You can’t put out a Fire with Gasoline – A Reaction to reactions to the Giffords Shooting

For the past few months, I have been working with Matt Motyl and Jon Haidt on a website that promotes research based methods for increasing civility in politics.  The desire to increase civility in politics is not new, having been parodied as the cliche-d dream of PhD Poli Sci students and recently promoted by Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity, but it has obviously been taken to a new level with the tragic shooting of congresswoman Gabriel Giffords and many others, with politicians on both the left and the right, calling for a less heated atmosphere.

Predictably, the response to the shooting has taken on a partisan tinge, with each side claiming that Loughner, the shooter, is a far-right activist, evidenced by his interest in Ayn Rand, or a far-left activist, evidenced by his interest in the Communist Manifesto.  More indirectly, those on the left have blamed the right for their militant rhetoric, while those on the right have pointed out that the left sometimes uses similar rhetoric.

Some on the left have pointed out that the use of extreme rhetoric is unbalanced, and while I don’t think this is necessarily wrong, I think it is a mistake to focus upon, especially for liberals and those who want less divisiveness in politics.  It sets up an “us vs. them” dynamic at a time when all leaders, including Republicans that are sometimes characterized as obstructionist, are open to unity.

Have you ever noticed that liberal churches often have the word ‘unity’ in their title?  That conservatives want to solve health care by increasing competition across state lines?  That liberals prefer diplomatic, while conservatives prefer military solutions to conflicts?  Doesn’t it seem as if Fox News sees purportedly unbiased (e.g. NPR is run by fascists) and moderate (e.g. the Rally to Restore Sanity) entities as greater existential threats than the more obviously opposed, MSNBC?

Liberalism is congruent with cooperation, while conservativism is oriented toward competition.  In social science, linguist George Lakoff shows how conservatives use the language of competition.  In psychology, Morton Deutch’s considerable work was inspired by the difference between competitive and cooperative systems and his work can be explicitly connected to liberal-conservative differences.  Consider the below YourMorals data showing that liberals feel less warm towards sports fans than conservatives.

Neither cooperation or competition is inherently superior as there are situations where each is needed.  Sometimes war is the only way to prevent injustice (e.g. stopping Hitler) or competition does lead to greater productivity (e.g. capitalism vs. communism).  However, competitive framing  and divisiveness is likely to increase both conservativism and vitriolic rhetoric (see this page on how competition leads to incivility) and most Americans now say that, at least in politics, competition for office has gotten out of hand, at the expense of cooperation on policy and now at the expense of innocent lives.    We are in a moment when moderates on both sides of the aisle are preaching unity and civility, which should naturally lead to less divisiveness, threatening to marginalize extremists on both sides.  If there is anything that the killer’s reading list is indicative of, it is of extremism, not any particular political view. As such, those liberals who are using these events to specifically attack conservative rhetoric, further polarizing debate, are fighting a fire with gasoline.

- Ravi Iyer

ps. if you are interested, here is Jon Haidt’s reaction to these events.

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