Tuesday, January 11, 2011


We are primates that evolution has selected to see patterns. Leopard tracks by water-hole + Thag not seen lately = Aaargh! Leopards have eaten Thag! Run away! These are the kind of genes that get passed on. Leopard tracks by water-hole + Thag not seen lately = I will suspend judgment until I have more information, or until I am eaten by a leopard. Not so much.

So when we heard that Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and twenty others were shot with six of them dead, our primate brains immediately try to find a pattern. Some prematurely and irresponsibly speculated "that Sarah Palin's now-infamous crosshairs map probably had something to do with the shootings."

But sometimes it turns out that Thag fell off a cliff and the leopard was just passing through. It now looks like the killer, like many assassins in the U.S. in the past, doesn't map particularly well to any coherent major political movement.

It does look more and more like it's probable that corrosive political rhetoric probably wasn't one of the causes of this particular tragedy. And the First Amendment protections of free speech should not be weakened, so that corrosive rhetoric will continue to be legal.

But corrosive rhetoric is still corrosive. I'm not so much concerned with violent metaphors, although the crosshairs were, in retrospect, an unfortunate choice.

The real problem is rhetoric that treats political opponents not as honest people who are mistakenly advocating policies you disagree with, but as actively and knowingly evil. To guess at unprovable motives and declare them wicked. To lump all those you oppose into them and declare that they all share the goals of whichever member of that coalition is most extreme.

For example, this from Rush Limbaugh:

And the first thought, the desperate hope that the losers in November of 2010 had, was that they could revitalize their political fortunes because of this unfortunate shooting of a congresswoman in Arizona. That was the most important thing to them -- and that, to me, is sick. You know that they were rubbing hands together. You know that they were e-mailing and calling each other on the phones saying, "A-ha, this might be the one! This might be the one where we can officially tie it to these guys and shut 'em up and shut 'em down." They want you to believe that sadness was on the order of the day, and I'm sure it was, but the opportunity! They couldn't help themselves. They just couldn't help themselves.

It encourages the thought that those attacked rhetorically are worthy of literal attack. It's the sort of rhetoric that makes political violence more likely. Yes, we've had corrosive rhetoric in the past: The Bush=Hitler thing was odious, and I said so at the time. Likewise some of the more extreme leftist rhetoric during the Vietnam War and anti civil rights rhetoric during the 1960s, and the most extreme anti-Lincoln rhetoric in the 1860s.

Now, the people inspired to political violence by the words of others were accountable for their own actions. But those that inspired them bear some responsibility as well.

And the harm of this sort of rhetoric isn't just the encouragement of violence, it's the hardening of political positions so that beneficial compromises can't be made.

Dial it back, please.

More thoughts on the subject from David Frum.


Charlotte said...

Well done. Good post.


Brent Hanner said...

While I'm not an expert on the ACW but I think you will find that the vitriolic rhetoric in that period starts well before Lincoln and that abolitionist rhetoric starts it several decades earlier. And as is usually the case as one side gets loud the other side gets louder. Then laws are passed and violent incidents happen and eventually shit gets out of control.