Monday, January 10, 2011

A belated word on rhetoric

I watched the news about the Arizona shootings this weekend with horror, which gradually shaded into disgust upon seeing the political point-scoring back-and-forth that followed. Being too busy with personal responsibilities, I didn't have the luxury of writing any quick-response piece, which also gave me some additional time to think about what I might write. I note as background that I wrote a piece in May titled "Conservatives Aren't 'At War' With the Left," which argued against martial or violent-sounding rhetoric partly on the following basis:
It’s inflammatory. If you’re at war, the way to win is by killing the enemy. If you’re in a nonviolent political contest or conflict, the way to win is by out-debating, out-voting, out-organizing and outsmarting your opponent. It’s always possible some nut will take the “we’re at war” business too seriously and then the purveyors of that rhetoric will disavow that they had anything violent in mind. But it’s better not to blur the distinction in the first place.
Watching the Arizona political aftermath, I'm struck by (1) how eager some on the left were to place blame for this shooting onto Sarah Palin or other conservative politicians, regardless of the absence of any evidence of any connection between their rhetoric and the shooter's actions; and (2) how stalwart some conservatives, such as my friend John Guardiano, remained in asserting that the right's rhetoric has been appropriately hard-hitting, and that the only thing to worry about here is how disapproval of same can erode free speech.

And of course, a few months ago, when a hostage-taker turned out to be a fan of Al Gore-style environmentalism, the political sides arrayed themselves differently.

Here is my suggestion: Don't judge a piece of political rhetoric, or any form of speech actually, by how an insane person might misconstrue it. Judge it by whether it's reasonable and valuable in and of itself. To my mind, Sharron Angle's "Second Amendment remedy" comment was despicable precisely because you don't have to be insane to see it as an incitement to violence. Palin's target map and "reload" tweet I put in a different category as they were clearly metaphorical*; they are not incitements to violence but they do reflect her angry, resentful, base-pandering style of leadership -- which as David Frum points out she had (and blew) a tremendous opportunity to rise above following the shooting.
* - Unlike, incidentally, the "we're at war"-type statements by various conservatives that I criticized last May.

UPDATE: John McQuaid writes "On Political Madness," and links to the above here.

UPDATE: Interested in reading McQuaid's piece in Swedish? It's here.


Gil Weinreich said...

A belated word on your belated word on rhetoric:
You are correct to point out the lack of connection between the Arizona shooter and Sarah Palin's ideas and rhetoric. You were also wise to advocate for non-inflammatory political speech. I would add that when something so heinous as this shooting occurs, Americans should reflect on what it says about our society. (Admitedly, this is hard to do with all the media noise about unconnected non-issues.) Why did this murderous lunatic not simply vent on a streetcorner or squeeze a lemon. We live in a violence-drenched society. The left would have better used the occasion to point out the ease of access to guns; the right to the violence-saturated entertainment culture. On top of the irreperable loss of life and harm, we lost an opportunity to redeem this tragedy with a true introspective discussion.

Kenneth Silber said...

Totally agree.