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.