Democracy and Humanity in the Balance
by Michael N. Nagler
The night after Representative Gabrielle Giffords and others were shot, I happened to be officiating at a celebration for the career of a close friend of mine who has devoted his life to the search for nonviolence and peace. There were nearly 200 of us from a great variety of organizations, all of which had stories about nonviolent actions and projects they had done that actually worked.
I must confess that when the shock of grief has worn off after an event like this horrific shooting, I hear myself asking my fellow Americans, in some exasperation: how long do you want this to go on?
Happily, this time things were a little bit different, in one respect. For the first time that I am aware, there was in almost all the commentaries the hint of an apparently forbidden truth: that we bring violence on ourselves when we promote it, glorify it, or legitimize it — as in this case by the extreme rhetoric associated with Sarah Palin and the Tea Party, among others.
Let us by all means seize on that hint. It is exactly right that when goaded into violence by our words or thoughts, we — and not just a few deranged killers — get that much closer to ‘losing it’ and acting out some form of destruction in real life. Massive scientific evidence confirms this connection, which is anyway obvious if you know anything about human nature. What we think, we eventually do; in particular, when we think righteous hatred, we will do vile things that are unworthy of our humanity.
Now that the path from incendiary rhetoric to the bloodying of democracy has been exposed, we should hold onto that insight, for it might just save us.
But to make full use of it we have to take it further. We have to realize, as suggested above, that this connection is merely the tip of an iceberg. Before there was the “let’s get ‘em” rhetoric of the Tea Party there was the incessant, pervasive violence of nearly all our commercial mainstream mass media that makes such rhetoric sound normal. To wit: “Find out how much fun it is to rob, attack, and take out contracts on your friends.” This isn’t the raving of an isolated lunatic — it’s the open advertisement of a recent and, I gather, quite popular video game. We have grown so used to this violence, with its steadily increasing brutality and sophistication that we consider it a normal way to entertain ourselves — and the grim consequences roll on.
The iceberg has another dimension, too. During the Detroit riots of 1967, President Lyndon Johnson complained that “we have passed through a week that no nation should be forced to endure.” But he had been forcing Vietnam to endure much worse for two years. He missed the connection — but we must not. A nation that dedicates itself to the use of violence for its foreign policy (and its entertainment forms, its criminal justice system, and more) can never expect to live free from violence in its own social fabric. Life — including the life of the human mind — doesn’t work that way.
If we want to live free from violence we have to turn to healthy forms of culture, away from retributive to restorative models of criminal justice, and toward a foreign policy more like the methods and visions that my friends were sharing in San Francisco the night of the Tucson massacre. Toning down the incivility and incitement in today’s right-wing rhetoric is a good start, but let us use this tragedy to go much further.
Jared Lee Loughner, the perpetrator of the rampage, is in the hands of the law. That means that at this point we could, if we’re not careful, make dangerous mistake: to think that we had solved anything by visiting either our clemency or our desire for revenge on the one person who did the shooting that terrible day. To wash our hands of the whole affair in this way, and our indirect responsibility in it, would be to miss an opportunity of national significance.
So let us by all means see to it that the rhetoric of political assassination ends now; but let us also look to all the dimensions of violence that have invaded our culture and politics and replace them with healthier alternatives — lest what died in Tucson be our chance at a robust democracy and a humane life.
Michael N. Nagler, Ph.D., is Professor emeritus of Classics and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley where he co-founded the Peace and Conflict Studies Program. He is the founder of the Metta Center for Nonviolence, and serves as co-Chair of the Peace and Justice Studies Association. Among his many publications in the field of nonviolence, Dr. Nagler is the author of The Search for a Nonviolent Future: A Promise of Peace for Ourselves, Our Families, and Our World (New World Library), winner of the 2002 American Book Award.