Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Words matter

DISCLAIMER: The subject matter of this post is unavoidably political.  Nevertheless, I wish to keep the discussion within the confines of the principles of rhetoric and composition theory, and not an argument over which political party is the "correct" one.

Doubtless you have heard about it by now.  I'm sure my dogs have even heard about it.  Not sure about the neighbor's cat, but my dogs have heard.  Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot last Saturday in Tucson, Arizona.  She is recovering from a massive head wound, but several other people were killed in the shooting, including a 9 year-old girl and a Federal court judge.
What concerns us here is the notion that this insidious event may have been the result of heated rhetoric and texts in political and cultural discourse. Among the given examples of such speech both spoken and written:

-In 2008, Sarah Palin placed a gun sight on Giffords' district, along with the districts of several other representatives.  That web page has since been changed, removing Gibbons' name and the crosshairs.

-Sharron Angle, former Tea Party candidate in Nevada, once tangentially suggested "Second Amendment remedies" to deal not just with the supposedly ever-growing "tyrannical" U.S. government, but to replace her election opponent: Majority Leader Harry Reid

-President Obama once boasted of "bringing a knife to a gunfight" in terms of political sparring with Republicans.  A clear paraphrase of a line from the film The Untouchables.

Now one thing needs to be made perfectly clear: neither Ms. Palin nor any of the other above mentioned ever directly called for the deaths of Giffords or anyone else for that matter.  Never.   Again, we are concerned with the use of discourse regardless of the political affiliation.

Violent metaphors seem unavoidable.  The United States is a nation born out of gun violence, after all.  It is not uncommon for political confrontations to be termed as "showdowns, or "opening up with both barrels."  But what happens when these sorts of rhetorical devices are employed over and over again?  I can speak to you and profess to mean you no harm, but if my textual message to you is routinely peppered with phrases such as (only as examples) "gunning for you" or "shooting you down," your opinion of my intentions would likely be less than cordial.  When political discourse is collocated in the same space as a word like "reload" or the symbol of a target, it's difficult to infer a benign interpretation.  If someone placed a gun sight over where I live, I'm not going to take it as a compliment.  In all of this, I believe that we must ask what the motivation is in the composition of such speech.  When using gun or violence metaphors, what end result is the speaker/writer attempting?  Who is the intended audience for their rhetoric?  Are there multiple audiences?  Perhaps one they wish to inspire and another they wish to intimidate?

The questions of composition here seems to be ones of agency and  primacy.  Or the loss of primacy.  Once a writer composes a text, however long or short, and then releases it to an audience, that writer has lost all control over how that text will be interpreted.  To see an example of this in action, try writing something and then handing it over for workshop discussion.  I guarantee you will be surprised by a few of the interpretations that you will hear.  Just imagine what this means to a writer whose work is taken and mangled in interpretation, such as J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye was by Mark Chapman and Paul Schrader's Taxi Driver was by John Hinckley.  Barack Obama and Sarah Palin may very well have no intention to inspire violence, yet that cannot stop someone from taking their words as such.  In the end, there is nothing that a writer can comprehensively enact to prevent such drastic misinterpretations.

Yet there are ways to reduce the risk, it would seem.  The best analysis I have heard of the sad situation from Saturday was on MSNBC.  The affect of rhetoric is not altogether different from that of an influenza outbreak.  When such viral epidemics occur, those who are already sick with something else are the most at risk.  The same goes for heated rhetoric.  When words and phrases such as "Second Amendment remedies" and "reload" float about in the ether and are then added to with vitriol from all sides, it is the already mentally unstable who are at risk of taking in the text, interpreting it through their own filter, and then choosing to act.  The accused gunman from Saturday may have been just that: an already mentally ill individual with no real allegiance to any political party but influenced in whole or in part by texts within our marketplace of free ideas.  

Words and symbols create our reality.  The Greeks knew that long ago as both Plato and Aristotle wrote at length about speaking to persuade an audience.  If the use of words associated with violence or metaphors of violence are written, spoken, and broadcast on a continual basis within the arena of political discussion, the reality that will result could very well be one of combat, perhaps only verbally...or perhaps physically.

1 comment:

  1. On Facebook, Armando said: "Nice post."

    Ghost Dogg said: "Love your new blog. It made me think of how football players are often referred to as "warriors" and games are thought of in military terms...a back-breaking three in basketball is what? A dagger."