January 09, 2011

The Politics of Political Rhetoric

In the wake of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Arizona) and 19 others outside a Tucson supermarket, the usual rhetoric about political rhetoric has been flying wildly about. “Contemporary political rhetoric,” contemporary wisdom says, “is uniquely harmful. It is far more venomous and dangerous than ever before, and something ought to be done about it.” Political graphics, such as those with what appear to be telescopic sight crosshairs “targeting” the states of political opponents are particularly likely to incite the unstable to violence. Nonsense.

A cursory reading of the history of American political campaigns and political cartoons reveals that, in many ways, our political discourse is, by comparison, reasonably polite and restrained. Few of the political figures we revere today escaped having their parentage, intellect, honesty and personal morals and habits publicly questioned in less then delicate and tasteful terms. And while we do have more or less instant means of communication that our predecessors lacked, the kind of obscene, witless nastiness often seen there is commonly confined to a few very specific and partisan websites where those inclined to fling feces through the bars of their cyber cages are able to fling it almost exclusively at, and to the deranged delight of, each other. Most people become aware of it only as the result of bloggers who seek out such vitriol for the purpose of illustrating the derangement of their political opponents and post it as representative examples. Thankfully, it represents the thinking and juvenile tendencies of only a tiny portion of the population, a portion that likely still laughs uproariously at fart jokes some ten years or more on from high school.

As much as politicians of some stripes decry the use of military terminology and metaphor in political advertising and rhetoric, both sides use it freely and it is a staple of our everyday language. One could search exhaustively and never find anyone actually incited to violence by rhetoric about “targeting,” politicians for defeat, or about waging “war on poverty,” or “war on illiteracy,” or about “focusing like a laser” on this or that initiative. In fact, one commonly finds equally bloodthirsty rhetoric surrounding high school football games and even in school songs that, among other things, incessantly shout “Fight! Fight! Fight!”

For those who have followed political discourse over the years, much of this is reminiscent of the obscenity wars that have, for the time being, settled down to a low simmer. “Pornography is the theory, rape is the practice,” was a common feminist article of faith. Many demanded censorship, alleging that exposure to porn caused all manner of horrors. Fortunately, actual research did not establish the kinds of connections censors hoped to find. In one famous experiment prior to widespread access to the internet, college boys were confined to rooms containing filing cabinets filled with the more commonly available pornography such as Playboy, Penthouse and several less classy offerings. After a short period of initial interest, the guys became quickly bored and returned to reading Sports Illustrated, watching TV and similar fare. The largest problem encountered turned out to be keeping kids from stealing the magazines to show their roommates when the experiment ended.

Whether the issue is porn or overheated political rhetoric, let’s try a thought experiment. Let's assume that some small percentage of the population--usually male--will be, in some way, affected or inspired by exposure to overheated political rhetoric or what most would consider pornography. Are you really willing to censor speech and imagery based on what the most deranged among us might do?

Before you answer, consider the case of Ted Bundy, serial killer. After Bundy was captured and shortly before being executed for his many crimes, Dr. James Dobson of Focus On The Family, then a prominent anti-porn crusader, produced a video interview in which Bundy directly claimed that porn was the root cause of all of his evil. What Dobson did not tell his viewers was that the kind of porn Bundy favored and that was discovered in his possession upon his arrest was brochures advertising cheerleading camps. No nudes, no violence, no depictions of intercourse or snuff killings, just smiling, bouncy cheerleaders. Dr. Dobson would have you believe that Bundy killed because porn made him do it. I know better. Bundy killed because he was evil, and because he liked it. It’s that horrifying and that simple. Everything he did was illegal; the imagery he favored was not. Short of killing him twice, no law could have been more effective in dealing with Bundy or anyone like him.

The point, of course, is that we often make the mistake of assuming facts not in evidence. Because we are “normal,” we assume that deranged criminals will be incited to violence by, well, depictions and descriptions of violence. With the politically correct tidal wave of recent years, mild jokes that might be welcomed one day can be firing offenses on another. Too many people seem to believe that they have an absolute right never to be exposed to anything that they might find offensive or disturbing, or any idea or belief with which they might disagree. Thank goodness we have not yet empowered those who would be only too happy to try to enforce such a right to have at it.

When faced with senseless violence, it is only human nature to try to make sense of it, to try to explain it in a way that can assure us that a similar fate will not befall us or those we love. It is also perfectly natural to believe that we can legislate against human nature, that we can write laws that will in some way make us feel safer or that will “send a message” about what we think is right. The problem is that feeling safer isn’t being safer, and sending messages is best reserved for advertisements or texting. Neither is remotely effective in stopping the deranged whose motivations are almost certainly nothing most people could or would ever imagine.

There are a great many political “leaders” and “community organizers” and ”community activists” out there who would be only too delighted to gain the kind of political power that some might be tempted to give them in a vain attempt to ensure their safety. But the truth is, no one can do that. No one can ensure that anyone will be absolutely safe, not even the Secret Service who could not intercept or stop assassination attempts on John F. Kennedy, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan.

Sometimes, as frustrating as it is, we have to simply accept that tomorrow is not guaranteed for any of us, and as resilient as human beings can be, we are also remarkably fragile. We certainly can and should call out and shame those who step over the line of reasonable political discourse, but that does not include those who use common, non-threatening metaphors and imagery. But for now, the most meaningful, effective thing we can do is to offer our humble, sincere prayers for the physical and spiritual healing of the victims and their families. We can also give thanks that we live in freedom unprecedented in human history and resolve to do all that we can that, as Abraham Lincoln said, “...government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the Earth.”

Posted by MikeM at January 9, 2011 09:57 PM

Resist the Nanny State!

Posted by: Tim at January 9, 2011 11:57 PM

Historically speaking, the rhetoric today is tame compared to the 1800's. The population today is less likely to take up arms as they were back then either.

The idiot comments on the Arizona tragedy are looking for all sorts of places to place blame - just like personal liability lawyers looking for their next case.

So who is to blame?
1. The shooter
2. The shooter
3. The shooter
4. The accomplice (if any)
5. The shooter

Millions of people left-right, conservative-liberal see things that upset them every day without converting it into a shooting spree.

Posted by: SouthernRoots at January 10, 2011 12:03 AM