Sunday, January 16, 2011

I'm Okay, You're a $&%@#!

Since the horrific murders in Tucson last week, we have gone from a sense of shock to the predictable finger-pointing and use of the tragedy by self-important ass clowns on all sides to score cheap political shots. The part of all this that amazes me the most is the utter refusal by those most guilty to recognize that the thoughtless use of intemperate language has consequences.

I have long been fascinated by language, and proudly have a BA degree in Linguistics hanging on my study wall. But nobody needs a sheepskin to recognize that the things we say can lead to consequences we may never have intended ... or intended to go as far as they did.

Did somebody give a ranting speech in which they specifically told Jared Loughner to buy a gun and plenty of ammunition, go to a political event, and murder six people? Of course not. Did a lot of people give a lot of speeches in which they characterized government as a deadly threat to Americans' liberties, even going so far as to call up Thomas Jefferson's infamous "blood of tyrants" comment? Sure did. Does such intemperate and violent language create an atmosphere in which impressionable people can be convinced to do terrible things. Absolutely.

There was a wonderful discussion yesterday on the NPR Weekend Edition Saturday program in which host Scott Simon interviewed Eric Deggans, television and media critic for the St. Petersburg Times. The two men discussed the issue of how hyperpartisan bickering and finger-pointing have played out in the media in the week since the murders in Tucson. Here is one of the best parts of the discussion (which you can read and listen to in total on the NPR website here):

Scott Simon: I was interested in something you wrote this week in answer to people that say, look, this is just talk, it's just rhetoric, there's no proof that rhetoric leads to action.

Eric Deggans: Right. Well, what I noticed is that we have an entire free broadcasting media system built on the idea that media images promote specific action. That's the point of commercials on television, the idea that you present a product in an attractive way and it makes people want to buy it. And so if that is good enough to fuel an $8 billion TV commercial industry and pay, by the way, the salaries of Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow and everybody else who works on free television, then certainly that notion might be something that we might want to think about when it comes to the kind of really extreme rhetoric that we've seen out there.

I don't think I could have expressed it any better. As Mr Deggans points out, we spend billions of dollars each year on advertising campaigns to convince people to buy things or take specific actions (go on a Carnival cruise, buy a Ford, eat at Red Lobster, use this new miracle drug, etc). Common advertising is benign, but the same tactics and techniques that get you to buy the right kind of frozen pizza can be used for far worse purposes.

It's absolutely ludicrous to believe that rhetoric doesn't have consequences. Did the rhetoric of Adolf Hitler help drive millions of Germans to commit ghastly crimes whose consequences are still felt today? Does the fiery language of a self-styled "holy man" like Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq make people rise up in violence against their enemies? Can a useless buffoon like Hugo Chavez keep the political pot boiling in South America with his bombastic and ludicrous rantings about the evils of everybody but himself?

A recent article in takes a different view. In an opinion piece titled "In Defense of Inflamed Rhetoric: The Awesome Stupidity of the Calls to Tamp Down Political Speech in the Wake of the Giffords Shooting," columnist Jack Shaffer writes,

"For as long as I've been alive, crosshairs and bull's-eyes have been an accepted part of the graphical lexicon when it comes to political debates. Such "inflammatory" words as targeting, attacking, destroying, blasting, crushing, burying, knee-capping, and others have similarly guided political thought and action. Not once have the use of these images or words tempted me or anybody else I know to kill. I've listened to, read—and even written!—vicious attacks on government without reaching for my gun. I've even gotten angry, for goodness' sake, without coming close to assassinating a politician or a judge."

I praise Mr Shaffer's commendable self-restraint, but he misses the point.

He - and many other commentators, particularly on the right - equate a much-needed call to tone down violent political rhetoric with an across-the-board attempt to nullify the free-speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution. The issue is not one of denying anyone the right to criticize the government (which I certainly do often enough in this space!), but one of asking people to be more civil and more thoughtful in what they say.

Do you still think words don't have consequences? Take a look at what happens when you say something in Pakistan that might, however loosely, be construed as "blasphemy." This article by Aryeh Neier sums up the problem pretty well. It's not quite the same issue as overheated political diatribe here at home, but the underlying lessons are the same: words have consequences, and legislating away freedom of speech and thought is a very bad idea ... no matter how good it sounds at the time.

What's the takeaway from this discussion? Just this: you are likely to get much farther and achieve much more politically with a rational discussion of specific issues and various approaches to resolving them than you are with an approach that says, "not only are you wrong, but you are criminally stupid and deliberately hell-bent on driving the country straight to hell, and I have to do everything in my power to win this argument by demonizing you and everything you stand for because you are so obviously an ignorant moron."

Words have consequences, no matter what the Rush Limbaughs and the Sarah Palins and the Glenn Becks would have you believe. If they didn't, why are they still talking?

Have a good day. Be's not really that difficult.

More thoughts tomorrow.


P.S. - Remember Bilbo's First Law - Don't let anyone else do your thinking for you. Just a helpful reminder.



Gotfam said...

First off - Fab post! I read it twice (half because it was great...half because I'm slow).

Second - I just love posts that include the words "ass clown"

Gotfam said...

p.s. i like turtle necks too...i think that guy was just being rude to impress his date (didn't he know how to please women)

KathyA said...

Words are powerful because they evoke meaning on conscious and subliminal levels.

And I think I just came up for a term for this decade -- The Decade of Diatribe. I've always like alliteration.

John said...

...and how about those second amendment remedies?

What exactly are we to think that means?

Mike said...

...who works on free television...

Free? Try and get these ass clowns for free.