Friday, January 14, 2011

Speaking Rhetoric and Pulling Triggers

Phila has helpfully canvassed some of the right-wing hypocrisy exposed by last Saturday's mass shooting in Arizona, but at the risk of playing the detestable contrarian, I think it's useful to step back and genuinely evaluate whether rhetoric -- even at its most histrionic, vitriolic, militant, and, to use a question-begging word, provocative -- is worthy of the focus some are placing on it.

Normally, this is a no-brainer for me -- hip-hop doesn't cause gang violence, heavy metal doesn't create self-destructive teens, pornography doesn't instill in men an immoderate interest in sex, and "because I was offended by that cartoon / work of art / pointed question" is not a valid excuse for god-addled violence. Accordingly, it must be true -- mustn't it? -- that right-wing bluster, up to and including Lady Also's idiotic cross-hairs, Sharron Angle's "2nd amendment remedies," and Glen Beck's insipid tear-soaked paranoid rants -- do not, in any important way, cause mass shootings.

As usual, Rachel Maddow is doing the best reporting on this cluster of topics, as in this instance where she makes a few important clarifications or this one where she adds even more, but she remains a little too firmly in the gun-talk-leads-to-gunplay camp. She is on much firmer ground in her coverage of concrete, non-extreme, sensible legal changes that would significantly reduce the chances of a repeat of last Saturday:

The USA is and ever has been a violent, gun-ready society, and sadly, this is exceedingly unlikely to be the last mass shooting or the last politically-charged mass shooting we see. I make no excuses for any of that, but it seems prudent to make careful note of it before issuing grand narratives of cause and effect.

Amanda Marcotte is also very much on point her analysis, especially where she focuses on the alternate reality generated by right-wing histrionics:
The violent rhetoric encourages people to see violence as a solution, but it’s the paranoia that gives them cause to get that wound up, or in the likely case of Loughner, to latch onto right wing paranoia as a delusion. It’s therefore more important to target lies and paranoia when holding the right accountable than anything else. They’d probably prefer it if we stuck to just talking about violent language, because that they can mostly give up without giving up too much. But abandoning lies? That’s definitely not something they want to put on the table. But it’s way more critical.
As with the purging of Huck Finn of particular slurs, and as with the framing crowd's advocacy of cooing gently when distinguishing evolutionary, climate, and other science from their respective bullshit-based adversaries, people of good will should emphasize and prioritize the truth, and this involves speaking clearly -- modeling the principle of meaning what we say and saying what we mean. It means calling out liars and their lies, rather than asking liars to change their tone or diction.

Truth is inherently good; rhetorical style can go hang.*

It's possible I am naive to the dangers in play here. Perhaps last Saturday tells us something important about the line separating free speech from that which is beyond a signficant pale, but if so, I have not seen a cogent argument to that effect. Freedom of speech means freedom for the speech we hate.

* "Go hang" -- how's that for provocative rhetoric? Have I crossed a line? Is someone closer to dangling by the neck because of it?


John Carter Wood said...

Good points all, and I'm averse to any Easy Answers to what happened in Tucson.

Still, I can't help thinking about two things.

First, the arguments about hip-hop, heavy metal, violent video games are different in so far as they're about the connection between fictional/fantasy material and behaviour. The connections between right-wing rhetoric and violent acts -- to the extent that they are true -- would be of a different nature, as the calls to 'reload', seek 'second amendment solutions' and 'target' the 'traitors' who are running this country are, explicitly, real-world arguments.

Second, I'm not so sure that one can draw a line between the 'paranoia' and the 'violence'. It seems to me that they're quite clearly linked in a problem-solution way. (I.e., if you tell people often enough that they're actually being oppressed by a sinister liberal conspiracy and suggest that violent forms of revolt are a legitimate response, a few of the more unstable ones might come to agree with that proposition.)

Just thinking aloud.

Sheldon said...

I very much agree, its calling out the lies that matter. Beside, I don't want the expectation of civility to mean I can't call these righties idiots, assholes, and jackasses, because usually its the truth.

Dale said...

Sheldon, agreed. We must reserve the right to call bullshit, and do so with full voice. Period.

JCW, thanks. I figured you'd have something to say on this given your recent research & academic focus, and I appreciate it. I acknowledge I'm drawing a thin line -- maybe too thin to hold up -- between 'distortive' rhetoric and 'inflammatory' rhetoric, or as you put it, between that which induces paranoia and that which inspires violence. That said, for both cases, I don't want the remedy to be censorship -- not that anyone is proposing it (if so, I haven't seen that) -- nor more self-censorship, of which there's never a shortage in this society. I don't think we're served to push these weirdly overheated, absurdly militant ideas underground. If they're out there, and evidently they are in droves, we need to find a way to deal with them. I have no idea what that 'way' is, as I sit here in my chair typing this comment, but shoving them from sight strikes me as a non-starter (not to accuse you of proposing any such).

Your point about portrayals of the fictional/artistic/fantastical versus the spelling out of real-world, practical programs of action in the world is a good one also. The second is undeniably more worrying because it's directly aimed at changing human behavior in specific ways. Still, the distinction between these requires the basic ability to distinguish reality from representation on one hand and from bullshit on the other, and given we have an entire half of our political discourse dominated by the active, hourly, aggressive subversion of reality, the distinction tends to dissolve. In this sense it makes a perverse sort of sense for the Palins and Becks of the world to fret about (say) rap as much as they fret about the wording of legislation -- they're in the day to day business of exchanging bullshit and reality back and forth freely.

You're certainly right --- there are No Easy Answers on this.