Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Causes and the Gifford Assassination Attempt

The contemporary debate over whether right-wing invective caused the assassination attempt on Congresswoman Gifford brings to mind Bertrand Russell's quip that causation is like the British royal family, it is kept around only because it is wrongly assumed to do no harm. The notion of cause and effect that Russell refers to is the naive one in which A causing B is like the puppeteer moving his hand and having the marionette pick up a leg. Scientists and philosophers, those who make inferences about cause and effect relations and who think about the nature of such relations, have not used such an overly-simplistic concept for over a century. It is reserved only for political pundits...who are kept around only because they are wrongly assumed to do no harm.

It is certainly clear that one cannot trace any given utterance by a politician or pundit to the pulling of the trigger. So, the move to the naive picture of cause and effect, of course, says that there is no connection. But what happens when we think in terms of a more realistic concept?

Consider the fact that suicides increase during recessions. Now, if we try to understand why any given person tragically took his or her own life, we would have to appeal to biographical details including romantic life and professional and financial details, as well as facts about his or her physical and psychological health. Never would we say, "Oh, if only the GDP were growing at a healthy clip this could have been avoided." But if you want to tell the true story, if you want to understand completely why this sad event occurred, in many cases you cannot neglect macroeconomic factors even if none of them are the puppeteer's string. We can call a factor a "little c" cause if it is a necessary component of the story and a "big C" Cause if it is a necessary condition, if the effect could not have occurred without it. The recession is a little c cause in many of these cases, it is for many instances a crucial part of the background of the story, but the rhetorical trick used by the pundits and politicians is to restrict the conversation to only big C causes. Since we could never say that details about the larger economy directly brought about any given suicide, it would not be allowed to be considered a cause. But, of course, it is.

Jackie Robinson and Brooks Robinson were two of the greatest third basemen in the history of baseball. But there is, of course, a major difference between them. If you were to tell the Jackie Robinson story and not include details about racism in American society in the 1940s, you would not have told the Jackie Robinson story. Such details would not be needed in telling the Brooks Robinson story, but they are an essential element of what made Jackie Robinson, Jackie Robinson.

Similarly, if you were to try to explain to your grandchildren what happened when a Congresswoman was shot in Tucson, if you were to leave out the fact that she was a Jewish Democrat, you would not have told the whole story. If your grandchildren asked why that mattered, to have it make sense to them you would have to explain that Fox News' Glen Beck would hold mock assassinations of Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi, that former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin put crosshairs over a map of congressional candidates -- including Gifford, that Senatorial candidate Sharon Angle said that "Second Amendment remedies" might be needed to reverse policy defeats, and that Bill O'Reilly was leading a campaign to make sure that people said "Merry Christmas" instead of "Happy Holidays" to let Jews know that they are not real Americans. Without a discussion of this, the story is incomplete.

It is in this way that right-wing invective is a "small c" cause. No one is claiming that it is a "big C" cause ala Charles Manson, but the limitation of the discussion to "big C" causes -- which, of course, do not exist -- is the rhetorical trick that keeps us from discussing what is really happening. The pundits and politicians can deny any culpability by falsely limiting the scope of discussion, by hiding contributions to and by the larger environment by putting the effects of the environment completely behind a veil. It is a trick, one that we should not keep falling for...the stakes are too high, it is, as we see, a matter of life and death.