Friday, January 14, 2011

Responsibility Is Not Blame

...or, "I've got a funny feeling about this."

The cardinal Buddhist precept is an abstention from taking life. To keep this precept in an absolute sense is impossible. We eat, we till the earth, we kill with every step we take. So the precept invites us to pay attention to how our life costs other life, noticing that we are involved in life and death and bear some responsibility for the life consumed in order to sustain our own. It is about assuming responsibility for something larger than our individual identity.

The attempted assassination of a Congresswoman last week, in which twenty people were shot at a shopping mall in Tucson, has generated a lot of noise and argument about whether a violent culture influenced the perpetrator. It has also, weirdly, become an occasion to talk about -- Sarah Palin. Victims were eulogized and buried, flags were hoisted, and the media find time for a circus around Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck.

As more information is made public about the alleged killer, Mr. Jared Loughner, it is increasingly clear to a general audience that the man was crackers. There is no coherent political ideology, and I have my doubts he could understand or process any party's violent rhetoric. He was terribly unwell, and was not pulled off the road in time. Indeed, he was permitted to purchase a semi-automatic handgun and ammunition, although one store did turn him away.

So there has been a lot of talk about blame and I've been wondering if the distinction between responsibility and blame has gotten lost.

There is no blame to spread around here. There is no evidence to suggest Loughner was egged on or assisted by anybody directly in plotting and carrying out this act. To a degree, the lone gunman theory stands, and you don't have to be a clinician to hypothesize that Mr. Loughner was not rational.

Even so, I changed my Facebook profile picture. Let me explain that. I had a profile picture on Facebook that showed me with a gun. It was a still from a movie in which I played a gunman. This had nothing to do with the shooting in Arizona, and yet once this horrific event took place in real life, it just felt funny to have that picture up there. So I changed it.

No, I'm not blaming myself for Tucson. And yet, I am an actor in this culture, and I have appeared in violent movies that are produced for entertainment. What's up with that?

Sarah Palin is no more to blame than I am. Yet we are both part of the backdrop, both of us have contributed to a culture that glorifies violence.

There are perhaps a few things we are feeling funny about, after this event. It's not about blaming ourselves, or blaming Fox, or blaming this that and the other. Taking responsibility is not about casting blame. In fact, casting the blame can be the opposite of taking responsibility.

There is a background, a culture that upholds easy access to guns and violent metaphors about politics. There is a history of political violence right up to the present day. There is also general knowledge that mental illness is stigmatized, and that people who show signs of needing help often do not get it. These are not factors for blame, but it is reasonable that they come up when we think about Tucson. We have some responsibility here.

Maybe we can finally have a conversation about gun rights. We want a right to hunt and to defend ourselves, but do we need easy access to semi-automatic handguns designed to kill a lot of people quickly?

Maybe we can talk about the influence of advertising and speech on our culture, and choose our metaphors with more wisdom and responsibility.

Maybe we can stop blaming the Palin, the Beck, and the Limbaugh, and take responsibility for them, too.

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