Political violence is always sobering and alarming, and the attempted assassination of U.S. Congress member Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson is obviously no different. Mike Konczal rounds up some interesting links about the incident here. I don’t have a whole lot to add but feel compelled to write about it, possibly because I lived in Tucson in the late 1990s, which makes it particularly upsetting to me—easy for me to imagine vividly. I used to teach English courses to freshmen at the University of Arizona, (indeed, I taught the “rhetorical triangle” used in this post by SEK to attempt to define what violent rhetoric is) and certainly had students that remind me a little bit of Jared Loughner—students who were incapable of expressing their complicated intuitions about what they felt they were up against in society and whose inarticulateness about complex subjects could make them sound a little bit insane if they chose to take on such subjects in writing. The garbled syntax and improper word usage in this statement of Loughner’s was actually pretty typical of many student papers: “I can’t trust the current government because of fabrications. The government is implying mind control and brainwash on the people by controlling grammar.”
I even had students who bordered on being uncontrollably disruptive, incapable of allowing a discussion to take place in the classroom without interrupting it or trying to dominate it, invalidate it. When I read that one of Loughner’s fellow students told a reporter, “He disrupted class frequently with nonsensical outbursts,” I could immediately picture from experience the sort of presence Loughner must have been.
Back when I was teaching, I just wished those students were some other instructor’s problem. But now those students seem emblematic of a broader darkness settling over the country, a mood that suffuses some unknown proportion of the population. These are people who are acutely conscious of injustice and are perpetually aggrieved but have no resources for constructively thinking it through, for respecting or even attacking critically the complexity of the world. When ostensibly teaching “critical thinking” in my classes, I often had this disposition laid bare before me, and it would fill me with limitless despair. It seemed like stubbornness. I couldn’t figure out how to convey the necessity of deliberation, of patient consideration, of the need to drop one’s reflexive defensiveness in order to arrange one’s feelings and notions into actual thoughts, into ideas that others could understand and respond to. Often my students would tell me, with words or deeds, that they believed such dialogue was pointless. Even if they played along with me, they didn’t see how those skills were more broadly relevant to ordinary life. For many of them, they weren’t, and in my experience outside of the academic world, I can see how they were right to be so resistant. Critical thinking can single you out as a troublemaker, and it can diminish the pleasures of what society generally wants to placate us with. But what happens when people fail to be placated yet can’t process their disgruntlement?
Politics presumes a recognition that negotiation and dialogue must occur, that what is “right” is simply a given but is a matter of resolving inescapable conflicts of interest. Trying to kill politicians is an extreme expression of the rejection of politics—a puerile fantasy that has been cynically encouraged in some quarters. But to reject the very possibility of negotiation and compromise is ultimately to express a preference for chaos and anarchy. This yearning to be beyond politics, if not neutralized by general prosperity into apathy, will inevitably find its expression in violence, and political violence, precluding the possibility of nonviolent resolution of disputes, is inherently a wish for violence without end. That is why those who commit these acts are usually depicted as madmen. But this kind of madness may be what happens at the margins when society fails to facilitate critical engagement with the world and with one another’s ideas. (I felt like I failed personally as a teacher to facilitate this, in Tucson no less, so I’ve been feeling vaguely but unshakably guilty about what Loughner did there.)