I have believed for years that toxic social environments breed violence

I have believed for years that toxic social environments breed violence, especially among the mentally ill.
Where I come from in Arizona, ambitious politicians were doing the Trump routine back in 2010, exploiting fear of Mexican immigrants and fostering hatred of the “elites” that were supposedly selling out the country. My friend Gabrielle Giffords, seeking reelection to Congress, was trying to present a calmer message and was taking enormous levels of heat.
On January 8, 2011, unemployed restaurant worker Jared Loughner who had been listening to all the angry rhetoric and was obsessed with his own ideas of government conspiracies took a Glock down to one of Gabrielle’s events and shot her in the head. She survived, but will never recover. My friend and fellow campaign worker Gabe Zimmerman was killed, along with five others.
The media narrative settled on the old simplistic “isolated act of a deranged gunman” narrative, and I thought it was bullshit and argued so in a book called “A Safeway in Arizona,” which disappeared quickly and got harshly criticized in some quarters for suggesting that the vituperative politics and the culture of loneliness in the urban Southwest played strong aggravating roles in my friend’s murder.
I believe this just as strongly today, and so when two guys get stabbed to death on the Portland metro for coming to the aid of a Muslim woman taking harassment from a stranger ranting about how she should go back to her country, or when a reporter gets slammed to the ground for asking a legitimate question of a Congressional candidate (and many cheer), I can assure you that it isn’t happening in isolation from a politically-created social environment.
When the room gets mean, we also get mean. We are far more mechanistic than we would like to believe.
And there is no overlap between mental illness and intelligence. They read and they listen.

34 thoughts on “I have believed for years that toxic social environments breed violence

  1. I found it hard to believe that your book, which on a very basic level posited that culture and violence are correlated, was so harshly criticized by many conservatives. Don’t conservatives believe that violent lyrics in rap music encourage violence, that violent rhetoric within Islam promotes terrorism, etc? Stating that culture and violence are connected should be, and I would guess probably is for 99% of people, an obvious fact.

    1. It wasn’t just conservatives. I actually really like the guy who dinged me here, and he’s today a good pal, but he thought I lacked proof (seemed pretty apparent to me) and that the “center” of the incident wasn’t yet determined. Not sure when that would ever happen to anyone’s satisfaction. http://articles.latimes.com/…/la-ca-tom-zoellner-20120101

  2. I remember reading this a while back. I don’t remember you ever making the case that the shooting was directly attributable to rhetoric, as in a 1 to 1 correspondence, but rather making the broader point that violent rhetoric could have set the stage for the attack. Perhaps your friend would have preferred an argument based on broad statistics, but still, even in individual cases, your argument seems very mainstream. Does anyone think that Ruby Ridge or, in more recent news, the shooting at that Washington pizza place are divorced from our social environment? Or that Nidal Hasan wasn’t influenced by the toxic culture he found online? No clue why this point is so controversial.

  3. Tom…Every day I see you ranting and raving on FB. Who’s to say that you are not contributing to the problem.

    And politicizing the Gifford’s incident is pretty irresponsible. Those of us in Tucson that have read about this event all know people that were injured understand that this was a mentally ill person who had no political motivation.

    Disappointing to read this nonsense.

    1. Ranting and raving about tolerance and rationality and helping each other, which seem to be among Tom’s favorite topics, may be contributing to A problem, but not THE problem.

  4. I dare because it was not political. The guy was disturbed and not incited by Trump or any other political commentator.

  5. Of course he was disturbed. Should I then say that, hey, it didn’t matter. The guy was just disturbed?

    1. We have to find something criminal to be able to scrape him out of there. Then the Republican house and senate will have no choice but to impeach and remove him from office. …. I hope.

  6. What happened in Portland is a terrible thing but I don’t think it fits your narrative. Which would be more convincing if (a) media effects theory wasn’t largely bullshit and (b) you were more consistent when it came to softheads who get their noggins filled with kill the infidel bullshit down at their local mosque.

    1. I don’t think TZ has ever made the claim that terrorist recruits aren’t poisoned by the rubbish they hear from whatever imam recruited them. I’ve no clue what “media effects theory” is but media is obviously an integral part of any culture and culture obviously has an effect on a culture’s violence so again, why is this point controversial?

    1. Good point he makes. Seems obvious! We’re social creatures and like he said, when the room is mean, we get mean. We’ve all seen this first-hand over the past year.

  7. Loughner was a paranoid schizophrenic. Is the claim that the rate of violence in paranoid schizophrenics is correlated with the political climate? That sounds pretty easily demonstrable if true.

    1. People with schizophrenia in America respond with more violence and hear voices urging them to do violent things at a rate that people with schizophrenia in other countries do not. “But a new study suggests that the way schizophrenia sufferers experience those voices depends on their cultural context. Surprisingly, schizophrenic people from certain other countries don’t hear the same vicious, dark voices that Holt and other Americans do. Some of them, in fact, think their hallucinations are good—and sometimes even magical.” https://www.theatlantic.com/…/when-hearing…/374863/

  8. I suppose you’re right. That fellow in Texas has been listening to the press and even the president glorify Black Lives Matter for months before he slaughtered all those cops.

  9. Well said Tom. Rest in peace Gabe: a man who was always friendly and positive and trying to do good.

  10. Reasoned, rational discourse, with no name-calling or insults, is now “ranting and raving.” OK, got it.

  11. I could only get an abstract. That didn’t indicate whether schizophrenics were more violent in Austria or Pakistan. I don’t think it really needs proving that the nature of their delusions is informed by culture. Does that study control for differences in care? I’d imagine rates of violence would vary between the two countries significantly just based on that.

    1. Wow — I feel about the height of a toy solider most days, but this nice post just made my day. Thanks, Rick!

  12. In another terrible event, NPR reported today that, during a heated debate on sanctuary cities and deportation policies, a TX state legislator & member of the TX Freedom Caucus threatened to shoot a Latino fellow representative in the head!! Shameful!

    1. Is that true? Do you have some more info about that? And I’m curious to know how common this was in the past

  13. I would think the attempted murder of a politician is by its very nature a “politicized” event.

    Mental illness and political motivations are not mutually exclusive. Most people with mental illness aren’t living inside some weird box in their own head where they aren’t reached by the sociopolitical atmosphere around them.

    You could certainly say that “mental illness” was a factor in the extremes to which Loughner went, i.e. taking a gun & using it to end others’ lives. But you can’t write off his choice in time, place, and victims as just some random misfire of defective neurons.

  14. Actually the reverse seems to be the case: The Republican was threatened by several Dems, one of whom explicitly said he would follow him home and hurt him, after which the Republican said he’d shoot anyone who attacked him.

  15. It’s controversial because conservatives refuse to acknowledge that their Tea Party and Alt Right cronies beget devil disciples. Spawn of Satan.

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