Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Rohrshach Test that is Tucson

We normally don't do politics here, unless it's the politics of science, but this week's tragedy in Tucson and all the resulting uproar over whose fault it was have gotten us thinking in a way that may be relevant to something we write about a lot on MT, and that is how to determine causation.

As we see it, this is all another Rohrshach Test -- there are those on the left blaming Sarah Palin and lack of gun control, and those on the right reminding us that the Democrats had maps with targets, too, and anyway guns don't kill people, people do.  Sadly, all predicable. 

So the politics of this tragedy are absolutely not new, everyone is trying to harness it to their own cause and view of the world.  Though, some, such as David Brooks in the New York Times, do remind us that it seems that the shooter was insane, which means there are no politics to be discussed, this is about mental health.  Though of course that doesn't take the politics of gun control or mental health care off the table, but that's not what everyone is exercised about at this moment, it's all about that damn map with the cross hairs.

Well, but how would anyone know what caused this guy to shoot a bunch of people, anyway?  And how could this be anything but a Rohrshach Test?  There's no way for science to figure out the underlying cause; we can't do a controlled experiment asking whether those exposed to Palin's map were more likely to shoot people than those not exposed; we don't have a large enough sample from which to make generalizations or draw conclusions; and anyway, if the accused shooter is as mentally ill as he seems, should we believe him even if he tells us Sarah Palin bought him the gun?  Or could we believe he wasn't aware of the right wing's vitriol against 'liberal' politicians or government in general?  Or that that message didn't percolate unaware among his insanities?  And, this abuts the larger question of how much sane people are the product of their times, and what that says about our responsibility for our actions.   

In truth, though, all we know for certain about this event is that it is a tragedy for a number of families, and for the country, at a polarized time in our history.

But are we in fact more polarized than ever before?  It is arguable that the Democratic and Republican parties are closer together ideologically than they've ever been.  Yes, there are some issues that aren't open to compromise -- the death penalty, abortion, war, e.g. -- but where you come down on these issues isn't necessarily a mark of your party affiliation.  Perhaps in fact we are more polarized culturally than politically -- religious affiliation, NASCAR, no NASCAR, tennis or football, Thai food or hamburgers, etc., and that's what is behind this "political" discussion.  It's not unique or particular to us to have political assassinations, so in that sense the hand-wringing could be misplaced by trying to make this specific rather than about generic aspects of human tragedy--both political and medical--that litter our history as a species. 

To connect this incident (somewhat forcedly, we admit) to MT's biology theme, in his Malay Archipelago, Alfred Wallace, Darwin's evolutionary co-conspirator, wrote about incidents of people running amok in the Indonesian islands he visited in his many years collecting specimens in the region.  Although commonly used in a colloquial and less-violent sense, the phrase is particularly associated with a specific sociopathic culture-bound syndrome in Malaysia. In a typical case of running amok, a male who has shown no previous sign of anger or any inclination to violence will acquire a weapon and, in a sudden frenzy, will attempt to kill or seriously injure anyone he encounters. Amok episodes of this kind normally end with the attacker being killed by bystanders, or committing suicide.

So we here in our time didn't invent this. And the 'debate' over what really caused the tragedy in Tucson will never be resolved.  All we'll ever know for certain is that someone with a gun pulled the trigger, people were killed or wounded and lives were irrevocably, tragically changed.  But the nature of politics and people is such that the narrative by which we will all continue to explain this particular event to ourselves, often to suit our own personal narratives, was largely predetermined.


Holly Dunsworth said...

Wow. Amazing post.

Anne Buchanan said...

Thanks, Holly.

Ken Weiss said...

On Sept 10th 2001, Anne coined 'the 9/11 syndrome' Everyone, horrified by the attacks, said "Aha! I told you so!" But what did they mean?

The Republicans meant that they told us so, that the US should be meaner in its global imperialism to have stamped out these enemies long ago, and if we were this wouldn't have happened.

The Democrats meant that they told us so, that the US should be a better world citizen, and if we were this wouldn't have happened.

Even in science, most new results are interpreted in the light of the beholder.