What Is He Thinking?

Decoding the male psyche.

Only One Side Needs To Be More Civil

Political violence today stems primarily from right wing paranoia

I recently wrote an article for a left-wing Internet site (alternet.org) analyzing the psychology of the tea party movement. In order to garner sympathy from the readers of this particular site, I said in the beginning that I "hated" the tea partiers. I then posted it on my own blog (psychologytoday.com) and neglected to edit out this particular rhetorical flourish. And then the hate mail started.

I've gotten hate mail before. But nothing prepared me for the sheer amount and threatening virulence of the right wing responses I received. It disturbed me, my friends, my family, other bloggers, and even my psychotherapy patients.

Now, I was once part of a Left that justified its own violence on the basis of an overarching paranoid narrative. We're living in a fascist state. The police are tools of a racist corporate order. Dissent and reform are impossible through normal channels. Armed struggle might be the only alternative available to us. The results were the Weathermen, the Black Panther Party, student riots, and the Days of Rage.

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But you would have to be blind, deaf, and dumb not to realize that the primary danger of political violence today comes almost exclusively from the Right. It doesn't matter at all if it directly caused (a clearly disturbed) Jared Loughner to shoot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. The political demographics and timing of his rampage are and should be a dramatic moment for us to confront the increasingly reckless and extreme rhetoric and aggression of the right wing in contemporary society.

When opinion makers like Ross Douthat of the Times upbraid liberals for blaming the Right for causing Jared Loughner's violence on the grounds that throughout our history, crazy guys from all parts of the political spectrum have done violent things, he is being deliberately-and dangerously-naïve. He's saying something obvious but irrelevant, sort of like playing pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey with your eyes open and without a blindfold. The fact is that no one of any importance on the Left today talks like Beck, O'Reilly, Palin, et al. Keith Olbermann? Are you kidding me? Compared to Beck and his cronies, Olbermann is a nun.

The danger in paranoia is that it justifies any degree of violence. Beck and his gang create the same paranoid worldview that we had in the late 60s, i.e. the Nazis are coming, they're taking our freedom, our money, etc. If the danger is that extreme, then shouldn't our response be equally extreme? If abortion doctor George Tiller, or, as Bill O'Reilley called him "Tiller the Baby Killer" was as bad as O'Reilly said he was (doing things, according to Bill, like they did in Mao's China, Hitler's Germany, and Stalin's Soviet Union), then why shouldn't he be killed? If someone is threatening your freedom, robbing you and your children, and ready to euthanize your grandmother, why in God's name wouldn't it be justifiable homicide to kill that person? Collateral damage is regrettable, but in a war, shit happens.

A Republican member of the U.S. Congress (Paul Broun, from Georgia) recently said, that citizens need to bear arms to protect themselves against their own government. Sarah Palin incites crowds with "Don't Retreat, Reload" and puts cross hairs on U.S. maps indicating which Congressional Democrats (including that of Gabrielle Giffords) that she thinks should be taken out in the next election. Gabrielle Giffords' opponent in her own recent election posed on his website in full military gear holding an M-16. The evidence is overwhelming. It is irrelevant if some conservatives oppose this type of incendiary rhetoric and styling. It is equally irrelevant if a progressive candidate or elected official sometimes uses harsh language. And it is especially irrelevant if Jared Loughner was a nutcase. Political violence, threats of violence, and violent rhetoric emanate today primarily from the right wing.

But we will see the inevitable call for calm on both sides. We will hear opinion makers say we should all tone down the rhetoric, that politics has become too heated, too personal, too aggressive. It's sort of like being beaten up by your brother and being told by your mother, "All right, you two....quiet down in there right now!" When it's a collective problem, no side is really to blame, even though only one side is really guilty. Every generalization hides the truth. Every nod toward balance conceals the reality. Every attempt at equanimity or generalization is a covert attempt to pretend that the problem today is a general one. It isn't. It's a problem in the right-wing political community and in the heated rhetoric of its representatives and talking heads.

Whatever remains of the mainstream press needs to stop trying to be "fair" and, instead, start telling the truth. Liberals in the media and Congress need to have the courage to do what Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnick did when he not only called for more civility (a generalization anyone would agree with) but also specifically identified the extreme anti-government rhetoric in Arizona as the primary threat to that civility. They need to call for hearings into it. They need to make politicians accountable for their rhetoric. Sometimes, telling the truth is the only way to be fair and balanced.

Michael Bader, D.M.H.,  is a psychologist and psychoanalyst in San Francisco. He is the author of Male Sexuality: Why Women Don't Understand It—and Men Don't Either.

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