As I watched the coverage of the Jan 8 shootings in Arizona, I was struck by the candid statements made by Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik.
He railed, in the bloody aftermath, against what he called vitriol and hatred among politicians and in the media. He suggested that hyperbolic invective from sources of supposed credibility and leadership spurred on those already apt to flip out and commit bloody murder.
“To try to inflame the public on a daily basis, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, has impact on people, especially those who are unbalanced personalities to begin with,” Dupnik told the international media. “The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. And, unfortunately, Arizona I think has become sort of the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry.”
History is littered with horrifying stories of disinformation, fear and propaganda employed to whip frenzy and bloodlust in formerly tranquil societies. It’s a recurring phenomenon, one of which socially conscious people ought to be constantly on guard.
In this issue, Xtra reporter Andrea Houston writes her account of the Halton Catholic District School Board’s decision to ban gay-straight alliances in its schools (see page 11).
“We don’t have Nazi groups either,” board chair Alice Anne LeMay told Houston. “Gay-straight alliances are banned because they are not within the teachings of the Catholic Church.”
LeMay is no more a Nazi than I am. But just what are gay students supposed to take from that appalling remark? What about straight students? Hopefully they’ll see LeMay’s position for what it is: blind adherence to deeply flawed ideology that ignores the complex realities of human sexuality. If she had glossed over her feelings in her remarks to Houston, if she had regurgitated the mealy-mouthed public line we’ve come to expect from the Catholic Church, the story would not have earned the attention it did. I’m glad LeMay said what she said, because her remarks represent a real opportunity to explore these matters rationally and to effect positive change.
The real key to preventing that perfect storm of circumstances in which regular people are convinced to commit or tacitly approve of horrendous atrocities is not censorship or suppression of dissent. It certainly isn’t that abomination of patriotism: retreat from criticism of government. The key is to ensure that societies never reach that cusp of bloody mass insanity in the first place.
That requires education, not religious or ideological indoctrination by rote, not the suppression of dissent, but the cultivation of skills and honest curiosities among people: basic reading, problem solving, critical analysis and debate, life and social skills, arts and trades, history and lessons of mutual human, cultural and sexual respect.
The more learned people are — that is, the better equipped they are to learn and explore and analyze ideas independently and without fear — the more likely they are to build societies that recognize and rise above the political machinations of evil men and women too bent on the accumulation of power.
A truly enlightened society is much less likely to spawn young people who embark on suicide missions or shooting sprees, regardless of what they hear, see or read in the wider world. A truly enlightened society equips young people with the basic tools needed to separate fantasy from reality and nonsense from rationality.
Matt Mills is editorial director of Pink Triangle Press.