Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Logical consequences

When I heard about the shootings at a church in Knoxville, Tennessee, I was pretty sure it was a hate crime. The church, a Unitarian-Universalist congregation, is an island of liberalism in a sea of fundamentalism. It seemed unlikely that it could be anything but a targeted attack.

It turns out, it was a hate crime: The shooter left a 4-page letter in his car in which he railed against “the liberal movement”, whom he blamed for his inability to find steady work, among other things. A loner apparently without family, several years ago the killer had threatened violence against his ex-wife and had a protection order against him. Nevertheless, he was described by one neighbour as “just a really, really nice guy.” Aren’t they nearly always?

The Associated Press stories carried by various newspaper websites (like this one) had the basic facts, but CBS News went farther. It quoted a woman who told a local newspaper that she’d told the killer her daughter had completed schooling at a bible college and, once she explained she was a Christian, the killer “almost turned angry. He seemed to get angry at that. He said that everything in the Bible contradicts itself if you read it." This is what CBS chose to use a as a pull quote, thereby making “Christians” into the victims when clearly they were not the object of the man’s attack.

This same angle was the focus of stories on right-wing websites in America. One mentioned the letter, but apparently decided it didn’t reveal the “true” motive, despite also linking to the AP story on MSNBC which headlined its story, “Police: Killer targeted church for liberal views”.

In America, it’s common for fundamentalist Christians to portray themselves as victims, though they seldom are. So it’s not surprising that the right-wing media took this angle, but it is surprising that CBS gave it so much emphasis.

CBS News also censored comments on the story that used the word “gay”, forcing commentors to use convoluted spellings like “g-a-y”, usually to verbally bash gay people (though some chose the spectacularly peculiar word “homosexualist” in their attacks). Many of the comments I saw at CBS dismissed the faith of the attacked church, as fundamentalists so often do, while others blamed christianist fundamentalism as the root cause of the attacks.

The whole thing, it seems to me, is the logical consequence of an American society that has become so polarised—especially on the topics of religion and politics—that it’s simply impossible to have a rational public discussion on these subject areas without it descending into a slanging match between opponents who seem to despise one another. Apparently, sometimes it turns deadly.

Certainly Fox Noise and talkback radio can be credited with making homophobic hatred socially acceptable in political discourse: Blaming “liberals” and “homosexuals” for everything is standard procedure for them. So, it should come as no surprise when the right-wing’s objects of hatred shout back in kind.

But democracy demands a more reasoned and rational debate, one that cannot happen without reason and rationality. Because the right-wing media won’t stop their endless attacks, it’s up to the folks in the centre—the majority, in other words—to demand something different. I’m not optimistic that they’ll get it. In fact, I suspect more of this sort of violence will be the result of the current culture of incivility.


d said...

I didn't hear about this until I read your post. However, once I clicked on my Google homepage, and checked out my "Google News" (US tab), I saw the headline: "Police: Man shot churchgoers over liberal views" (The Associated Press).

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with your observation that the media's preference for polarized rhetoric has created an atmosphere hostile to rational discussion.

The public is continually bombarded by angry messages, editorialists who never admit faults or engage in healthy decision-making, and the hyperbole only seems to mount higher and higher. Is it that surprising that, in this environment, there are individuals who feel that violent reactions are appropriate?

Not that I'm placing all the blame on the media, but it's a sad state of affairs. What a terrible situation.

Roger Owen Green said...

Oh, it's talk radio and talk TV (Jerry Springer was a prime example) and the particularly nasty Republican Congress elected in 1994 and a host of others. I came across a discussion of a black "Disney princess" and the rhetoric in the LOCs was astonishing venal.

Anonymous said...

I actually attended this church as a child in the mid seventies and I remember it as a fun happy hippie place. It's been a bit of a shock.

The local paper's web site has had very good coverage throughout as information has become available - http://www.knoxnews.com/

It's mildly notable that this guy lives in Powel, a ruralish rednecky suburb of Knoxville.

Though pretty much everyone there wouldn't support him going nuts in this particular way it's a fact that his outlook is harmonious with an attitude that contributed to me skipping the country.

I don't want to give the impression that most folks in East Tennessee are like but that I'll guess there's a serious hard core 30% - which turns out to be enough to sway others.

Jason in DC said...

I read some of the comments about this on the story the Washington Post ran on their site. I have to say I was amazed at the venom in some of the posts. Well maybe not all that amazed maybe I should say sad.

I think this in part comes from all the things you mentioned. But I also think it comes from the use of technology that so removes people from other people.

Read some of the posts out loud. Can you imagine the majority of people saying them to another person or in public? Probably not.

If you don't have to face a person face to face, it seems you are far more likely to come up with some of these statements. It also helps that the internet can so obscure a person's identity.

It would be ever so nice if the level of the shouting could be brought down some. It might actually lead to less of these horrible events and force people to talk to each other rather than shout.

Arthur Schenck said...

D: Yeah, at the time the AP coverage was pretty good. ABC (America) News that night suggested it may have been a hate crime, while CBS ignored that entirely (the story I referred to was published online the next day).

Mark: The media sometimes claims that it only reflects society's attitudes, but I think they're ducking responsibility for the extent to which they shape those attitudes. There's plenty of blame to go around, but no one in the media seems willing to stop the coarseness and polarisation.

Roger: I agree with you, especially about the 1994 Republican Congress. Personally, I put much of the blame for this polarisation onto Newt Gingrich and his Contract on America. He pioneered the one-eyed, slash-and-burn, to hell with our opponents attitude that's had the Republican Party by the throat ever since. He started the politics of hate and division, and his successors in the Republican Party perfected it, especially Karl Rove who made it into a high art form.

Reed: Thanks for adding the local perspective. Knoxnews has been pretty good, publishing details that other MSM are afraid to report.

Jason: "Sad" is a good word for it. I read comments all over the place and at first I was kind of shocked, but overall it was just sad. I should add that I was also sometimes surprised by calm, rational and intelligent comments I saw at otherwise venomously right wing sites. Maybe there's some hope left after all.

Your point about the technology is a good one. People do find it easier to hate from afar and to spew hatred anonymously. Maybe that's what's helped raise the volume of that shouting.