Violent Rhetoric and Tucson Again

Neal Boortz says that people have a right to be angry and use whatever imagery they wish as long as they do not resort to violence. Of course, there is no legal question here. Free speech is guaranteed by the first amendment to the US Constitution. But is it wise to use such imagery? I’m angry about many things in our culture and politics, but I would try not to use imagery that others can misinterpret or take literally. When we talk about targeting a political opponent with gun imagery, or taking second amendment remedies if we lose at the ballot box, or publicly describing our opponents as evil, unamerican, or alien, or musing or joking about assassinating politicians we don’t like, we have crossed the moral line.

Further, metaphors and symbols are not simply colorful ways of speaking, but the core elements of communication and expression which human beings use to articulate ideas and give voice to feeling. They express our most deeply held worldviews and values. When we use them, we are tapping into powerful currents of visceral emotion. By using war and combat imagery, we are not merely offering persuasive rhetoric, but we are appealing at a visceral level to a deep need for aggression that is latent in all us and part of the biological memory of our species. It is not surprising or unexpected that there are those who would take the metaphor literally, because the distance from violent language to violent action is not all that great.

The vast majority of us would not do so, but there are those who are disturbed or unbalanced who could well do so.  Now no one has responsibility for this assassination attempt and mass murder except for Jared Lee Loughner.  But what we say and do influences others, both directly and indirectly.  Whatever Loughner’s particular motivations, it is unlikely that he would have acted in this way without living in a culture of violence, including violent language and symbolism.

Whether or not Loughner listened to particular radio shows, belonged to specific groups, or was conservative or liberal is not the most important factor here. What matters is that the language we use sets a tone that affects the behavior of others, especially the mentally ill and disturbed. Those of us who speak and write in public venues have a great responsibility because others are watching us and following us. Gabby Giffords understood the violent context in which she worked and many (including her) have rightly noted that “words have consequences.” Indeed they do, because they are not “merely” words, but images and symbols that connect to primal, archetypal emotions.

It is not a question of assigning blame to the right or left or to any group, but rather of understanding the context in which our politics take place. There is a sense that it is legitimate to dehumanize others by using violent metaphors about them. Those on all sides of the political spectrum have done this. We don’t need to aggravate the hostile climate further by focusing on individuals who have made poor use of language and imagery, but we simply must ask them to stop doing it.

Let’s find other words and symbolism to express our anger and frustration.

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DR. LAURENCE H. KANT (LARRY KANT), MYSTIC SCHOLAR: Engaged Mysticism and Scholarship in the Pursuit of Wisdom; Discovering meaning in every issue and facet of life; Integrating scholarship, spirituality, mysticism, poetry, community, economics, and politics seamlessly. Historian of Religion: Ph.D., Yale University, 1993 (Department of Religious Studies); Exchange Scholar, Harvard University, Rabbinics, 1983-84; M.A., 1982, Yale, 1982 (Department of Religious Studies); M.T.S., Harvard Divinity School, 1981; B.A., Classics (Greek and Latin), Tufts University, 1978; Wayland High School (Wayland, MA), 1974. Served on the faculty of Cornell University (Ithaca, NY), York University (Toronto), and Lexington Theological Seminary (Lexington, KY). Works in many languages: Ancient Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, English, French, Italian, German, Modern Greek (some Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish). Holder of numerous honors and awards, including The Rome Prize in Classics (Prix de Rome) and Fellow of the American Academy of Rome.
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One Response to “Violent Rhetoric and Tucson Again”

  1. Avatar Andrew B says:

    Nice piece, Larry, and I’m glad to see that you’ve got your blog up and running.

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  1. Tucson: Real Violence Rather than Civility is the Issue | Mystic Scholar - [...] rhetoric, see my piece:  http://mysticscholar.org/2011/01/10/violent-rhetoric-and-tucson-again/ Print [...]

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