Monday, January 10, 2011

Arizona Blues, Part 2

Another post cribbed from my comments at Pharyngula:

Hmmm... I want to comment on some of the conversations I've seen around the web about violent imagery:

I have problems with the many "Democrats do it too" and "everybody does it" rejoinders I've heard, on a couple counts —

First, many of these arguments are based on the preponderance of military metaphors and similes in ads, speeches, and political commentary, but I think there's a material difference between standard military imagery and the very particular, personal, and specifically gun-oriented rhetoric we've been seeing from the right recently. We have a long tradition of using war and military operations metaphorically in English, not only to describe political campaigns¹, but in all walks of life. Frequently these metaphors get mashed up with sports metaphors (many of which are themselves military metaphors). Perhaps the pervasive use of military metaphors doesn't say anything too complimentary about our culture, but it's hard to argue that such commonplace, everyday usages amount to incitement: Nobody's going to shoot up a crowd because Chuck Todd says Democrats are focusing on battleground states, where they're raising armies of volunteers, using these troops (among whom I myself have occasionally been a footsoldier) in tactical assaults on key swing districts. Nor will Rachel Maddow saying that House Republicans "have chosen Health Care repeal as the hill they want to die on" likely drive the gunmen into the streets. These bits of common, well accepted figurative language are not the same as the much more indivdualized rhetoric we've observed recently, which names names, implicitly suggests specific sorts of assaults on specific people, and features not the broad conglomerative language of armies, but the particularized language of individual hunters, killers, and their very personal weapons. Even the word targeted has a very different resonance when it's used in a strategic analysis of a campaign than when it's paired with a gunsight image and the name of a targeted individual. Context matters!

And that's my second objection: Many of these "y'all do it, too" arguments neglect context. At the surface level first: I've seen clips of a Democratic campaign spot that briefly uses what many claim is a gunsight superimposed over the opponent's photograph... but the context (the ad copy, the other images in the ad, the theme of the ad) makes it abundantly clear that it's really intended to be a focusing reticle on a surveillance camera, a visual representation of the Justice Department investigation the ad references. Even though some may think it looks like a gunsight, a gunsight would be a total non sequitur in this context. Conversely, many try to exonerate Sarah Palin's website target map by claiming the symbols there aren't really gunsights but surveyors' map symbols... and it may, in fact, be true that that's what those specific markers were published as. But in the context of Palin's website, and the general themes of her discourse, it's clear they were intended to be seen as gunsights. They were understood as gunsight symbols at the time (including, chillingly, by Rep. Giffords herself), and AFAIK neither Palin nor any of her associates disavowed that interpretation (though they may have by now, IMHO disingenuously if so, in the wake of the shootings). Surveyors' marks in that context would've been as much a non sequitur as a gunsight would've been in the previous example.

But I'm not naive enough to assume that people on "my side" of the political aisle are all innocent, and I'm sure some Democrats have crossed the line into inappropriately violent campaign rhetoric. But here again, context matters: A Democrat whose ads seemed to be soliciting violence against an opponent would be an outlier (and, I hope, would be condemned, or at least corrected, by his/her fellow Democrats), because there has been no general tendency on the left² to promote gun culture or images of personal violence as part of its electoral strategy. There has been such a tendency on the right³: There has not been just one appeal to "Second Amendment solutions" or "the blood of patriots and tyrants," nor just one candidate featured in ads with a gun in his hands, nor just one campaign event involving shooting, nor just one person showing up at a rally with a gun strapped to his leg. Instead, gun rights, gun ownership, and the relevance of guns to political action have been broad themes of political discourse on the right.

And in that context, putting a gunsight on a map or exhorting your followers to "take out" your opponent is vastly more toxic and risky than the same communications would be without such a violence-oriented rhetorical backdrop.

More censorhip is not — must not be — the answer. Instead, the answer must be for all of us to be more conscious of the rhetorical context our own metaphors create, to be more openly critical (and consistently so) of our fellows who cross the line, and, as voters, to absolutely stop rewarding this sort of campaigning with our votes. I think that's what Keith Olbermann was getting at in his special commentary Saturday, and many others have echoed.

I said I wasn't naive about my fellow Democrats; I am naive enough to hope this horrific tragedy will serve as a wakeup call. I don't want political discourse that's more "civil," in the sense of backing down from an honest contest of ideas and ideologies, but I do want a political discourse that's less reliant (preferably not at all) on images of personal violence. It may be that only crazy people would act on those violent images, but even if that's so, it's incumbent upon the vast majority of us who aren't crazy to stop giving them ideas.

¹ As an aside, while I haven't looked up its etymology, I suspect the word campaign itself, in its political context, is a military metaphor.

² Yes, yes, I know what passes for the left in the U.S. isn't so leftish by international standards.

³ No, I don't mean to be tarring all Republicans with this assertion. I imagine moderate Republicans (if they're not extinct in the wild) and even mainstream conservative Republicans are chagrined by the naked appeal to violence adopted by many of their more radical colleagues.

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