AS147: Tommentary

It’s with a heavy heart that I have to launch on another Tommentary. Pretty much every time there’s a horrible massacre, there are a number of things to react to.

Here’s an article I talked about toward the end that was very interesting:

3 thoughts on “AS147: Tommentary”

  1. Great discussion, Thomas.

    When you mentioned guns at the beginning I was thinking, “Uh oh, an American is about to tell me why, even despite another tragedy, guns should still be easily accessible and barely regulated!”, and was happy to hear that you had a far more rational take on it (as I should have expected).

    I also loved your approach to the mental health angle. So many times people try to distract from the gun issue by making it about mental health but the research on the topic (as you touched on in the article you mention) shows that people with mental illnesses are rarely the perpetrators in these cases. It’s amazing how often people will leap to the “mentally ill” angle and when pressed their only response is: “But someone surely has to be mentally ill to do this!”. Not really – ‘normal’ people do shitty things all the time and there’s no need to add to the stigma of mental illness by redefining it to “people doing horrible things”.

    With all that said, as you might have guessed, I disagree with one bit and that was the bit about the liberal flip flop you think happens. Obviously with groups as diverse as political affiliations we have to speak in some generalities but I think if we want to actually challenge ourselves we surely want to attack the strongest form of an “opponent’s” view. In this case I don’t think the strongest presentation of their position is that “when Muslims do it they’re crazy but when white Americans do it it’s caused by their ideology”.

    In both cases I think the argument actually is that their ideology is causing it, the debate is just over what that ideology is (and I think the stereotypical liberal would avoid assigning the cause to craziness, unless mental illness was actually involved, as that invokes a number of ableism problems). In other words, many New Atheists argue that the cause of terrorism from the Middle East is Islam whereas many opponents will argue that it’s largely a form of political ideology. And with both cases (terrorism and mass shooters) we ask what are some of the ultimate causes, so with international terrorism it might be previous wars and attacks from the US, poverty levels, education levels, etc, and with mass shooters we look for causes in terms of gun control and gun culture in general.

    Some people might say: “If a terrorist says they’re a Muslim and doing it in the name of Islam, then who am I to question their motives?” as a way of deflecting discussion about causes of actions but I think this only gives us a superficial view of the situation. There’s a decent introductory article here ( which interviews a few terrorism experts on what causes people to fight for movements like ISIS. The interesting part is where they point out that members of these groups are often the most ignorant of religion and are new to it upon joining – so it seems strange to blame religion or Islam when these people aren’t Muslims when joining. Instead the cause can vary but often they are dragged in through the same mechanisms cults use of looking for desperate and vulnerable people and giving them a kind of “family”.

    The importance of searching for these deeper causes can be twofold. Firstly, if we accept the basic research on behavior from fields like psychology (even Sam Harris echoes them in “Free Will” I think) then we know that people are often very bad at describing their own motivations so if we want to make accurate statements then we shouldn’t rely on self-report to judge the cause of terrorism. Secondly, if these researchers who are renowned terrorism experts are right, then getting rid of religion and attacking Islam isn’t going to help. If the problem is that predatory organisations are using things like political unrest or general teenage angst to recruit people to do their bidding, then this will happen regardless of their religious affiliation. The religion is just the vehicle they are currently using and if it falls apart, they’ll use some other ideology like communism which can be twisted to say whatever you want. Importantly, one of the methods of “de-radicalising” and reforming Islamic terrorists is to teach them what the Koran actually says and teaching them more about Islam (, and I’d imagine telling people that “there’s only one true interpretation and Islam is a religion of violence” etc is just going to further reinforce their beliefs…

    On the flag issue, I don’t think it’s comparable to the bible or the crucifix. The whole purpose of the flag was that it symbolised the uprising against the idea that Americans can’t own slaves. It is inherently racist. Whereas things like the bible or the crucifix might have implications of various forms of violence or bigotry but the inherent message behind them are supposed to be ones of love (whether we agree with that intended message or not is another matter). I think it could certainly be argued that symbols can come to mean something bad, like the swastika, but I don’t think the bible and crucifix have reached that point since most Christians are fairly normal nice people and don’t use it in that way.

    Also, I haven’t forgotten or ignored the episode where you discussed my other comments! It came at the worst possible time for me in terms of available time I had as I’ve been flat-out for a few weeks, and didn’t have the time needed to give your discussion the attention it deserved for a reply. It also took a lot of time hand-making little notes for all my friends and family to let them know that I was mentioned on a podcast and am practically internet famous now, but maybe I went overboard training ravens to post them for me..

  2. Hey Thomas-

    You asked where you could find more discussion on that article you linked, and I just thought I’d suggest our book club book which is all about why humans commit violence and how to reduce violence or what causes violence to decline – The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined by Steven Pinker. Pinker spends quite a bit of time on the theories in the article and many more. If you don’t want to read the whole book, you could just read chapters 8 and 9, Inner Demons and Better Angels, which I think focus mostly on the topics of that article. It’s a long book, but a very good and interesting read. I would definately recommend it, and I will be reading it again with the book club.

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