Confronted with the horrific shooting of Gabrielle Giffords and six constituents who lost their lives, we all should be reminded how tremendously words matter. Giffords herself knew this.
Gabrielle Giffords was described by Alan Grayson, as “one of the most cheerful, charming and engaging people I have ever known. She’s always looking on the bright side. She has something good to say about pretty much everyone.” And yet she was subjected relentlessly to a social phenomenon that has come to be called becking:
To be “becked” is to be held up as such an evil and destructive person that someone, somewhere, will interpret it as a call to eliminate that problem through violence. The Tea Party opponent of Giffords announced a fundraiser at a shooting gallery: ” Get on Target for Victory in November/Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office/Shoot a fully automatic M15 with Jesse Kelly ” Sarah Palin published her famous “crosshairs map” with Giffords’ district in the gun sights. She hoped, perhaps, that her “lock and load” rhetoric would please her base. Perhaps it did.
As Gabrielle Giffords lies in a hospital bed with her life changed forever, her own words about Palin’s crosshairs map are particularly poignant: “The way that she has it depicted has the crosshairs of a gun sight over our district, when people do that, they have got to realize there are consequences to that.”
Giffords was right. Words have consequences. As a therapist I used to make a living off of them. Reframing a situation can rejuvenate a marriage, relieve depression, or open new career paths. It also can open darker paths. Talk therapy has power that is independent of a person’s other qualities; it can make a difference no matter where someone is on the spectrum of emotional health. The same can be said for talk media. Someone who is bitter and disturbed, even diagnosably schizophrenic, can be soothed and calmed, their fears quelled, and their life path moved in the direction of normalcy. Or they can be goaded and aroused, obsessions and paranoias deepened until they erupt.
With blood on the ground, Palin and others are trying desperately to distance themselves from their corrosive, incessant pattern of becking—lest people put two and two together. Immediately after the shooting Palin supporters began scrubbing the crosshairs image from the internet. They insisted later that it had never been intended as a weapon allusion –as if any Palin image could be divorced from the broader context of her gun talk.
If you haven’t already, you should take a look at this timeline of violent rhetoric from September through December of last year. The pattern is clear: We all live in a narrative sea of veiled threats and calls to violence. It should come as no surprise that in the voice of Palin or Beck, some hear their life’s calling. In July, Byron Williams , set off on a mission to assassinate the staff of the almost unknown Tides Foundation. Why Tides? Becking. In this case, by Glen Beck himself. Fox News had demonized Tides as a part of a vast left wing conspiracy, mentioning the Foundation 29 times over a period of months, a time when the foundation received virtually no other media coverage.
Besides their efforts to spin the Tucson massacre as an isolated incident, those guilty of violent talk are trying to promote a false dichotomy: The Tucson massacre was a result of mental illness—not becking. The proper science for understanding the situation is psychology, not sociology. They hope that they can get us to choose between the two—and that in the public mind, the evidence of a deeply disturbed individual will overshadow evidence for the flow of vitriol around him. In this, they are playing to what psychologists call the “fundamental attribution error.” We all have a tendency to attribute the ugly behavior of others to their own personal characteristics and to attribute our own ugly behavior to circumstance.
Reality can’t be split so easily. It takes fuel and a lighter to start a fire. The relentless flow of becking from politicians and pundits feeds their deepest fears and paints a bullseye on an “enemy.” Dark, angry, mentally disturbed individuals will always be among us. But Jared Lee Loughner didn’t shoot a rock star. He didn’t shoot an estranged girlfriend. He didn’t target Arizona’s Republican governor Jan Brewer. Should we tell ourselves it is an accident that his choice coincides with the rhetoric around him—around us all?
After the shooting, spin artist Tony Lee went to work—ironically– condemning those who condemn violent talk. He offered condolences. In his attempt to mitigate Palin’s blame, he had this to say: “Giffords was universally liked by Republicans and Democrats because not only because she had no airs about her, like other, more pretentious Representatives, but because she was a true consensus builder.” Would that Lee had used his way with words to promote consensus builders rather than beckers before the shots were fired.