfort from the myth that random acts of violence are caused by mental illness. I’ve read articles over the past couple of days about how the supposed overreactions against violent rhetoric are just the product of people searching for a convenient narrative to explain the unexplainable – but dismissing violent behaviour as unexplainable is itself a narrative, and a rather problematic one at that, because it absolves people of the need to search for actual answers, however difficult they may be to uncover. In this case, if the mindset of a violent offender is impenetrable and unknowable, then there is no need to question any possible role that the overall climate of violent rhetoric (not to mention all the other types of violent and faux-violent behaviour still tolerated by our society) had in shaping this person’s views, and so we are free to continue as before, unburdened by responsibility. And regardless of your views here, surely you can at least see that dismissing a question without answering it is a terrible idea, and sets a harmful precedent even if this particular instance turns out to be a red herring.

On the surface, it seems strange that people could be comforted by the idea that violent behaviour is unpredictable and unexplainable. But break down the logical sequence behind it, and it takes on another tone altogether. Because the thing is, there is ample evidence to suggest that the most common causes of violent behaviour actually affect healthy people to a greater degree than the mentally ill, and yet the majority of the public is quite content to write this problem off as the product of a loosely-defined minority of “crazy” people. This is because the only logical alternative would be for people to start questioning their own behaviour, and trying to deconstruct their own role in the culture of violence that lurks at the edges of our society. Dumping this problem on a scapegoat is simply the much easier option, and the result is that the mentally ill are not only unfairly blamed for a systemic problem shared by us all, but they often end up suffering the harshest consequences of this problem, too.

And that, my friends, is fucked up.