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Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Political discourse must improve, but let’s not overreach

by Michael De Dora
In the aftermath of last week’s shooting in Tuscon, Arizona, some people have been quick to heap some degree of responsibility for the horrendous event on right wing leaders like Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Sharron Angle, and Michelle Bachmann. A good number of Americans claim violence-charged rhetoric practiced by those four public figures is at least partially responsible for creating the vicious environment that led Jared Lee Loughner to critically wound Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, injure more than a dozen, and kill six others.
The harsh rhetoric (and symbolism) people speak of is exemplified by the following. Palin once told her supporters “Don’t Retreat; Reload!,” and also created a map with a gun target on Giffords’ district. Beck has consistently used war-like language. Angle agreed with an interviewer that there are “domestic enemies” in Congress and remarked that concerned citizens might turn to “Second Amendment remedies,” following that by stating that Harry Reid was the first person that needed to be taken out. And Bachmann has called for her supporters to be “armed and dangerous.”
We have no reason to believe that any of the above is causally linked to the shooting. This is not necessarily because evidence does not exist. We simply do not yet know, as the investigation is just getting underway (I suspect we will never know, if only because it is very difficult to directly link political rhetoric to a single crime). So, for the sake of this essay let’s consider that the rhetoric from Palin, Beck, Angle, and Bachmann, is not tied to the Giffords shooting whatsoever.** Let’s focus on the rhetoric and its impact on political discourse.
There are three main problems with the form of speech we are considering. First, while this rhetoric might not be directly linked to last week’s act, it certainly doesn’t do anything to lessen the chances of violence. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has aptly described it as “eliminationist rhetoric,” in which others are not merely wrong, but are no longer within our circle of moral concern. It is not hard to ponder the potential consequences of thinking this way. Even if the shooter was driven by some other motive, the aforementioned leaders have created a hyper-charged political environment that increases the chances of people engaging in violent political acts (though these acts might never happen due to a range of other factors, like being foiled by law enforcement). Research seems to bear this out.
Second, eliminationist rhetoric creates an environment where lawmakers and their families are scared for their lives. Politico.com reported via FBI documents that threats against members of Congress were up by 300 percent in the second half of 2010. In Arizona specifically, political leaders and judges were consistently getting death threats (read more here and here). This undoubtedly influences a politician’s ability to speak his or her mind about any issue, especially hot-button ones.
Which brings me to the third problem: this rhetoric is inherently dangerous in an open democracy that depends on citizens constantly being in dialogue. It does not create the atmosphere where we might have constructive political discourse that could help us solve some of our daunting problems.
We are not forced to accept this landscape. We can change things. We live in a sharply divided social climate, but we have more in common than we think (for more on this point, I suggest the introduction of this book). And while we might stoutly disagree with others, we can’t let ourselves so easily place fellow Americans – fellow human beings – outside the domain of our moral concern. We can state our disagreements over ideas without so much personal aggression. Indeed, we have no other choice if we truly desire to make a better country.
But let us not go too far and only be willing to accept a political discourse that is nice and neat. The problem with so-called eliminationist rhetoric is not that it is ugly; it is that it goes well beyond ugly. As Keith Olbermann said, “the (current) rhetoric has devolved and descended, past the ugly and past the threatening and past the fantastic and into the imminently murderous.” It would be one thing if the four people mentioned above were passionately engaged in serious and heated political debate about significant issues. Instead, they have stepped well beyond that confine.
Politics has always been, and will remain, both intense and partially if not mostly unpleasant. This is the very nature of political interactions. We bring our most important beliefs and values to the political square, and firmly promote and defend them in an effort to create the social and political order we want. In doing this, we must face people, principles and laws that we strongly disagree with. Sometimes we use insults and poor wording. Some of this is understandable, if not justified; some of it is neither. But this state of affairs is acceptable so long as we are still focused on discussing the matters that most influence our national life. Within that framework, we can accept some ugliness, and a few mistakes. The recent problems have emerged because people have often stepped well outside that framework.
Yet despite the fact that American politics is and will remain unpleasant, we can afford to turn a soft corner on language use. Words matter, and while our language can never be perfect, we need not be monsters. Recognition of this distinction would be the first step in the right direction. Even FOX News President Roger Ailes has told his employees to “tone it down.” Unfortunately, it took the murder of six people, and the injuries of more than a dozen others, to wake Americans from their zombie-like walk into the rhetorical abyss. Hopefully, we will awaken before it is too late.
** Still, Palin’s reaction to the shooting is telling. Immediately following the tragedy, the Web site hosting the gun scope map, www.takebackthe20.com, was taken down (as of this writing, it is still down).


  1. "Research seems to bear this out."

    The link you gave spends an awful lot of time making the opposite point -- we simply don't know. Then it cites one not-yet-published study which comes to this conclusion: "However, people who saw the violently worded ads who were already high in aggression became more accepting of the idea of political violence."

    One caveat-filled quote from one unpublished study shouldn't qualify as 'research' which 'bears this out'.

    I'm not suggesting it's impossible, or even unlikely, but I'd want a better source for the conclusion.

  2. America is nothing more than a collective delusion. I for one definitely do not live in the Sarah Palin-Glen Beck-Bill O'Reilly-Rush Limbaugh 'America' even though I draw breath on the lower North American Land mass. There is no such thing as 'America' there are only human beings who call themselves 'Americans' some of whom have (easily available) guns and some of whom will defend their particular delusion with lethal force (which is distinctly non-delusional).

    So, you can't make a better country (because it is a delusion) and what you are left with is trying to improve the interaction of the people who call themselves 'Americans' all the while having virtually no outlet for rational discourse except for some isolated websites of rather limited reach (in comparison with network television and cable). The logical prediction from this would be more bloodshed to come. Adjust your expectations accordingly.

    And buy a flak jacket.

  3. Violently charged rhetoric has been in existence for a long time. Remember 2000-2008? Posters of executive members being decapitated or with bullet holes in their heads? Even Krugman made some comment about hanging Joe Lieberman in effigy. It seems that there's more to the increase in violence than just what people are saying.

  4. The stench on both sides is disgusting. To read the above and the comments so far one might think that it's only Republicans engaging in such discourse, but recall the infamous YouTube video fantasising about exploding climate change deniers. And although I'm not American, live nowhere near the US, and don't follow American politics, I notice that pretty much every time I see someone of Democrat sympathies talking informally about Republicans, it is in dehumanised terms.

    Republicans think Democrats are traitors; Democrats think Republicans are subhuman things.

  5. "Republicans think Democrats are traitors; Democrats think Republicans are subhuman things."

    Precisely, though it's only an example of a broader human bias. We love social false dichotomies and the attendant condemnation by labeling.

    Us: You're them.

    Them: No we're not! You are!

    And so it goes.

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  7. I don't like some of the polarized talk I hear from leaders on the left, either, but then I wouldn't put it on the same level as the harsh rhetoric I hear from leaders on the right. Still bad, but not as bad.

  8. @Matt, even if it's always been around, we need not keep it around.

  9. What I am worried about is the existence of this continuum and overlapping listenership between Republican politicians and Fox News pundits and Wingnut Daily and militia groups and the John Birch Society. When some message goes out about death panels, or Obama's socialist Muslim plans for the US, it goes out to the sort of standard person (or standard gullible person) on the right, and that's probably not going to lead to violence in most cases, whatever. But I don't think that the various conservative voices are quite so dumb that they don't realize that there are some very strange, armed people out there who believe all the terrible things they are saying about liberals in government. Is it really possible to talk about death panels and socialist takeovers of government and not realize that there are real people out there with real weapons who might really find that to be justification to really kill real people? Oddly, I think that it might be possible, but the thought gives me no comfort at all.

    The rhetoric is really oddly revolutionary; rather, it's playing at being revolutionary without being clear about meaning it, like it's a fantasy being lived out without much regard to what it would really mean if it were true. This is the real problem. If talk about Second Amendment remedies does not mean "Let's get ready to go shoot the bastards", well, OK, but what else do you plausibly think someone could infer from hearing that? If that is what it means, how can one possibly pretend that this is not tacitly a call for assassination (or rather, assassination once it becomes clear that those Democrats are not going to shape up)?

    In Sarah Palin's case, the violent rhetoric seems to be metaphorical (I guess you reload your political, rhetorical weapons, and what-not). Even when there are no explicit calls for violence, however, you still have the problem of demonizing the left. If liberal politicians are an urgent danger, and one should always be personally ready to respond to urgent danger with violence... there's a sort of a plank being extended towards the conclusion that violent action is necessary.

    I suppose the same sort of plank was advanced by some liberals during the Bush administration. But a lot of it came pre-packaged with a sort of violence-is-not-the answer proviso. It's rare (though not impossible) for an anti-war message to go with "and we should solve this problem by killing the offending politicians". And there simply wasn't the same audience; here and now, there are not a lot of vigilantes or revolution fetishists on the left, and thus a smaller pool of people ideologically predisposed to being assassins (unless I'm forgetting a bunch somewhere).

  10. How convenient that you disremember the constant Kill Bushies, and the "art" allowing visitors to shoot rifles at images of Palin. The murders generally turn out to be psychos with a leftist bent - this one hated Bush - and either Atheist or Muslim. But sure, blame the Right. Demonize its leaders. Push your narrative regardless of reality.

  11. @Stan,

    I'm not forgetting any of that. But first, those examples were not pushed by liberal or Democratic leaders; and second, I am not praising that sort of rhetoric, or even saying it's acceptable. I condemn all of it.

  12. @ Michael. You condemn all of it. But not Stan?!?! "The murders generally turn out to be psychos with a leftist bent - this one hated Bush - and either Atheist or Muslim."

    Three words Stan 'Oklahoma city bombing'. But that probably wasn't part of reality. (For the record Stan, responding with an example of a leftist attack is not a rebuttable to the point you were trying to make that it is generally all those Muslim and atheists and leftist and other people you were told to hate.)


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