Following the trail of political rhetoric to violence: Can we deny that words matter?

I'm on the other side of the world, and so I didn't get to see President Obama's speech in Arizona. I gather that he did well. I'm glad to hear it because one of the things presidents can do at times of crisis is to provide us with sentiments that most of us can readily embrace, at a moment when our unity as a nation is in some doubt.

I've tried to keep up with at least some of the blizzard of commentary that has followed the Arizona shooting, and although a lot of it has been thoughtful, I'm also disappointed (though not surprised) by the reflexive "who us?" reaction from a lot of conservative pundits. The most prominent example was probably David Brooks of the New York Times, who devoted an entire column to explaining why violent political discourse had absolutely nothing to do with a violent assault on a U.S. congresswoman. Brooks took this position, I suppose, because he knows that most of the hateful and violent rhetoric in America today comes from the right-hand side of the aisle. I'm not saying he agrees or endorses the worst rhetorical excesses of the American right (i.e., Brooks is often wrong but rarely openly hateful), but it was a pretty lame attempt to exonerate his ideological fellow-travelers.

One problem, of course, is that causality in a case like this is always murky. When someone arrives at a public event and starts shooting people, how do we determine the relative weight of mental illness, personal experience, opportunity, lax gun-control laws, and the toxic soup of violent rhetoric to which he had been exposed, when we try to figure out how something like this could have happened? Granting that Rep. Giffords's assailant was by all the evidence a deeply disturbed individual, it is still true that his madness manifested itself as an attack on a politician. He didn't shoot up his workplace, or a school, or even a random shopping mall: He chose a political target. And whatever his personal motives or internal dialogues may have been, he did this at a moment in our history when self-interested hatemongers have combined violent rhetoric and political polarization to an unprecedented degree. Yet for the American right, the violent, and frequently Manichaean, rhetoric that has been the stock in trade of some of their most prominent spokespeople (including Sarah Palin) is totally irrelevant, and anyone who says differently is just playing partisan politics.

Needless to say, there's a striking dearth of consistency in a lot of these arguments. If you believe that Palestinian "incitement" is a powerful impediment to peace in the Middle East, then you think words matter in that context and you ought to acknowledge that they probably matter back here too. If you're worried about the dangers of nationalist rhetoric in the Chinese media, then you recognize that what elites and major media figures say can affect what masses perceive and what some individuals do. If you are one of those people who think that what madrasas in Pakistan teach is a source of terrorist violence, then you understand that violence sometimes arises because of what other people have written or said (sometimes over and over and over). If you believe that Mein Kampf had something to do with convincing Germans to commit genocide, then you've acknowledged that words do matter and sometimes they pave the way to unspeakable acts. So why deny it in this most recent case?

And here's the central point to remember: Violent language and hateful political rhetoric don't make most of the people who hear it run out and kill. Rather, the problem is that it makes it more likely that a handful of more fervent, less stable, more susceptible, less socially connected individuals will hear the message and take it to heart. And in a world where guns are cheap and plentiful, all it takes is one.

The solution, needless to say, is not censorship. The solution is to view those who favor violence as a way of dealing with one's political opponents with contempt, and to treat entertainers who use such language and tropes as moneymaking devices as beneath even that. I don't want the government telling Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, or any other xenophobic whack job what not to say; I just want sensible Americans to switch the channel and confine them to the obscurity that they deserve.



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