Wednesday, October 14, 2015

How do Republicans Rationalize Gun Violence? The Just-World Fallacy and Authoritarianism

When there is a gun massacre in the United States, Republicans and the NRA default to a predictable set of wantonly cruel, insensitive, and absurd talking points. This is a well practiced and tired script whose goal is to derail policies that would treat gun violence as a major public health issue which kills and maims tens of thousands of Americas every year.

On cue, in the aftermath of the Oregon mass shooting (which was followed by two more shootings at schools in Texas and Arizona), Republican presidential candidates such as Jeb Bush, Donald Trump, Ben Carson and others offered up pitiful comments such as “stuff happens”, fantasies where they are stars in 1980s action movies such as Dirty Harry or Death Wish who would shoot the assailant, and grotesque allusions to Jews, guns, and how armed resistance would have perhaps stopped the murders of millions of people in the Holocaust.

Such specious logic is only cogent in an alternate world that is not governed by empirical reality: slogans about “defensive gun use” and how “good guys with guns can stop bad guys with guns” are a myth and product of toxic masculinity and action movie fantasies; Jews actively resisted the Nazis; the Holocaust was enabled by how Germany was a racist, fascist, militarized country awash with firearms.

The disinformation about gun violence that is circulated by conservatives and the NRA is based on a macabre and grotesque logic which treats mass shootings (and other types of gun crimes) as a natural fixture of life in the United States. For gun obsessives, gun violence is like the weather or gravity. It is immutable and largely outside of the control of human beings.

As such, gun violence and mass shootings are a mercurial and fickle god, one to which the NRA and Republican Party eagerly makes blood sacrifices.

In this moral framework the victims of gun violence are ultimately responsible for their own suffering.

The children at Sandy Hook surely could have done something to stop Adam Lanza. The 20 students and 6 teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School could have done something to save themselves. The 12 people killed in Aurora, Colorado must have had some other option than be shot full of holes by James Eagan Holmes. The Jews in Europe, and by implication black chattel slaves in the United States, could have saved themselves from death and suffering. If only they had a gun!

(Or in the language and imagery of ammosexuals and the NRA, if Jews or African-American slaves only had their “man card” or “freedom musket” in the form of an AR-15 assault rifle, a class of weapon designed to kill with lethal efficiency and ease, they would have been safe.)

Many Americans of conscience are simultaneously aghast at and numb towards the country’s gun violence. In such a state of paralysis, they are not asking essential questions about how a worldview where victims are blamed for their own deaths impacts almost every aspect of American society.

What type of political vision is offered by such ghoulish thinking? What type of world does such a framework create?

The Republican Party’s instinctive defense of guns is part of a larger political cosmology, one that is ruled by the just-world theory:

The just-world phenomenon is a term referring to people's tendency to believe that the world is just and that people get what they deserve. Because people want to believe that the world is fair, they will look for ways to explain or rationalize away injustice - often by blaming the victim. 

Those with this belief tend to think that when bad things happen to people, it is because these individuals are bad people or have done something to deserve their misfortune. 

Conversely, this belief also leads people to think that when good things happen to people it is because those individuals are good and deserving of their happy fortune. 

The just-world theory is also a fallacy. It also encourages authoritarianism and social dominance behavior. As shown scholars working at Harvard University and UCLA:

Zick Rubin of Harvard University and Letitia Anne Peplau of UCLA have conducted surveys to examine the characteristics of people with strong beliefs in a just world. They found that people who have a strong tendency to believe in a just world also tend to be more religious, more authoritarian, more conservative, more likely to admire political leaders and existing social institutions, and more likely to have negative attitudes toward underprivileged groups. To a lesser but still significant degree, the believers in a just world tend to "feel less of a need to engage in activities to change society or to alleviate plight of social victims."

Ironically, then, the belief in a just world may take the place of a genuine commitment to justice. For some people, it is simply easier to assume that forces beyond their control mete out justice. When that occurs, the result may be the abdication of personal responsibility, acquiescence in the face of suffering and misfortune, and indifference towards injustice. Taken to the extreme, indifference can result in the institutionalization of injustice.

This political worldview is centered on a type of Right-wing, Ayn Randian, neoliberal, individualism that has little to no regard for the Common Good, or a fundamental belief in the merits of community, the necessity of a humane society, rejects human dignity, and denies the inherent worth of the public commons.

As understood by American conservatives, poor people suffer because they deserve it. Innocent black people are killed by cops because they must have somehow provoked it.

Today’s conservatives, with their just-world fallacies and authoritarian impulses, want to destroy the social safety net because the poor—racialized as black and brown lazy moochers; gendered as “welfare queens” or fecund “illegal” immigrants—are “useless eaters” who only want to take resources from White America. They are the “takers” in Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” comment or the black Americans who only want free stuff as suggested by Jeb Bush and his use of Reagan’s white supremacist Southern Strategy.

The poor are criminalized for the “crime” of being poor, subjected to drug tests, their food stamps taken away, and if they are homeless, “disappeared” because the mere sight of them in public spaces is deemed unacceptable.

The culture of cruelty and meanness that is legitimated by a just-world fallacy in which victims are blamed for their being killed in mass shootings also targets the white poor, working classes, and elderly as well. For example, when Republicans such as 2016 GOP presidential primary candidate John Kasich say that those people who depend on Social Security for some semblance of human dignity and survival in their advanced age “need to get over” having fewer benefits, he is signaling to their disposability.

In stark and undeniable ways the just-world fallacy and its authoritarianism looms over the color line. If gun fetishists and conservatives are willing to stand mute and inactive when white children are massacred in Newtown, Connecticut, they most certainly will show no sympathy or empathy when the black and brown body is made to suffer. Eric Garner screams that “I can’t breathe” while being choked to death on video by New York cops. Trayvon Martin is shot dead by a man who is now further revealed by his actions to be a racist. Michael Brown is killed by Darren Wilson, a white cop, and a confessed racist, for the Jim Crow era crime of “bumptious walking”.

And again, the just-world fallacy, now further aided by the White Gaze, deems that those black men “must have done something to deserve” being killed by a white identified street vigilante, or cops who work for police departments with significant and documented patterns of anti-black and brown racial discrimination. Of course, the American legal system, as the enforcer of the new Jim and Jane Crow, frees those police and vigilantes of any culpability.

The psychopathic behavior of the United States abroad is also enabled by the just-world theory. When the United States and its agents torture human beings as part of the “War on Terror”, kill 50 innocent people to “neutralize” one “terrorist”, or incinerate people as they lay in hospital beds while receiving care from Doctors Without Borders, the outcomes are often rationalized with a logic wherein those victims are made responsible for their own suffering.

The just-world theory and the authoritarian worldview it helps to create robs human beings of their capacity for empathy across lines of race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and nation.

America’s mass shootings and gun violence are not phenomena that are best understood in isolation. They are part of a larger pattern of behavior. America has long been, and remains, in a social and political crisis. If the United States is in decline, then the just-world fallacy, creeping and present authoritarianism, and the culture of cruelty and neoliberalism, are the heavy weights pulling it down as a real “we the people democracy” is snuffed out by the plutocrats and the other members of the 1 percent.

In all, gun violence is a secondary symptom of a deeper cultural and political cancer in the United States. Because Americans are socialized to only think of the individual--and are thus made blind to systems of power--they are now caught largely unawares…and it may be too late to save them. 

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