Jeremy Joseph Christian, the Horseshoe Theory, and Why Occam’s Razor Matters

Back in 1992, during my last semester of college, a fellow who I dubbed “Angry Guy” showed up on campus. I think he was a student, although I can’t be absolutely sure. He was the right age, and looked and dressed pretty much like any other preppy guy on campus.

Despite his relatively nondescript appearance, he stood out. It didn’t take much to set him off, and I remember once walking through the student union while he was screaming and yelling at random people.

The last time I saw him was in the library, right after Bill Clinton had won the presidential election. Angry Guy was reading the New York Times. He was becoming more and more agitated and eventually threw the paper to the ground, and ranting about the evils of abortion. After declaring abortion to be “baby killing,” he urged everyone to vote Republican in 1996, then flounced out the front door.

My own assessment, as well as that of my fellow students, was that Angry Guy was severely mentally ill.  I certainly did not associate him with the College Republicans or our campus antiabortion group, though I had little respect for either organization. I’m pretty sure that all of us who saw and heard him understood that his rage and fixation on certain political issues were the result of psychosis and possibly even brain damage.

This 25-year-old memory has had new meaning for me over the past few days. Like most of the world, I was shocked and horrified to learn that a someone had stabbed three men, killing two, after they confronted him over his harassment of two young women on Portland train car.

In the hours and days after this horrific attack,  the media and its consumers began to piece together a portrait of Jeremy Joseph Christian. Since he is white and used anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim language, and made a goose-stepping appearance at a recent right-wing “free speech” demonstration, some were quick to denounce him as part of the alt.right.

Others pointed out that Christian supported Bernie Sanders and did not vote for Trump in the general election. It also appears that he was no fan of Christianity and may well have been a polytheist.

Unfortunately, this muddled portrait of the man has led to some unfortunate and, in my opinion, ill-advised speculation. Yesterday, I had the grave misfortune to read this piece on Medium. The writer, who appears to have a serious grudge against Bernie Sanders, positions Christian as part of the “alt.left,” which, in accordance with horseshoe theory, has more in common with the alt.right than it does with standard leftism or the Democratic Party platform.

The article left me angry, for reasons I’ll get to in a minute, and I later found out that several friends of mine had read the article and likewise found it infuriating. Horseshoe theory itself has some serious weaknesses, but what is even more questionable is the author’s insistence on playing connect-the-dots between Christian, Bernie Sanders, misogynist Bernie Bros, and the alt.left.

Why is it questionable? Because as far as I can tell, the author has no special insight or information that allows her to draw this conclusion. In fact, it runs against the readily available information about Christian that points to mental illness and possible brain damage as the probable cause of his violent speech, writing, and behavior.

The facts are these: Jeremy Joseph Christian has a violent criminal history going back to 2002, when he robbed a convenience store during which he assaulted and chained the store owner. Christian claimed to police that he did this because the store did not sell winning lottery tickets.

Christian’s mother has claimed that he might have mental health issues, and this story from local media suggests that this, as well as brain damage caused by a head injury, may well be the case. Christian appears to be homeless and jobless. A right-wing leader describes him as a nuisance, despite Christian’s enthusiastic presence at the recent “free speech” rally. During a recent court appearance, Christian shouted about patriotism and free speech.

My guess, and it is only a guess, is that Christian has a lot more in common with Angry Guy than either Bernie Sanders or Steve Bannon. Occam’s razor points to mental illness and/or brain damage as being the primary motivator for Christian’s beliefs and behavior. Without evidence to support that Christian’s “politics” were the result of sustained thought and active engagement, assigning him (and his horrific crime) to a particular political wing is disingenuous, particularly if the person doing the assigning has a political axe to grind.

More details will be coming out during the weeks, months, and possibly even years to come. We will likely learn more about this case, including Mr. Christian’s background, activities, mental health, and motivations. We may, at that point, be in a better position to determine whether what motivated him to first verbally assault two young women, and then later slaughter their defenders.

Nonetheless, I believe that there is something we should strive to be mindful of, even as we await additional and necessary facts about this case:

Responsible politicians, journalists, and activists must be aware of their rhetoric and avoid pandering to baser instincts just to curry favor or win votes. Violent, hateful, or even ambiguous language can have unintended consequences. Individuals who already have issues with emotional regulation, who are socially isolated, and who are predisposed toward violence can easily identify with movements and political/activist language in unhealthy ways.

If you have a message, be mindful that not everyone will receive it in the same way. While there is no absolute insurance against someone using your message in a way that is harmful, carefully crafting messages, particularly those going out to a large audience, is necessary. Eliciting an emotional response is a part of good persuasive communication, but knowing when and how to draw the line at incitement is the beginning of wisdom.

[Two fundraisers have been created for the surviving stabbing victim as well as the families of the men who died. You can find them here and here.]

[Photo credit: By Kris from Seattle, USA (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

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