An Experiment in Irresponsible Language

So another deranged madman allegedly murdered 6 people, one of them a nine-year-old girl, while wounding 14 others. At the time of this writing, several of those 14 are not out of the woods yet. No one yet knows why he did it, or if he acted alone or with help. This has happened before, and given the sad condition of our species, it will likely happen again.

Crazy people have gained access to weapons and killed before. However, with the careful qualification that we don’t know what (if anything) was going through his head, we do know this: this shooting didn’t happen in a vacuum. The intended target was Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona’s 8th Congressional District. Below is a map Sarah Palin sent to her supporters during the election which Ms. Giffords ultimately won:

Keep in mind, that members of the Tea Party (a movement she is very popular in) are known for carrying guns to public political rallies. So to recap: Sarah Palin knows that a large and vocal segment of her base carry guns in public. Sarah Palin publishes a map with bulls-eyes over Rep. Giffords. After Giffords and a few others win the races in question, Palin Tweets: “Don’t retreat, reload!” Giffords is shot at a political rally. Sarah Palin denies responsibility, and releases a statement saying she is praying for “peace and justice.”

Was everyone who brought a gun to a rally planning on using it? Don’t know, though statements that begin with “Look at my big scary gun, government!” and end with “Just kidding” are confusing at best. Still, she knew what kind of a world she was speaking into when she used those gun metaphors, and she did it anyways. She had to know that at least a few of her AZ Tea Partiers were capable of violence. Even if no one had been shot, and even if Loughner was found to never have heard of Ms. Palin, she needs to be held responsible for advocating violence as a means of political discourse. Honestly, I remember thinking a long time ago after her map originally came out: “Someone in Arizona is going to get shot.” Representative Giffords herself indicated similar concern. That’s worth discussing, even if this shooting isn’t directly related.

FWIW, I thought all this before Saturday; I’m just disgusted by the way Palin is acting as if her careless words could not possibly have had anything to do with this. That disgust will be there until Palin apologizes and renounces such language, no matter what Loughner’s motives are revealed to be.

And honestly, let’s say we could somehow prove beyond a doubt that Loughner wasn’t influenced by Palin, or Bachman, or Angle, or anything other than undead Nazi space aliens talking to him through various stuffed animals and cats (it’s always cats, isn’t it?). Are we really comfortable with this kind of rhetoric? Is it really good? Would we really lose so much by abandoning it? What might we gain?

Ms. Palin has been experimenting with inflammatory, irresponsible, and yes, violent language for quite a long time, presumably in the hopes of determining how best to get elected. These shootings may end up having nothing to do with that experiment (I believe they call that ” a freebie”). But we the voting public need to make sure that her experiment ultimately fails in winning our vote, and instead brings our consternation.

  1. For what it’s worth, I’m neither a conservative nor a supporter of the Tea Party.

    I do however feel a need to defend something I don’t like. Conflict/combat rhetoric, being an effective device in our divided age, is utilized by various politicians in all manner of contexts. Do you recall when Obama talked about bringing a gun to a knife fight?

    What happens with this rhetoric is that it becomes a simple pawn utilized by the near-propaganda machines of the liberal and conservative elements of the media to forward their respective interpretations of the same political narrative–“The [insert other party name] is composed of hypocritical, irrational, irresponsible loons who will destroy this country should they be allowed back into power.” In other words, these kinds of incidents are merely a pretext to forward a conclusion already held–that the other party is beneath contempt (so keep voting for us). (It’s also an excellent means of selling news.) Political violence, of course, has crossed virtually all political parties and platforms throughout history.

    The fact that the Tea Party brings guns to some of their rallies does not imply a disposition toward acts of violence. This is a logical fallacy propagated by the media, and I do not understand the connection, aside from trying to paint the movement as extremists. A less tenuous connection needs to be made, such as providing relevant statistical evidence and a viable interpretation of that evidence.

    Of course, violence may be incited by rhetoric, as we learned through Hilter’s almost magical (demonic?) ability to entice a whole people into brutal inhumanity, but I don’t see the connection as either necessary or strong in most cases, especially from someone (Palin) who is so poor at public speaking. The causes of violence are many and require a certain set of conditions to actualize; rhetoric has no power if there are no corresponding heart desires to inflame (which is a prime reason Obama’s sweeping speeches are largely ineffective on me). James 4:1-2 gives us deep insight into the phenomenon; violence is caused by our desires being unmet. We quarrel and kill because our deepest “lusts” are unfulfilled. This happens with or without rhetoric, and addressing the rhetoric often only addresses a surface condition–in a capitalist democracy, we elect (through our votes) and listen (through our money) to those we wish to listen to. If we want someone who will engage our selfish tendencies and denounce our opponents in a supercilious, even outrageous, manner, that is going to be the kind of representation we naturally receive. (And also the kind of political commentary shown on the nightly news casts of MSNBC and Fox News–two sides of the same irresponsible coin.) We must change before our leaders change, and use the power of the vote to enforce those standards.

    I do not, however, think anyone will change in any large measure without Christ. Both Liberals and Conservatives carry the same selfish tendency to use insults, law suits, physical violence, and even death to enforce their own agendas. Only Christ will save us from this–from ourselves.

    With regard to my own rhetoric, having heard Timothy Keller in the past and now John Tinnin, I have come to see that I do not have a right to be all that contemptuous of politicians who are engaging in activities that I find highly offensive (a contempt that used to fan the flames of unmet desire–a disproportionate desire to see my political preferences enacted in the public sphere). Yes, I believe certain policies are contemptible in of themselves and deserve to be condemned soundly. But the individuals themselves do not deserve my contempt. They are made in the image of God and deserve the respect due their position as elected representatives of our country. They are sinners like me, and save for the grace of God, I would be just like them. The extent to which I foment bitter and resentful attitudes toward politicians is the extent to which I will be unable to forgive them for their injustices. That is not a place I wish to be spiritually, for a variety of reasons (Matthew 18:21-35).

    Indeed, there is another danger here, not one you have necessarily engaged in, but one that comes to mind in these kinds of discussions. To convince others that they should believe a particular political perspective merely through public shaming tactics is to dehumanize them, to reduce them to an emotional construct. Responsible political discourse requires that we engage a person’s mind, offering them sound arguments for why their position seems problematic and should be reconsidered. It should be 90/10 or 80/20 arguments/emotion in public debate and dialogue, in order that we might give our positions the most careful and due deliberation and avoid the escalation to personal insults that so often occurs otherwise.

    Forgive my long reflections. I hope they do not come across as an affront to you, and I desire that they might edify you in some way.

      • Doug
      • February 14th, 2011

      Hey Matthew, thanks for engaging! I’m looking forward to getting to know you, as you seem pretty interesting, and independent in your thinking, which is always fun.

      So to begin:

      Um, for what it’s worth, I guess I am pretty liberal in many of the policies I prefer, though not exclusively. I actually have a fairly strong libertarian streak in me, on social issues. Anyways, I’m not coming at this from cookie-cutter “one-half of a two-party system” perspective either.

      I do remember Obama’s statement. His one statement. From two years ago. I don’t approve, fwiw. Coupla things:

      1. This post was specifically about Ms. Palin and Arizona, not a comprehensive overview of the state of political rhetoric in America.

      2. If we may venture down that road for a minute, (and this is not meant as a rhetorical flourish, but an honest statement): I can’t seem to find anything comparable to the violent rhetoric from the Right on the Left these days. I mean, the Left called Bush dumb and Cheney evil, but I never heard them say anything about killing anyone. It’s not justified when anybody does it, but the violent rhetoric is-to my knowledge-not evenly matched.

      To your next point: I get it that many on the Left capitalized on the Tucson murders to shill for votes. That’s not cool. Having said that, my experience of the chain of events was this:

      1. Shooter murders/wounds a ton of people.
      2. Sheriff says “We need to watch our rhetoric”
      3. Left say: “Yeah, oops, we do.”
      4. Right says: “How dare you make a partisan statement right now!!!!!! BLOOD LIBEL!!!!!!”

      It’s interesting that the Right took a generic call for peaceful rhetoric personally, before the sheriff’s political affiliation (disclosure: liberal as all get out) was even known. So yes, there are people who manipulated things. BUT, I don’t think that everyone who called for less charged rhetoric was merely shilling for votes. Some of them-politicians in particular-were probably scared for their country, and even for their lives.

      “The fact that the Tea Party brings guns to some of their rallies does not imply a disposition toward acts of violence. ”

      What were they bringing them for? And what does this popular Tea Party shirt mean, especially in such a context?

      As far as your analysis coming out of James, I generally agree with you on the theory. Yet, Jesus said temptations are bound to come, but woe to the one through whom they come. I’m not making a one-to-one comparison here, but the fact remains that Jesus was aware both of the human propensity to sin and the moral culpability of those who engender sin. So yes, ultimately violence happens because of our internal sinfulness, and we remain individually responsible for it. However, encouraging violence and then saying, “Some people be crazy!” when it actually happens is irresponsible. That is the point of this post, and you seem to acknowledge some degree of irresponsibility in how MSNBC and FOX “report.”

      Agreed wholeheartedly that we all of us need Jesus, and that He is the only wise place to place our hope. A thousand amens, brother, a thousand amens.

      I’m touched by your thoughts on political figures and contempt. Most of my frustrations with the Christian Right comes from that-the belief that somehow the grace Christians have been given entitles them to treat people who disagree with them as enemies, and then conveniently ignore everything Jesus ever said about how to treat your ACTUAL enemies. I was a Christian who voted conservatively for many years, so when I hear a well-stated conservative arguments, I don’t think “This person is likely the ideological love-child of Hitler and Genghis Khan,” I mostly just disagree agreeably. Where I get stuck is the contempt-based spew (shown most clearly in the violence-tinged rhetoric) that we see from the Christian Right these days. Again, I enjoyed hearing your journey on that subject, and can assure you, beginning to grasp the Gospel is what made the change for me, too.

      As for your final paragraph, I appreciate you noting that I haven’t engaged in those tactics you mention. Again, I appreciate a well-thought-out argument, even if I disagree. Thus, I DON’T want to shut down debate, or force anyone to be liberal or suffer shaming, or whatever. I want rhetoric on all sides to be honest, respectful, and humane. I want our cleverest, most sarcastic and otherwise intense comments to be reserved for ideas, not people. I want to never again hear things about knives, guns, second amendment remedies as a means of deciding political battles when the other person got more votes, etc…

      Having reread my post in light of your reflections, I honestly wouldn’t change a thing if I had it to rewrite. Still, I am glad you engaged here, and hope you will continue to do so. Also, please look through the archives as this post, being so political, was something of an anomaly here. Also also, I love the title of your blog, and will be checking it out soon.

      Grace and Peace,


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