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General News    H4'ed 1/19/11

When Generosity, Love, and Kindness are Public Policy, the Violence We Saw in Arizona will Dramatically Diminish

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The attempted assassination of Congresswoman Giffords and the murder of so many others in Arizona has elicited a number of policy suggestions, from gun control to private protection for elected officials, to banning incitement to violence on websites either directly or more subtly (e.g., Sarah Palin's putting a bull's-eye target on Giffords' congressional district to indicate how important it would be to remove her from the Congress).

On the other hand, we hear endless pleas to recognize that the assassin was a lonely and disturbed person whose choice of Hitler's Mein Kampf as one of his favorite books reflects his own troubled soul, not his affinity to the "hatred of the Other" that has manifested in anti-immigrant movements that have spread from Arizona to many other states and in the United States and has taken the form of anti-Islam, discrimination against Latinos, and the more extreme right-wing groups that preach hatred toward Jews.

The problem with this debate is that the explanatory frame is too superficial and seeks to discredit rather than to analyze. I fell into this myself in the immediate aftermath of the murders and attempted assassination. I wrote an op-ed pointing to the right wing's tendency to use violent language and demean liberals and progressives, and its historical tie to anti-Semitism and anti-feminism. Once I heard that the arrested assassin had a connection to Hitler's Mein Kampf, I reacted from my own childhood pain at realizing that most of my extended family had been murdered by the Nazis. So I pointed to the current violent language used by the right-wing radio hosts and some of the leaders and activists of the Tea Party, and how their discourse helps shape the consciousness of those in pain and provides them with a target.

But the problem really is much deeper, so I'm sorry I put forward an analysis that was so dominated by my own righteous indignation that it may have obscured a deeper analysis, and mistakenly insinuated that all Arizonans were responsible for the racism in the current policies toward immigrants and that all people on the Right embrace the hate rhetoric of some of their most extremely popular hate addicts like Glenn Beck, or the ignorance of history that led Sarah Palin to label as "blood libel" the criticisms directed at her. Some people even thought that in mentioning that Congresswoman Giffords is Jewish that I was somehow suggesting that I would care less if she were not -- so I also apologize for being sloppy enough to allow that interpretation -- very far from my intent, since I believe that all people are equally created in God's image, and for that reason I've been an outspoken critic of Israel's treatment of Palestinians (though also a critic of Hamas' violence against Israeli civilians).

I apologize again, as much for the tone of anger as for the content of that kind of generalization. And although Michael Bader has made a persuasive case that we must challenge media that pretends that use of threats of violence comes as much from the Left as the Right (see his piece here), I was very happy that President Obama's call for tolerance and mutual respect seemed to be getting a good response across the political spectrum (and only wish that his call to avoid violence was adopted by his own administration in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen and around the world -- apparently unaware that if you train your own population to go kill people around the world, some will come home with a love of guns and a certainty that violence and toughness are the ways to deal with problems).

So here is the analytic key to understanding what we must do:

We live in a society in which the fundamental framework of meaning to life has broken down as the ethos of selfishness, materialism, looking out for number one, and "making it" at all costs, endemic to the capitalist order and a part of all previous class based or patriarchal societies. People increasingly see each other through the framework of "what can YOU do to advance my interests, pleasures, or desires?" People are valued by the capitalist order to the extent that we can help the elites of wealth and power increase their wealth and power. When we no longer can, we find ourselves unemployed and desperate to survive economically, socially ostracized, and lonely.

No wonder, then, that so many people decide that the only rational behavior is to maximize their own advantage and pursue their own self-interest without regard to the consequences for others. In so doing, we mis-recognize each other, and are in turn mis-recognized by everyone else. Instead of being seen as the embodiment of a sacred or holy or God energy (what religious people call "being created in God's image"), we are seen as beings whose primary value is based on whether we can fulfill someone else's agenda. And in that sense, we are not recognized for who we most really and deeply are! This mis-recognition makes us feel lonely and misunderstood by almost everyone.

When surrounded by people who only see you in these narrow utilitarian or instrumental terms, many people feel lonely (even inside their own families) and devalued. Of course, this plays out differently for different people. Some will simply become depressed and withdrawn. Others seek comfort in alcohol, drugs, sexual promiscuity, or promiscuous consumption of material things. Still others will seek the momentary experience of solidarity with someone at a football or baseball game when their team is winning, or in a religious or political movement that affirms their value but demeans everyone outside their side, or even in the fantasized community they access through Facebook or other online adventures.

And then there are many who find no such compensatory framework for the real pain that they share with so many millions of others. They become lonely and withdrawn and retreat into their own fantasy world, and in more extreme cases become mentally ill or otherwise dysfunctional. It is a huge mistake to imagine that these conditions develop independent of the social order -- just ask yourself why the proportion of violence in the US compared to our population is so much greater than that in other advanced industrial societies (clue: it is not in our genes, it is in the way we have organized our society).

We at the Network of Spiritual Progressives have called for a new kind of politics that seeks to build a society based on love, kindness and generosity -- we call it "The Caring Society -- Caring for Each Other, Caring for the Earth."

Several of the people who knew the assassin said that they knew that he was acting weird and felt the need to stay away from him. A community college ousted him. No one thought to organize a group of people to reach out to him, to help him out of his isolation or to get him connected to professionals who might treat him. That is just not part of the ethos of a "looking out for number one" society. Too many people have been taught to think "don't get involved with someone else's problems -- it might get you into trouble in unpredictable ways."

So many people walk by the homeless, angry at them for having reminded us of the daily suffering caused by an economic system of which we are part but which we do not think we could change without spending a lot more energy than we have, and risking potentially dangerous confrontations with the rich and powerful forces that control our society. We don't want to get involved with them, not only because doing so may open us to be vulnerable to their suffering, but also because we ourselves don't feel that we've gotten the recognition we deserve for our own suffering, so "why should I spend my time involving myself with these strangers whose suffering would only add to my burden, particularly since I doubt I have the capacity to do much for them?"

Too many people imagine that we can simply turn our back on the suffering of others, or control it through a military, police, and psychiatric system when the daily barrage of media propaganda hasn't been sufficient to keep the "dangerous others" in line. Yet we are mistaken, because the suffering of others cannot be escaped and manifests in the election of increasingly right-wing politicians, in crime, and in psychotic behavior from people who may someday enter our personal space in a violent way as did the assassin in Tucson! At your local supermarket, or on the highways, or in a movie theatre or coffee shop or in a shopping mall, or where your children go to school! It has already happened in all of these places, and it will get worse!

Or perhaps you imagine you could just stay in your home and never leave, and thus be protected? A far more rational, though by no means easy, way to get lasting protection for yourself and your children or grandchildren is to create the Caring Society. To duck out of this necessity by simply labeling people as psychotic really misses the point of how much the social order we are part of is daily generating bizarre and self- and other-destructive behavior. As someone who was himself a psychologist for twenty years before becoming a rabbi, I can assure you that the absence of these kind of insights in the field of psychology deeply limits the amount of help that psychologists are able to deliver to us when trying to handle the mass psychology of alienation, estrangement and violence.

Creating a caring society would require a new bottom line so that every social and governmental policy, every corporation, every school and university, and even every personal behavior is judged to be rational, productive or efficient not only to the extent that it maximizes money or power, but also to the extent that it maximizes love and caring, kindness and generosity, and ethical and ecological sensitivity, as well as enhances our capacity to respond to the universe with awe, wonder and radical amazement at the grandeur and mystery of all that is. Allow yourself to imagine a society based on these principles, teaching them in schools, making them the core of the message of the media, and rewarding the behavior of those who embody this New Bottom Line in their work world and/or in their personal lives. This is the Public Policy that would make a huge reduction in violence in our lives and our society!!! 

Two major policy initiatives embody this approach and need your support:

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Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun and national chair of the Tikkun Community/ Network of Spiritual Progressives. People are invited to subscribe to Tikkun magazine or join the interfaith organization the Network of Spiritual Progressives-- "both of which can be done by (more...)
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