Why Civility Matters


from kvoa.com

Palin aide Rebecca Mansour comments that drawing a line between the shootings in Arizona and Palin, or presumably any other, political rhetoric is “obscene”. She adds “where I come from the person that is actually shooting is the one that’s culpable.” Well, it is actually far more complicated. I would like to add a psychological perspective to Matt Bai’s sound analysis of the role of political discourse in the Arizona shootings. I’m not an expert in the psychology of assassins. I am however a mental health expert who has worked in a previous hospital position with mentally ill people, some of whom were also convicted killers, and in one case, a mob assassin. My reasons for seeing a connection between Loughner’s behavior and vitriolic political rhetoric stems from an understanding of how people function. The breaking of even minor civil boundaries supports the expression of raw and unexamined impulses in anyone, let alone someone who is mentally ill.

For example, when many people are trapped in an elevator and one person has an intense emotional outburst, other people will also lose the ability to discipline their fear. This would be especially true of children or anyone else whose defenses are more fragile.

Civility serves as a psychological boundary. Internalized social rules act to regulate behavior and transform raw emotions into thoughtful considerations of self and other. Political leaders symbolize social norms. Individuals recognize in their leaders the emulation of boundaries that delineate what is acceptable from what is not.  For some well-organized people this type of modeling is unnecessary, and they can tolerate some flexibility. They know the rules. Those who are very young, less balanced and who struggle with mental illness they need all the help they can get to contain themselves. When a mentally ill person feels the urge to kill, social mores help contain those impulses. Hopefully the containment will provide a killer time to moderate his feelings.  When social leaders flippantly use metaphors of violence, or suggest the need for armed resistance – even if done as political tongue-in-cheek – the mentally ill person who has legal access to a semi-automatic pistol will understand this as permission to act on their impulses.

The rules that govern a parliament or a congress enable intense debate to take place while preserving the social contract. The reason that it is unacceptable to accuse the President of lying in a state of the Union address, or to use shotgun crosshairs to target political opponents, or to discuss political differences in terms of armed revolt is because those boundary violations permit anyone, and I mean anyone, to disregard their internal regulatory system and instead to act upon the pull of their internal demons.   Metaphors of violence become a kind of societal permission for the relinquishing of self control.

It isn’t a cause and effect type thing. People will behave violently and assassins will kill.  Civility toward one another, no matter what the differences are between us, serves only the purpose of not providing the context that will support any person’s insanity. It won’t prevent violence.  It will however limit the power of any individual to enact their breakdown.  Gun control would also help.

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One Response to “Why Civility Matters”

  1. Carey Caccavo Wheaton Says:

    Susan, I love your piece. Many people are weighing in, and some are saying that making observations about what’s been happening is ‘finger pointing’…

    Hatred in the face of injustice is not the answer, but neither is complacency. I agree we all need to take responsibility for our own rhetoric. And… if you search the blogs, listen to talk radio, watch TV, you must observe that the violent, scary and hateful rhetoric coming from the extreme right has somehow taken hold and moved into the mainstream. Where are the moderate Republicans? We need you!

    The left, unless I am missing something, is not doing this: inciting violence, whipping crowds into a frenzy, shouting lies, race-baiting, twisting facts into falsehoods (“death panels”?!?) etc. I confess I was upset with some lefties for dissing the President, right before he (ahem) scored a few bipartisan legislative victories; but at least their tone was one of frustration and anger, but not hate.

    I experienced Tea Party people close up, who traveled to our county solely to taunt and interrupt and shout lies at our local elected representative.. they literally yelled the exact opposite of the truth about our rep– clearly generic talking points given to them to use to disrupt, as they knew nothing about her. I wonder how much they had been paid.

    It was more than unsettling… a new level of scary. I was relieved that no guns were pulled, but I’ll tell you, it shook my basic trust, and I went home and couldn’t sleep that night. It felt medieval…. images from BraveHeart were haunting me.

    Once again, uneducated people are being manipulated by billionaires into supporting policies that benefit the wealthiest and completely disregard their own interests. Sad!!

    And the level of rudeness, disrespect, sarcasm, and lies presented as facts in public discourse has escalated frighteningly in our culture. And are younger generations now growing up thinking this is normal?? Perhaps. President Obama, whatever you think of him, is a gentleman…and called for a return to pubic civility in government, in The Audacity of Hope. He has acted respectfully even toward people whose sole stated priority was to make him fail, at any cost to him or to the nation.

    What are we to do? Can we point out injustices, blow the whistle, but resist the level of vitriol coming at us? I think so.

    I respect anyone who is responsible, fair, truthful and non-violent in their actions and speech, and I will ask the same of myself. We may all have differing convictions about what’s right for America, but we need to be able to have safe public discourse.

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