Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Violence: False Positives

Glenn Reynolds links to Josh Marshall's essay at Talking Points Memo, where Marshall claims the political right has a deep-seated problem with violence. My first thought was "Yeah, so deep-seated that we haven't seen it for decades," reacting off the amount of public violence we have seen from the right. In further contrast, I was remembering that the FBI considers eco-terrorism the primary domestic threat in America, with $200M in damages.

But other people can go on at length on such issues. I should bring what I know about myself, that others do not.

I know these people, whether left or right - or at least I know the ones from NH. I have worked in acute psychiatric emergencies most of my 30 years at the state psychiatric hospital. I know people willing to be violent on behalf of their causes, real or imagined. I know people who have been violent on behalf of their causes.

I am not any national expert, nor have I done any scientific research in the area. I have only observations, reflecting my own biases (well to the left when I started, well to the right now). But scanning my memory, I am speaking from a familiarity with about four dozen individuals, a few of which have made the national news. In general, these folks are unclassifiable politically, as they are mixed in many ways. Given that limitation, I think that those on the right tend to hole up with weapons, believing themselves under attack, while those on the left tend more to strike outward, seeking to create a splashy situation. I won't guess what that means for more normal folks, if anything.

But Marshall's comment sets up another line of thought for me: who are each of us afraid of?. He minimizes the violence on the left, referring to "animal rights activists who freed a bunch of gerbils." He perceives no danger from the left, perhaps because he himself is not in danger from Black Panthers or union thugs. Similarly, those on the right may not perceive much danger from rightists bringing guns to health care town halls, figuring they are unlikely to be targets themselves. Josh Marshall, OTOH, may worry that he could be a target.

Fair enough. Our impression of personal danger may overwhelm our objectivity in such matters. We may all unconsciously realize what groups we are unlikely to run afoul of if we just live our normal lives, and regard them as relatively safe. Those from the other side of the ledger, who we can plausibly imagine being across the line from in a counter-protest situation, we might find much more spooky and unbalanced.

Here's the bad news: it doesn't work that way with unbalanced or sociopathic people. Think Lenin and Trotsky, or Sunnis Vs. Shi'ites. Nutcases are fully capable of turning their homicidal natures on those around them before those who are most opposed to them. We focus our impressions of who is dangerous because that is what our instincts tell us to do for safety. Beset by dangers, we try to identify the primary one. But our instincts are not designed well for that purpose, so we make up plausible stories to quiet our fears. These stories are usually wrong. We are seeking rational explanations for irrational behavior.


son of a preacher man said...

Have you ever read the book, The True Believer; Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements by Eric Hoffer?

bs king said...

I wonder if part of the perception of violence on the right would come from the "holing up with guns" length of incident. I mean, if an ecoterrorist blows up an SUV, it's a one day story or so. Something like the anti tax compound/standoffs drag on for days and days. Less actual violence occurs per day (if, in the end, any violence occurs at all), but it's in the news for longer.

jaed said...

it's a one day story or so

I think this may be more key. Consider the recent example of the nut who murdered Dr. George Tiller (whose name I know, and remember, primarily because of the intensity, personalization, and length of news coverage of his murder), versus the nut who murdered a soldier at a recruiting station (whose name I have forgotten, and no wonder - I didn't read it in headlines a hundred times).

The media can and do bias the perception of violence based on how and for how long they cover the stories, in other words. If for every instance of "right-wing violence", a full-court press is mounted, with front-page stories across several days, prominent pieces on the editorial page and in the newsmagazines, and occasional mentions for months afterward, each such incident sinks into the public consciousness. Particularly if in every story, it is explicitly connected to "the right wing", Republicans", "conservatives", etc. If for every instance of "left-wing violence", the incident is decently consigned to oblivion after a single brief story - with political affiliation ignored - people never associate this violence with a political position at all.

It is reminiscent of the "name that party" game, where if an elected official is corrupt or in some other trouble, his party affiliation is mentioned prominently in the headline or lead (if Republican) or else in the last paragraph after the jump or perhaps not at all (if Democratic). No one is lying. Yet the casual reader over time will get the impression that Republicans get into such trouble far more often than Democrats. It's more subtle than outright lies, but far more effective (not least because complaining about it makes the complainer sound paranoid).

Of course a lot, perhaps most, of this distortion isn't a conscious tactic. To a certain mindset, If a Republican is caught taking bribes, it's an aspect of the essential corruption of conservatives who are in the pocket of monetary interests, so it's important to mention party affiliation prominently. if a Democrat does it, it's just human weakness and party affiliation is incidental, so naturally it's not highlighted. Etc.

You can see how this goes, but if you marinate in a stew of it - and we all do - and if most of the bias is one way, you do get conditioned to see right-wing violence as a real danger and left-wing violence as nonexistent.