On the Political Climate of Hate in America

It is natural to look for meaning in tragedy. History, myth, literature all represent means by which humans attempt to come to terms with the dark sides of our experience and to find something valuable in it, so that the tragedy was not for naught. The motivation is not simply to avoid similar tragedies in the future, but to give ourselves a sense that we understand what's going on, that all this isn't just a huge chaotic mess from which we will never be able to protect ourselves and our loved ones. We seek comfort as much as insight.

It is not natural, however, to fit tragedy into an ideological narrative. Ideology doesn't originate within us but arises from our acceptance of a narrow system of thought to which we attempt to conform. So complex events and nuanced actions must be shoved like a square peg into a round hole in order to validate the black and white ideological approach in our gray shaded lives. But we adopt ideological approaches for similar reasons: to give ourselves a sense that we can explain it all, that if we can just achieve the world prescribed by the ideology, such tragedy will never occur again.

The attack on Representative Giffords is now being portrayed by many as an outgrowth of the "climate of hate" surrounding conservative politics in general and the Tea Party movement in particular. The assassin would never have attacked this congresswoman, many claim, if there wasn't a poisonous undercurrent of anti-government sentiment. While an individual is responsible for his or her actions, we have a responsibility also to preserve a civil discourse and ensure that loose cannons do not employ our rhetoric in the service of violence.

Insofar as this goes, I have no problem with the argument above. We should take responsibility for the climate our politics creates, because that climate is the reality behind the abstractions of politics, civil society, and other institutions we ostensibly critique and support. The less positive and constructive our participation in the network of society, the more we create the hell we claim to seek to avoid. We each have an unenforceable but important duty to be our best selves in all matters.

However, this duty is only part of the story. Yes, we the people are accountable for our participation in the body politic. And if people are angry, then that is a problem - but a problem for all of us. After all, people don't just get upset for no reason. It is usually the persistent denial of their interests, their values, the legitimacy of their point of view that creates the frustration and cynicism leading to such lashing out, rhetorically or physically.

Conservatives and liberals are jumping on the Giffords attack to push it into or out of their ideological narratives. They either blame those who stand against government overreach, or they deny that resistance to government overreach is to blame. What neither side does is question the premises of this argument: that only one side is responsible for this.

It seems to me that the growing conservative backlash to intrusive government has contributed to the climate of hate. But then, by the same token, so has the intrusive government acts that created the backlash. For that matter, the attitude with which certain statists have demonized and marginalized anti-statists also fed the feelings of hate and resentment. If there is a climate of hate, then all of us are responsible - not just the party that breaks first from these conditions.

Those who support the establishment - government functionaries, liberals sometimes, conservatives other times - act as if state actions are automatically legitimate, and that anybody who disagrees is a crank. Why isn't this dismissive attitude not just as responsible for the eventual violence as the resentful attitude? If civility is the order of the day, it cannot be defined merely as fitting within the narrow confines of "accepted thinking". And so extremism and hate are singled out as the problems, rather than the symptoms.

If we are to heal these divides and build a society based on some modicum of trust and appreciation, a society that can solve problems in the name of all its members and not to benefit some members over others, we have to take a step back from what we've been doing all this time and think freshly and honestly. It is incumbent on all of us - not just the side with which we disagree - to end the climate of hate. But ending that climate means addressing the causes, not the individual straw that breaks the camel's back. And that likely means a stiff challenge to the centrist, establishmentarian elites who benefit no matter which side of the debate is labelled "extremist".

Written on Sunday, January 09, 2011 | Tags: politics, hate, libertarianism, anti-government