Monday, January 17, 2011

The pitfalls of playing games with sociology

)Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 1/16/2011

Seems everyone wants to play the sociologist following the attempted murder of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords. Even before the most basic facts were known, is she alive or dead, journalists, pundits, ministers, and the internet echo chamber began to weigh in on why this happened and what it means.

As a (real) sociologist, I thought I’d critique the (questionable) sociological analyses and debates I’ve seen in the last few days.
First, no sociologist is going to claim that the shooter was motivated by a culture of hate; at least not without a lot more evidence that he read or listened to any particular speech and it clearly motivated him. Even that would be unusual as sociologists are usually not in the business of explaining a specific individual’s behavior. For those who want to make a connection between any kind of speech and behavior, better to look at rates. Increasing rates of X (speech) should precede certain behaviors Y (murder attempts on members of congress).

Second, there is a difference between an “explanation” for something and “blaming/excusing.” Too many want to blame Sarah Palin or Rush Limbaugh or any other easy target (because they engage in the objectionable speech) for the murders and attempted murders. Overheated language works. Part of the reason for Limbaugh’s, Palin’s, and others who resort to vitriol is because it works. Our culture approves of such language. If it didn’t there would be no mass audience for it. Indeed, my own essays would be more popular, if I were to write that Rush Limbaugh should be castrated and fed his own genitalia for his role in killing Christina Green, an innocent child. I care for my credibility and integrity over whatever attention that might bring. The price is I don’t have a huge passionate following. But I digress.

Third, if “speech” has any affect on behavior, then it will have affects on “bad” behavior and “good” behavior. So, for those who would deny that the vitriolic and violent (can I just say dehumanizing?) speech doesn’t affect anyone to do anything “bad” then don’t turn around and suggest that some kinds of speech, like rote prayer and ritualistic bible reading in schools, is going to create “good” behaviors. The same goes for those who would quickly point to rifle sites on a map as contributing to political violence can’t then deny that the speeches of anti-American Islamic clerics aren’t inciting terrorists to act. (And vice versa.)

Fourth, when people like “us” do terrible things, “we” quickly distance ourselves from them. The easiest way to do that is to say they are crazy, insane, and sick. As much as people are mistaking the connection between perceived increases in dehumanizing political speech and this particular act of political violence (it may not turn out to be political violence), it is just as much a mistake to diagnose him as insane. And those who have so distanced themselves from him by calling him insane, would they as quickly accept that as a defense for his actions? Just as those who want to connect his actions to the dehumanizing speech, would they accept that as a defense for what he did? “Rush and Sarah made me do it.” (This is related to the second observation above.)

Fifth, too much of the debate goes like this: “your speech is violent and incites violence.” “Well, both sides do it.” “Show me where my side has ever put gunsights on a webpage or was filmed shooting a cap and trade bill.” “What about Obama’s ‘if you get into a knife fight, we’ll bring a gun’.”

The “both sides do it” may be accurate but it ignores asymmetries. Are Republicans and Democrats receiving the same level of threats, vandalism, and heckling? If Democrats are receiving more violent threats and acts of violence toward them, as Congresswoman Giffords experienced after her election, the asymmetry suggests one side has more followers accepting of violent solutions.

“Who” says it matters. Your “crazy uncle” who forwards vile and racist screeds about Mexicans, Obama, and Arabs is different than when someone in a position of societal authority, like a politician, religious leader, or celebrity says the same things or sanctions them. High status people legitimize the ideas and practices. Their actions and speech are more impactful than your “crazy uncle.” This is why we use celebrity endorsements of products (or political positions) to influence people’s behavior.

Don’t commit sociology without a license.

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