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Dead World Walking
An Urgent Need for Responsibility
A few weeks ago, a man who rose to fame through the use of verbal and psychological abuses and manipulations on Fox “News”, Tucker Carlson, suggested that Donald Trump is a “dead man walking” and that the next “logical step” of his “persecution” was assassination. Carlson’s words are not so significant as predictions as much as revelations of his thought process, with the goal of bolstering Trump’s narrative that he is under fire from corrupt, politically-motivated authorities who are out to sabotage his 2024 presidential campaign (and possibly some wishful thinking, too).
Indeed, nothing leads to violence as quickly as persecutory ideas, or paranoia—which is fear from the perception of exaggerated or nonexistent threats. Second to paranoia in predisposing to violence is perhaps rigidity in thinking. Reducing paranoid projections and encouraging flexibility in thinking are important aspects of working with individuals who are prone to violence.
Dead men walking is one thing, but perhaps we need to worry more about our “Dead World Walking.”
To reduce violence in the world, we need to open channels of communication. Defending free speech is important, because diversity in discourse combats propaganda, increases room for education, critical thinking, and flexibility, and—indeed—diminishes actual persecution. Succumbing to censorship because of fear or intolerance paves the way for more loss of rights and more actual reasons for fear.
Rights come with responsibilities. Simone Weil stated in The Need for Roots that obligations are more fundamental than rights, because rights would not exist without fulfilling the obligations to protect them. For the same reason, Viktor Frankl proposed in Man’s Search for Meaning that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented with a “Statue of Responsibility” on the West Coast.
So what does responsibility with respect to speech look like? Certainly, it involves listening. The French dictum, “Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner,” or, “To understand all is to forgive all,” holds true not because unforgivable acts become forgivable, but because with understanding we come to see our common humanity, the tragic cycle of violence that affects us all, and—if we truly sought to understand all—how we can indeed work together to eliminate the violence and not our humanity.
The more open we are to hearing other points of view, to learning new information, and to exercising our ability to think outside the box, the more we can harness the power of our minds. We can turn almost any carnage into an opportunity for diplomacy—or, better, to prevent the aggression and to create allies instead (of course, for this to be possible, another essential ingredient is employing appropriate mental health principles and techniques, such as limit setting, de-escalation, and analysis of danger, where applicable).
Responsibility comes from the Latin root respondere, which means “to respond.” To respond is not to react. That Palestinian and Jewish students across campuses describe a growing sense of fear due to a rise in threats and harassment is an unfortunate reaction to the Hamas-Israeli conflict. The FBI recently announced that, though Jews make up only 2.4 percent of the U.S. population, they are subject to an astounding 60 percent of all religion-based hate crimes.
In this context, it is important to note that some speech is violence. Hate speech and insults are not communication but assaults. Donald Trump’s incitement of an insurrection on January 6, 2021, through his speech at the U.S. Capitol, is an attack resulting in greater destruction and damage than anything he could have achieved with his bare fists. And we know from medical literature that emotional and verbal abuse can be more severe and more enduring than broken bones.
Whatever specific acts of extreme violence and human cruelty take place today, and whatever justifications have led us to the situation of “Dead World Walking,” there is a better way to respond than to be caught up in a vicious circle of violence. My own motivations and obligations have to do with doing whatever I possibly can to prevent the “Ultimate Violence” I have been warning against ever since I began this Newsletter a year and a half ago.
There has been a recent exchange of sociologists. In response to an open letter titled, “Sociologists in Solidarity with Gaza and the Palestinian People,” with nearly 2000 signatures primarily coming from the U.S., sociologists in Israel wrote a letter of their own, gathering over 300 signatures. While embracing an Israeli, opposing perspective, its ability to reach out to the other side moved me. It is what one might call a response:
Response to Open Letter from Sociologists on the Conflict in Israel and Gaza
While the October 7th events do not justify hurting uninvolved civilians in Gaza, the omission of any substantive acknowledgment and condemnation of Hamas’s acts dehumanizes the victims and adds to the deep sadness, trauma, and despair we are experiencing in the wake of October 7th.
On that bloody day, Hamas terrorists indiscriminately murdered Israeli Jews, Palestinian citizens of Israel, and foreign nationals. The massacre of hundreds, the rapes, brutalization, mutilation of bodies, torture of children, the wiping out of entire families, and the killing of medical workers cannot be framed as anything less than a crime against humanity….
We too call for ending the violence; we too support Palestinian liberation and the end of the Occupation – as we have done for years. We call for the cessation of killing of civilians in Gaza and everywhere. A humanistic stance cannot ignore the horrible massacre on October 7th. Acknowledging the massacre does not legitimize the killing of uninvolved civilians in Gaza. However not condemning or even acknowledging the massacre legitimizes Hamas’ crime against humanity….
The Hamas massacre reminds us to avoid simplistic divisions between oppressor and oppressed. The commitment to social justice should never forget to respect all humans – of all sides. Critical Sociology is built upon thinking empirically, morally, and politically, against the grain, against the taken for granted, and against unjust use of power and violence – while unconditionally respecting all humans and treating them with dignity.
There should be no contradiction between staunchly opposing the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, including crimes in Gaza, and unequivocally condemning brutal acts of violence against innocent civilians in Israel. Both should come together.
We urge our colleagues to withdraw their signatures from this one-sided statement. We urge you to join us in digging deeper into our sociological toolkit to engage in studies that offer a more nuanced understanding of the conflict in the Middle East. Such understanding may contribute to a long-term solution rather than to the legitimization of horrendous violence.