External Excuses

The internet is full of people blaming Sarah Palin for yesterday’s shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, with most the rhetoric focusing on Palin’s “gunsight” election map. This outrage strikes me as unnecessary politicizing for a number of reasons.

At this point, little is known about the shooter’s motives. The details we know about him point to a disturbed and unbalanced individual. Non-specific arguments about the general violent tone of the current political climate may have some weight,1 but many of the comments I’ve seen include very specific language: Palin should be held “directly responsible,” the shooter was “taking orders” from the Tea Party, Palin is “guilty of murder.” At best, even as hyperbole, that kind of talk is premature.2

If a link is eventually drawn, it would still be difficult to establish it as an extraordinary occurrence. The “bullseye” and “targeting” metaphor is nothing new to election politics, nor is it exclusive to any particular party or ideology. As others have shown, Democrats have used bullseye maps in the same way. The usefulness and propriety of such metaphors is debatable too, but pretending that it’s unprecedented isn’t helpful.

The thing that bothers me most is this “external forces” double standard. A few weeks ago, when that crazy person shot up the school board meeting in Florida, I was glad to see no one blaming the movie V for Vendetta (from which the shooter explicitly drew inspiration). It seemed everyone agreed a movie shouldn’t be blamed for the actions of a disturbed individual.

This was a pleasant exception to the rule. We all know countless stories of crimes being blamed on violent movies, rock music, and video games. Most of the time, it’s those on the political left defending freedom of expression. But this seems not to apply when they have an opportunity to attack a political enemy.3

Someone on Twitter rebutted someone else’s Palin-blaming with this:

Blaming Sarah Palin for this shooting is like blaming Marilyn Manson for Columbine.

To which the response was:

Which I seem to remember the right wing had NO problem doing.

OK. Is this person saying the “right wing” was correct in blaming Marilyn Manson for Columbine, and therefore should be OK with him blaming Palin for this shooting? Probably not. What he’s saying is, the right wing was wrong to blame that external source (music) for that tragedy, but I am correct to blame this external source (speech) for this one. So the response is, essentially, “Don’t talk to me about logic or principles. I’m not speaking from a principled position, but rather a political one.”

This happens all the time, on both sides of the political spectrum. We view external events in ways that validate our particular ideologies. We become outraged at whatever disturbs our preconceived notions, and we actively seek out whatever confirms them.

The logically consistent stance is, either (1) external sources should be accountable in some way for how they are interpreted by others. Or (2) they shouldn’t. If it’s reasonable to expect video game players to realize their shoot-’em-up game isn’t real life, then it’s equally reasonable to expect the general public to recognize metaphor in political speech.4

My purpose is not to advocate for Sarah Palin or the foolish imagery she uses in her political speech. I am simply appealing for consistency.

I think there is a political lesson to be learned here, but it isn’t, “Your words kill people.” It is this: “People kill people, so don’t say things that will make you look like an asshole when they do.”

  1. For a brief, but thoughtful look at this issue, see here. []
  2. At worst, these types of comments (calling someone a murderer, “blood on their hands,” etc.) are often viewed themselves as incitements to violence. []
  3. Those on the right are equally as happy to overlook the Constitution when it things like building a mosque. []
  4. And there is plenty of historical precedent, as well. []