Sunday, January 9, 2011

Distancing Mass Killings from Systemic Patterns

Criminologists have long lamented the ways that white males suspected of committing mass shootings and being serial killers are typically profiled. As the public discourse continues to develop regarding suspected shooter of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, 6 deceased and 14 additional wounded victims,
Jared Lee Loughner, we are seeing the typical pattern emerge among those on the conservative side of the political spectrum: the violence can be attributed solely to mental illness, and not to any systemic influences tied to political ideology.

Attempts to distance Loughner's alledged attack from right-wing political ideology have grown largely because Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik pointed out the possible ties between exaggerated, vitriolic political discourse and the violence that has now been thrust upon someone who was once targeted symbolically by Sarah Palin (see picture, top of post).

Now in reading through the posted explanations by those on the conservative right, we see an intensified attempt to maintain the typical explanation for mass violence committed by white males - the alleged white male suspect is an individual anomaly with mental illness who has no ties to any institutional groups and/or their influence.

In contrast, mass violence perpetrated by individual minorities is typically tied to the perpetrator's minority culture, weather that be a said culture of poverty, culture of terrorism, drug culture, etc.
SocProf explained this phenomenon first:

This list is quite long and definitely establishes a pattern of political violence. But if every incident is treated as an individual act, taken in isolation, and explained by reference to individual characteristics of the perpetrator, then, the social, political and cultural background disappears, leaving the emerging social movement unexplained and unaccountable.

It is a common phenomenon, long studied and explained by social psychology that when individuals from our in-group or privileged individuals commit questionable acts, these acts are explained individually. When individuals from out-groups, or groups that are socially unpopular, commit questionable acts, these acts are explained as part of group membership, as categorical. The former are exceptions, the latter are representative. That is how racial and ethnic prejudice persist and how white privilege is preserved. One only has to imagine what media discourse would be, had the shooter been non-White, Latino or Muslim.

It is not difficult at all to now find data illustrating this phenomenon while browsing through the comments of various news stories. Liz Halloran recently penned a piece on NPR titled "'Vitriol' Cited As Possible Factor In Arizona Tragedy" that as of 5:00pm Hawaii Standard Time has 2,701 reader comments. Here are few that demonstrate how individuals are trying to distance these violent actions from right-wing ideology (obviously, this is not a representative example, as I have not conducted a full content analysis with coding and accounting for "rec's"; these are simply a few examples):

  • Rhetoric is not the issue here...this was a lone nutbag, with his own mad view on things, hell bent on killing many. It's a shame that both sides are trying to reap some kinda political points for this. (Sunday, January 09, 2011 8:16:15 PM).
  • I listened to this Sheriff again this morning and he is completely out of line and is using this tragety to promote a political agenda and I hope the good people of Pima Co. remember this when he is up for re-election... Freedom of speech cannot be closed down because there are unbalanced people that will twist the meaning of what is being said into a call to kill people... This event was caused by this man's mental illness period. (Sunday, January 09, 2011 2:32:35 PM).

And this from Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash, "You know, his favorite books are 'the Communist Manifesto' and 'Mein Kampf.' I think it's important that we recognize that this is an individual that had -- that has mental challenges, and we need to act appropriately in dealing with him and making sure that justice prevails here" (emphasis added), contrasted with the following from Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md (FoxNews):

Far too many broadcasts now and so many outlets have the intent of inciting, and inciting people to opposition, to anger, to thinking the other side is less than moral. And I think that is a context in which somebody who is mentally unbalanced can somehow feel justified in taking this kind of action. And I think we need to all take cognizance of that and be aware that what we say can, in fact, have consequences.

Without jumping to conclusions, it is reasonable to entertain the possibility that exaggerated political discourse was a significant component in this tragedy. Shouldn't all possible contributors to physical violence be explored in order to prevent future violence? By being immediately defensive about the possible connections between vitriolic political rhetoric and physical violence, rational attempts to uncover all the underlying causes of violence are thwarted.

Suggested reading: "Climate of Hate"

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