January 14, 2011

Root causes: where does the violence come from?

Whenever there is a tragedy, people seek answers. There is a need or a desire to find out what happened, what went wrong, and what can be done to keep those events from happening again. People reacted this way after the Columbine shooting, after the Virginia Tech shooting, after the Oklahoma City bombing, and of course after 9/11. People want answers--and news media always provides a flood of answers. Part of the real difficulty is figuring out who to listen to, what answers make sense--and how to sift through all of the reactionary, often politicized reporting.

The recent shooting in Tucson, Arizona is yet another one of these tragedies. And within days--if not hours--the event became as much about politics as it was the victims themselves. Numerous news outlets, journalists, and bloggers jumped the gun and started assigning blame and responsibility for the actions of Jared Lee Loughner. Some said it was all due to violent political rhetoric--like the "Don't retreat, reload!" declaration that Sarah Palin is so well known for. Others claimed that it was all due to the fact that Lougher is "mentally ill," as if that explains everything away. While these kinds of simplistic responses and rationales get all kinds of press and attention, they don't really provide much useful explanation. The attempt to assess blame on Palin, while politically expedient for some folks, is nonsense. I think pundits and journalists need to be REALLY careful and think about what they're saying before they make such unsubstantiated claims. As for the "mental illness" explanation: that one falls just as short, even if lots of people feel comfortable accepting that as a reasonable answer.

There is no way around it. The violence that took place on that Saturday in Tucson was shocking, upsetting, and terrifying. It was just a small political gathering at a local grocery store. It was by no means some out of the ordinary event. It could have happened anywhere. A young person with a semiautomatic weapon walked right up to a serving member of Congress and shot her in the head. All said and done he killed 6 people. He woke up that morning knowing what he was doing. It was planned and carefully executed. He was able to ruin numerous lives with his decision. And the rest of us are left wondering: what could have been done? What were the signs? What should we do next time? Who is to blame?

Daniel Lende has an excellent post over at Neuroanthropology that covers much of this issue. He talks about the fact that people are ever so willing to accept "mental illness" as the root cause of what happened with Loughner. Why is this the case? In a situation where multiple (many of them uknown) factors are at play, why is the mental illness card so easy to accept as THE CAUSE? I definitely think it's worth the time to read through Lende's post, along with all of the updates.

The question that I find the most interesting is this: why are people searching for singular causes in the first place? Why are so many people hoping for easy, simple answers? In one sense, of course, the answers to these questions are pretty easy. When tragedies like this occur, they not only seem, but are pretty senseless. And we all want to understand, to find some kind of reason or meaning--maybe so that we know what to look for. But how can we really attribute a cause in this kind of a case? Did any ONE THING actually cause this to happen? If so, how would we ever figure that out?

When it comes to this most recent shooting, or to other tragic events that have happened in the past, I don't think we're ever going to find easy, simple answers. The never ending search for a single cause is only going to lead to speculation, reductionist thinking, and partial answers (at best). Why? Because human behavior can't simply be explained as a series of easily traceable causes. We are not simply responding to external stimuli that control out behaviors. We definitely aren't automatons, that's for sure. We have choices and options--but these exist within the constraints of the social, political, and material conditions in which we all live. What CAUSED you to eat Cheerios this morning? Was it the mere act of waking up? Was it the presence of cereal in your kitchen? Was it the biological urge to eat? Was it your spouse who told you to eat? Was it the cultural knowledge and habit that have trained you to think that ingesting food at 7:30 every morning is the natural order of things? Was it the run you went on yesterday? Was it the fact that you HAD to go to work and there was no other time to eat? Was it some automatic impulse in your brain?

Maybe the Cheerios example is a bit pedantic. Could be. But the point here is that even seemingly SIMPLE behaviors aren't really that easy to explain in terms of cause and effect. Things only get more complicated when we talk about something like the Tucson shooting. But I am rapidly approaching the standard anthropological answer to everything: it's just complicated. That's not where I want to leave things. What this means to me is that in order to understand events like this we need to look at as much of the social context--at different levels--as possible. Yes, it probably makes sense to look at political discourse in the US, just as it makes sense to look at how Americans think about, talk about, enact, and employ violence (and Max Forte at Zero Anthropology is doing just that).

Events like this happen within larger social environments, and taking stock of those environments is probably a good starting point. At the same time, it also makes sense to look closely at the biographical details of the person who committed the act itself. All in all, the point is that it's a good idea to avoid the knee-jerk, reactionary explanations. Look at the histories, look at the biographical details. Trawl your way through the news media, through articles and reports--take time to think things through. Accept the fact that the desire to find a clear "cause" might be like heading down an endless rabbit hole. There probably isn't a single cause--but there may be certain factors, trends, and signs that arise that help to not only understand these types of events, but also to find ways to avoid them in the future. Maybe.

What HAVE we learned? I think I'll end with a non-answer, because in all honesty I don't think there is some easy way to wrap all of this up. Maybe that IS the answer: there are no easy answers, so we all have to take the time to look through these sorts of events and figure out what they mean. Maybe this is the important part: taking the time, thinking things through, and not expecting instant resolution. TV news turns everything into convenient little segments and stories, but when the cameras shut off, when the anchors stop reading teleprompters, life keeps going. It's always going, changing, shifting. And somewhere in the midst of all that we find--and make--our own meanings. And we shouldn't expect to have answers handed to us, pre-packaged, like cheap plastic products that can be bought in the local grocery store.


Anonymous said...

Very nicely written.Great perspective to look at it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your blog. I am very tired of seeing 'mental illness' as a 'root cause of violence.' Mental illness, in and of itself, is not a cause. The causes of violence are never that simple.