George Tiller and the Metaphysics of Outrage

Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider, was recently shot dead by an anti-abortion campaigner. This has provoked outrage.

(Interestingly, an article here lays out evidence that anti-abortion activism and violence are greater during pro-choice presidencies, indicating that just as Clinton’s saw numerous violent attacks, and Bush’s almost none, the murder of Dr. Tiller may be the start of an upsurge in attacks coinciding with Obama’s presidency.)

Anyway, the murder, and the outrage, raise some interesting issues. While I respect Dr. Tiller and totally condemn his killing, I’m going to discuss them in a somewhat detached and reflective way, which might seem flippant or disrespectful, though I hope it doesn’t.

First off, what precisely is the target of the outrage? There’s a sort of dilemma here. If the target of the outrage is the ends pursued, the beliefs that informed and led to the murder, then there should be equal outrage at people sending anti-abortion petitions or organising anti-abortion conferences as at people shooting or harassing abortion-providers or women having abortions. But in fact, we are, in general, more outraged at the murder than at the petitions.

On the other hand, then, is the target of the outrage the fact that deadly force was used, i.e. the means employed? Well, we could consistently say it was, if we were either strict pacifists, or strict legalists, i.e. believing that deadly force should only ever be deployed by those with ‘official’ entitlement to do so. But both of those positions are implausible (read: I don’t hold them).

But if you accept that sometimes killing is justified, it’s hard to put together some criterion which would not justify this killing, if anti-abortionists were right. It’s not just about ‘ends justifying means’ (in that it’s quite possible that some abortions may become harder to get now), it’s also that he’s “guilty”, large-scale “violence” is already in progress, and he openly admits that he intends to “kill again”. That is, if the issue were purely one of means, then there would, quite possibly, be no disagreement between this ‘Scott Roeder’ who alledgedly shot Tiller, and, say, me, or anyone else who believes in taking one guilty life to save the lives to whom that person is a direct threat.

So the outrage can’t be about the ends alone, or about the means alone, but is specifically related, it seems, to their combination, or to what they share.

An example of outrage of something like this kind is at Missives from Marx, who says that this murder “reveal[s] the very real contradictions of every other pro-lifer and the idiotic consequences of taking seriously pro-life rhetoric.”

If I could elaborate on this, possibly going beyond what Missives wanted to say, we might frame things thus: the same ‘violence’ is present in both an anti-abortionist who takes up a gun to shoot someone, and in an anti-abortionist who peacefully collects signatures on a petition. The difference is that in one case it is ‘symbolic’ or ‘notional’, while in the other it is real. So the act of murder ‘realises’ or ‘manifests’ the ‘murderousness’ already implied in making the claim that an embryo is no different from an adult person.

The ‘target’ of the outrage could then be said to be this shared violence, present in both the general idea and the specific act, while the cause of the outrage is that it kills people. It kills people only when it’s real, not simply when the opinion is held or expressed, but the violence that kills them (which is the target of outrage) is self-identicial across both.

Of course, that leaves out another big issue, namely the murderousness of anti-abortion laws, which causes people to die from illegal abortions or unsafe pregnancies. This is perhaps a third ‘form’ of that same single violence which exists notionally in the idea, institutionally in the laws, and concretely in this recent act.

To offer a different example: if someone says that the world is controlled by a Jewish conspiracy, then I will probably feel outraged and have a strong reaction to that idea, even if the person is, let us suppose, of such a temperament and situation that what they believe will have no further consequences. What outrages me, though, is that this idea, of the Jewish conspiracy, is in some sense ‘part of’ a much broader historical phenomenon of anti-semitism, and so the murderousness which became terrifyingly real in the various historical acts and campaigns of anti-semitic violence, is ‘present in’ the idea ‘in symbolic form’.

By contrast, if someone tells me that the world is controlled by a conspiracy of people who can roll their tongues, I wouldn’t react in the same way because although such an idea perhaps still contains ‘symbolic violence’ (in its potential to lead to assaults on tongue-rollers), that violence is not made real in any past or present action: there are no real acts of violence that ‘haunt’ the idea.

This might also be relevant to the issue of what’s called ‘political correctness’ – that some terms or forms of language ‘are part of’ a broader historical phenomenon that includes acts of real violence.

Now this idea is obviously not perfect. It involves some rather odd claims, like that violence can be ‘symbolically present’ in an idea, which would need to be clarified and explored. And it won’t solve many practical questions, because people will argue over whether a certain idea ‘carries the violence of’ certain actions (for example, many people might say that the idea of abolishing private property contains ‘in notional form’ the violence of Stalin’s purges, while I would disagree).

But hopefully it has some plausibility to it as a way of expressing and putting into words what it is that outrages us.

3 Responses to “George Tiller and the Metaphysics of Outrage”

  1. missivesfrommarx Says:

    I think what you’re saying makes perfect sense. Telling a racist joke in a contemporary American context participates in a systematic relationship of violence toward particular groups of people, whereas telling a joke that pokes fun of lawyers does not. Our analysis shouldn’t take whatever is said and analyze it out of context–we should see how what is said is connected to habituated social relations of domination, etc.

    Does that cohere with what you’re suggesting, or have I missed your point?

  2. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Yup, that’s about it.

  3. Lindsay Says:

    Interesting thoughts, Alderson.

    I had also had the idea that, if abortion is indeed murder (and that somehow the women’s lives abortion sometimes saves do not count), then people who bomb clinics and murder doctors *ARE* saving lives. The problem is that most people don’t accept those premises, which, rather than value an unborn child’s life equally with a grown woman’s (which a lot of people find problematic enough), this pro-life stance actually prioritizes fetal life *ABOVE* maternal life.

    I also think you are right on that much of the outrage (and the fear — plenty of feminist bloggers and blog commenters have expressed fear) has to do with larger historical patterns of violence and oppression. Threats from fringe movements with ostensibly equal credibility (say, if you were a political analyst from Mars trying to figure out why some terrorist threats are taken seriously while others are laughed at or ignored) might scare us, or they might seem ludicrous, depending on whether the groups being targeted already constitute an oppressed, terrorized minority.

    And I do not find your post flippant or disrespectful at all.


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