The Arizona shootings are a moment for America to search its soul. The public debate about hate, anger, sanity and public life in the United States is long overdue. We have grown accustomed to thinking of ourselves as a centrist country. We imagine that others, in dark places like Rwanda, Bosnia, Pakistan, Burma and other places unblessed by our freedoms are especially susceptible to propaganda, to political anger, to personalized violence and to suicide bombing and to the random killing of innocents. Today, these issues are part of a generalized ecology of anger, in which the public sphere has become profoundly vulnerable to personal passions, disorders and rage. There is a long list of causes that are already being explored: the shooter’s motivations, the decline of civility in electoral debates, the culture of incitement in talk radio and TV commentary, the growth of take-no-prisoners partisanship, the looseness of gun laws in many states, all these are rightly being discussed. Here are a few more difficult questions for the coming discussion:
- Have Americans become as susceptible as others throughout the world to propaganda, which is another name for incitement and lies in political life? We tend to think of propaganda as the product of totalitarian regimes, of communists, of fascists, and of theocratic regimes. But propaganda is very much part of our own milieu. Anytime we hear something short, extreme and provocative, every time a politician stretches the truth to get a vote, every time a lobbyist dumps tons of dubious “facts” on the desks and screens of congressmen and senators, every time an advertisement urges us to sign on to a half-truth, we are in the space of propaganda. In many ways, many skills that the United States has pioneered, such as advertising, public relations and media campaigning, are easily convertible to the goals of propaganda. We have become accustomed to decrying the lies of mullahs, dictators and tyrants the world over. Can we face the presence of political lying in our own midst?
- Have the social media become a space for the less sane among us to imagine that they have their own constituency? The social media (notably Facebook, YouTube and Twitter) have done a lot of good in fostering long-distance friendships, affinity groups, information-sharing, business development and opinion-sharing. But these very sites also create, for those who are already lonely, alienated or angry, the illusion of an audience, and help in creating a fake public sphere, where one-way postings, tweets and rants can get enough public life to create the illusion of dialogue, conversion and support for even the most insane messages and ideas. Fake sociality is not just a source of boredom, isolation and frustration. It can become a staging ground for action among those who come to treat their cyber-lives as a form of rehearsal of violent actions in public life.
- Have we encouraged various versions of “reality TV” to define our approaches to anger, making it the subject of comedy, of disaster shows, or of vengeance dramas? It is time we looked more seriously at anger as a cultural fact of American life, and not just as a subject for entertainment and infotainment. Anger is not just a private valve to release toxic internal sentiments. Anger is the membrane between our emotional gyroscopes and our public social environments. American society has made a positive narrative of the cowboy myth, the soldier fantasy, the brutality of extreme cage-fighting and the cyber-violence of a large proportion of our video-games. Anger is now the medium in which we swim and live. Going postal now happens in schools, churches, street-corners and sports stadiums. And, of course, domestic violence continues to be epidemic in American society. In these circumstances, a public discussion of the culture of anger in American life is long overdue. To treat Jared Loughner’s anger with elected officials as totally independent of a wider culture of rage is to deny the most obvious of realities.
- Have we fully understood how metaphors can shape our political consciousness? For some time now, anthropologists and linguists have urged us to pay attention to the “mission of metaphor”, to the ways in which metaphors are not simply ways to enrich our speech when we choose but are woven into our deepest assumptions about human life, behavior and communication. Every time we celebrate a birth, a marriage, a promotion, a sports victory, or mourn a death, a defeat or a disaster, our metaphors come to our rescue and provide us with ways to make our speech match our feelings. But metaphors also work in the reverse direction and when used carelessly or cynically, they can make our actions literal translations of our words. The great English philosopher J.L. Austin spent a lifetime studying the speech acts he called “performatives”, those words that do something when they say something, like the judge’s words, “I pronounce you man and wife”. When metaphors become performatives, words morph into weapons instead of serving instead of them.
- Have we lost all respect for moderation in public life? The national debate in the wake of the deadly shootings in Arizona last week has produced a flood of calls for the return of civility, centrism and moderation to American political life. This is highly commendable. But is it realistic? We have become a winner-take-all society, where the top 2% control more wealth then the bottom 98%; where celebrity, however slight, transient or ridiculous, outshines simple decency and ordinary life at every turn; where any sign of caution or concern can be taken as a sign of “wimpiness”. Well, Jared Loughner certainly showed us that he was no wimp. American society needs to rethink the generalized worship of victory at any cost that has come to characterize its sports life, its economic life and its political life.
If we do not focus some of our national attention on these issues, we will continue to live in a make-believe world, where anger, propaganda, violence and lies are seen to be the currency of the public lives of other people in our other countries far from us. We will not understand the power of rage until we see it in our own eyes. This dialogue needs our leaders from the Church, the universities, from legislatures, from communities to join hands so that we can spread tolerance as virally and successfully as we have shown we can do with anger. If not: the fire next time.
-Arjun Appadurai is a Professor at New York University with expertise in Cultural Anthropology, Globalization, Media, Cities, & Society