Sunday, January 9, 2011

When does violent political rhetoric become socially unacceptable?

There has been a great deal of talk after yesterday's mass shooting about violent rhetoric in politics.  I was planning to write a post about where the line should be drawn (not legally, but socially) when I saw this post by Scott Aikin at The NonSequitur which illustrates the difference between acceptability and unacceptability far beyond my ability.
In light of these events, it's right to ask: is the language of violence appropriate for reasonable political exchange?  Here's my initial try at an answer: People should be free to express their frustration and antagonism with those they oppose.  And the manner they express that opposition, I think, can appropriately use the language of violent conflict.  However, it is appropriate under the conditions that we are clear that the use of violent language is strictly metaphorical.  War metaphors for argument can emphasize the offensive tactical elements of argumentative exchange.  Some arguments are full frontal assaults, others are ambushes or surprise attacks, wherein one overwhelms an opponent.  One may lay to waste a position, skewer a point, or blow up a case.  Arguments may have a thrust, like that of a sword.  And consequently, every thrust can be parried.  One shores up defensive positions, and when defeated, one may be engage in rear-guard maneuvers.  One’s best arguments are heavy artillery, and one brings them out in long-standing debates to lay siege to well-defended viewpoints.
 He wraps it up with this:
That is, there seems to be a difference between using metaphors of violence to endorse continued vigorous debate and exchange and using the language of violent confrontation as an endorsement of violent confrontation. Only the latter is morally unacceptable.  The former may have other dangers (perhaps in seeing argumentative exchanges through the lens of war), but it is not the overt commitment to physical hurt.
Aikin has this basically right.  It's perfectly natural to use violent metaphor when referring to any type of competition be it sports, politics, or whatever.  While there are times when this type of speech can cross over unacceptably into a sort of *wink, wink* delivery, by and large, I don't begrudge people expressing themselves in this way.

This is why I have a hard time getting worked up about Sarah Palin's ad featuring crosshairs targeting political districts.  If the crosshairs had been placed over pictures of the people representing those districts, that would be an entirely different story.

What I do think should be completely out of bounds are statements such as this one from Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN):
"I want people in Minnesota armed and dangerous on this issue of the energy tax, because we need to fight back," said Bachmann. "Thomas Jefferson told us, having a revolution every now and then is a good thing. And the people - we the people - are going to have to fight back hard if we're not going to lose our country."

“You know, our Founding Fathers, they put that Second Amendment in there for a good reason and that was for the people to protect themselves against a tyrannical government. And in fact, Thomas Jefferson said it’s good for a country to have a revolution every 20 years.”
“I hope that’s not where we’re going, but, you know, if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies and saying, ‘my goodness what can we do to turn this country around?’ I’ll tell you the first thing we need to do is take Harry Reid out.”
It's amazing to me how the far right ran around the country for seven years labeling any liberal who wasn't bloodthirsty enough to support their ill-conceived wars as a "traitor" and then turned around the moment a Democrat is elected to the Presidency with statements like these.  They can drape themselves in the only words Thomas Jefferson ever uttered or wrote with which they agree (no "wall of separation between Church & State" for this crowd), but when they portray their political opposition as illegitimate, traitorous usurpers, talk about armed revolution, and encourage their supporters to bring their guns to townhall meetings, they can't be too shocked when some disaffected loon takes them seriously.

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