The Culpability of Rhetoric

Alex Seitz-Wald over at ThinkProgress beat me to it on the point I’m about to make, but I swear I wrote this entire post while at work and before I’d even checked that blog’s content on the shooting in Arizona. And if you don’t believe me, well there’s nothing I can do about that; read the link above and at least you’ll still be exposed to essentially the same notion I hope to impress upon you now …

Oh, and since this is now redundant, I’m not going to take time to change what I’ve currently got in front of me, so if it doesn’t have the smoothest flow … well, there are still worse writers on the Internet.

Let’s begin.

Since the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and murder of six people this past Saturday, much of the cause-and-effect debate has focused on the role of “heated rhetoric” in spurring Jared Lee Loughner to commit his heinous crime. I’m not here to lay blame at the feet of any particular individuals or groups simply because they do employ the type of language currently under fire; what I instead hope to do is outline a basic explanation for how such language can function as a catalyst for violent political action.

The heated rhetoric in question, say those on the left, while not directly advocating violence against opposing political figures, implies that such action is acceptable or even desirable. I am unwilling at this point to go even that far, and cannot comment on the subconscious motivations of the Rush Limbaughs and Sarah Palins regarding political violence. But what I can say is that such language, even without advocating violence either implicitly or explicitly, can provide an individual with a personally-compelling rationala for such violence. It gives those who might have violent tendencies a logical framework into which they can incorporate such violent impulses as a necessary component.

I believe it is quite pointless to argue about speculations on whether or not certain pundits and demagogues subconsciously exhort individuals to violent political actions; but this does not mean that we cannot debate which, and to what extent, concrete actions taken by such public figures influence such deadly occasions. In other words, you can’t prove that they wanted someone to gun down a disagreeable public official, but you can show that their words were a factor which lead to the shooter’s decision to go through with the crime. To recognize that plitical violence is a potential and realistic consequence, whether desired or not, of certain types of political rhetoric need not devolve into speculations on intent; that politics was unquestionably a factor in Jared Lee Loughner’s decision to act is enough to denounce the use of such language by anyone left, right, or center. When an individual’s or group’s politics is no longer about contestable differences of opinion, but an existential struggle for survival, and when opposing belief systems and their adherents are painted solely as an enemy, the potential for violence becomes much more likely. When discourse ceases to be illocutionary, we invite the type of tragedy like that in Arizona.

So, is Sarah Palin culpable for the murders in Arizona? Only in the sense that she is irresponsible in her rhetoric for failing to recognize the potential consequences of such language in the pursuit of relatively narrow political goals. That being said, however, her hyper-defensive response to such accusations without acknowledging this irresponsibility does begin to say something about her unspoken attitudes regarding violence …

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    • mattstrong
    • February 1st, 2011

    Tim, that’s a mighty big “only” in the last paragraph. If the best thing you can say about her is that she didn’t help the situation, you’ve taken damning with faint praise to a nearly satirical extent.

    • I fail to understand what you’re trying to say about my opinion on her …

      Obviously, you disagree with me. But you’ll note that I specifically referred to her culpability in the AZ shootings. Last I checked, she hasn’t directly exhorted her followers to shoot up civil servants. In my mind, she’s hardly a real political figure, but instead just a little celebutante who thinks that politics is a game. Without more information, I cannot speak to the motivations that underpin her rhetorical style, and whether or not she actively supports a real libertarian revolution or if she’s just riding a wave of popularity because she saw an opportunity to capitalize on some pseudopolitical opinions dancing around in her pretty head.

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