It’s hard to fathom. What could possibly cause a person to make a conscious, intentional, premeditated choice to enter a mosque, in which among the hundreds of worshippers are children, and indiscriminately open fire. 49 dead and dozens more injured. And then to also decide to live stream it all for social media. It’s hard to fathom.
Apparently, the attacker was from Australia and was a proponent of white supremacy. Every time I hear of such an attack in the name of “white supremacy” I want to lash out at such folks and ask, “exactly how does your action remotely resemble ‘supremacy’ of any kind??”
I recently read an article in which the National Academy of Sciences discussed what they call “motive attribution asymmetry” - the assumption that one person’s ideology is based on love while another’s is based on hate. For instance, their researchers have determined that the average Democrat and the average Republican suffer from a level of motive attribution asymmetry that is comparable with that of the Israelis and the Palestinians. Each side believes the other is driven by evil and motivated by hatred---and therefore an enemy with whom one cannot negotiate or compromise.
People often say these days that the level of incivility or intolerance is our biggest problem. Words matter and those words do not convey adequately what is happening here and around the world. Motive attribution asymmetry leads to something worse--contempt. Not just contempt for other people’s ideas, but contempt for other people. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer defined contempt as “the unsullied conviction of the worthlessness of another”.
This is at least part of what lies behind the tragedy in New Zealand. One man convinced himself of the worthlessness of others. And once you convince yourself of that, killing them in cold blood is suddenly a viable option. And in the mind of someone so thoroughly indoctrinated, such an act even feels “heroic”.
So what now? These types of attacks are becoming more, not less, frequent. Does anyone believe they are simply going to stop on their own? It doesn’t help that social media and the online hate community continue to breathe oxygen into the minds of such people. Can anything be done to stem the tide?
I believe there is. First, we who recognize the danger of all this must vow never to participate in it. We must never shy away from our responsibility to call out such hate when we see it or hear it. We participate in it when we fail to speak up. It was Edmund Burke who said, “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good (people) to do nothing.”.
One of the researchers in the article also gave another course of action. Some of us may want to find ways to disagree less. That sounds admirable, but the researcher points out that what we really need is not to learn how to disagree less, but rather how to disagree better. And, he says, that starts when you turn away from the rhetorical dope peddlers--the powerful people on your own side who are profiting from this culture of contempt. As satisfying as it can feel to to hear that your political or religious or social foes are irredeemable, stupid or deviant just remember that when you find yourself hating something, someone is making money or winning elections or getting more famous and powerful. In other words, unless a leader is actually teaching you something you didn’t know or expanding your worldview and moral outlook, then you are being used.
Finally, we must commit ourselves never to treat another with contempt - even if you feel somehow they deserve it.
We hear a lot about climate change these days. I suggest that term is not just reserved for the weather. We are in dire need of a climate change in our culture, too. For if we continue down this path of contempt, then we should brace ourselves for more events like New Zealand’s last week.