Rhetoric and violence

By Mike Tudoreanu

Courtesy boingboing.net

The horrific massacre in Arizona is well-known to everyone: A madman, Jared Loughner, tried to assassinate Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. In the process, he killed six other people – including a nine-year-old girl – and injured 14. Loughner’s motives are unclear. He seems to hate government in general and Giffords in particular, but without any coherent reason. As it just so happens, Giffords was one of the Democrats whose districts were marked by Sarah Palin with crosshairs on a map she published before last year’s midterm elections. This has led to a debate about heated political rhetoric and its possible connections to real life violence.

The rhetoric of the far-right these days isn’t just heated – that alone would be harmless – it’s actually full of references to guns and violence. The crosshairs are one example. Last year, Palin and Sharon Angle also made veiled references to murder in their speeches. That’s what it means to say “don’t retreat, reload” or talk about “exercising 2nd Amendment rights.” They were talking about shooting people. They were suggesting that their political opponents deserved to be murdered – but only implicitly, so they can never be accused of saying it outright. Now, I am sure that all they wanted to do was whip up anger and energy in their listeners to help with the campaign.

Let’s be clear here: No one other than the shooter himself is responsible for the murders. However, that doesn’t mean that no one else has done anything wrong; that we can just shrug and move on as if nothing has happened. It seems that political violence has been on the rise recently. It’s not just Loughner that we should be talking about, but also Joseph Andrew Stack, who flew a plane into an IRS building last year. These people were very angry at the government and mentally unstable. That’s nothing new. There is a long history of crazy conspiracy theories in the United States accusing the federal government of being run by communists, working with evil space aliens, using microwaves to mind control people and many other oddball notions.

A couple of things are new, though. First of all, we now have a conspiracy-theorist-in-chief who goes on air every weekday on Fox News to tell the nation how the President and the Democratic Party and all left-wing people in general are in league with dark forces who want to destroy America. Glenn Beck has brought conspiracy theories to the mainstream and he certainly strengthened the delusions of thousands of mentally unstable individuals. It’s not difficult to imagine the thought process of such a person. “I’m not crazy! See, even TV show hosts have started to discover the truth! I knew it! The government is after me!” So we should not be surprised if more of these people decide to take matters into their own hands.

There is, however, a second and more dangerous trend. It is more dangerous because it is embraced by a huge number of Republican politicians and practically the entire Tea Party – not just by a lone pundit and his followers. I am talking about the trend of refusing to accept the legitimacy of opposing views. The problem with Palin, Angle and others like them is not that they use harsh or inflammatory language. There is nothing wrong or new about insulting your opponents, calling them stupid, or saying they are after personal gain and don’t care about the country. There is something wrong with suggesting that their beliefs are not merely false, but unacceptable. There is something wrong with saying that they are not merely idiots or liars, but traitors. There is an important line between saying that those who disagree with you are wrong and saying that those who disagree with you are guilty of a crime. Ann Coulter was the first to cross that line explicitly, with her books accusing liberals of things like slander and treason. These are crimes. To say that all people who hold a certain political opinion are guilty of a crime is to say that the opinion itself is a crime. A version of this can be seen among members of the Tea Party, many of whom believe that any non-conservative government is unconstitutional.

If certain political opinions are illegitimate, if the people who hold such opinions or try to enact laws based on them are like criminals, then violence against them is justified. By using language that implies that being on the left is sort of like committing a crime, some right-wing politicians and pundits are encouraging political violence. And they are playing with fire. Once you make it acceptable to accuse your opponents of treason, you risk someone else using the same trick on you. Once you let the genie of ultra-nationalism out of the bottle, thinking that you can control it and use it to bludgeon your enemies, you run the risk that a more skilled charismatic leader might rise to the occasion and use the same genie to destroy you. A particularly cunning leader may even use it to destroy democracy itself. The power of mere words should never be underestimated.

Mike Tudoreanu is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected].

Courtesy boingboing.net