My Excuse

This post started out as a reply to a comment by Ed on my post yesterday, but it quickly evolved beyond a simple response to one person.

I agree that the current political rhetoric is far too combative. The problem is not that some want to use this moment to start a thoughtful dialog about civility in political discourse. The problem is, many are doing so in a confrontational way, and with the use of violent rhetoric themselves (which is not conducive to thoughtful dialog).

By approaching the issue as a confrontation, it is only natural that conservatives become defensive and point to instances of the other side behaving in the same way.1 When presented with these examples, liberals become defensive and no dialog is possible. The way to approach an issue like this is with a humble admission of our own mistakes, even if we think the mistakes of the other side are worse. As long as both sides are making one-sided arguments, there’s no chance of accomplishing anything.

As I said yesterday, I’m not ready to pin blame on any particular individual or group for inciting violence. Examples abound of both parties using violent language in political speech. It’s a pointless game of tit-for-tat. This is a multi-layered issue that calls for more careful consideration. My goal here isn’t to defend anyone in particular, nor is it to tackle the larger issue itself. I’m just hoping to provide some perspective and encourage anyone reading this to approach the issue with more humility than I’ve seen around the Internet.


The primary issue is, as usual, freedom of speech.

In a comment on my previous post, Ed rightly points out that our laws do recognize the power of speech (and put some limits on it). He uses the classic example of yelling “fire” in a theater (although he acknowledges it’s not a perfect analogy for the current issue). A letter to the editor in the Fresno Bee today makes the link explicit.

It is illegal to yell fire in a crowded room. Yet, some “news” pundits and politicians are yelling fire, and riling up unstable minds to acts of violence like the one we witnessed on Saturday in Arizona.

The obvious problem with this line of thinking is, pundits are not “yelling fire.” If they were (analogically speaking), it would take the form of literal, explicit threats. As it is, they are only pointing out the fire exits. There must be some intermediary interpretation to see it as an implied threat, and even then it probably impossible to prove.

But the analogy is a weak one. When yelling “fire!” in a theater, there is no reasonable alternative intent: you’re trying to stir up trouble. You can’t explain to a judge that screaming about fire is a metaphor for how cool the movie is.2 The argument can certainly be made that violent political rhetoric is intended to stir up trouble (violent or otherwise), but that is not the only reasonable interpretation. An equally valid (and perhaps stronger) argument can be made for an intended metaphorical meaning.

Nearly everything about our political process is couched in metaphor, and much of it is the metaphor of battle. That’s how it’s always been. As humans, we’re wired to more clearly remember and give more weight to recent events, but history shows a long tradition of vilifying political opponents and using war language in political campaigns.

I’m not saying it’s OK; I’m just pointing out that there is an ebb and flow for this type of thing. It is not entirely unique. I’ll go as far as to say, it is nearly impossible to talk about politics without these metaphors. At this point, many of them don’t even seem like metaphors: attack ads, getting fired up, fighting for victory. That means any shift will require at least a partial rewriting of the political vernacular, which is all the more reason to approach the issue calmly.

It’s not them, it’s us

I think Ed is correct in saying that even if the shooter turns out to have been explicitly motivated by Palin’s speech/map/etc., her supporters will not blame her. I also expect that if he turns out to have been motivated by some liberal rhetoric, liberal groups will not accept blame.3 The question at the heart of it is, how much blame can be attributed to that sort of thing? The answer for many people seems to be either “a lot” (if it turns out to hurt their opponent) or “not very much” (if it hurts themselves). This gets to the root of the problem, and I think it transcends political parties.

As political creatures, we tend to view everything an opponent does as if they are pure evil.4 That’s what allows people to be outraged at Palin’s crosshairs, but then make excuses when Democrats use targets.5 Although the images are nearly identical, we just know that Palin has a sinister motive whereas our guys made an honest mistake. The map is just one example. We’re more prone to see violence in the words of the other side—and not among our own—because we expect it and are therefore looking for it. That’s not to say there is no violence present in their rhetoric; it’s just to say that it may be exaggerated in our minds, and overlooked or excused when our own side says something similar.

The truth is, Sarah Palin is a panderer, not a murderer. She uses gun metaphors because it plays into her moose-hunting, straight-shooting, gee-whiz, Alaska-maverick gimmick. She uses it because she knows it pisses off her opponents and gets them talking about her. She says things like “don’t retreat; reload,” not because she advocates violence, but because she speaks in bumper sticker slogans. In a perfect world, she’d come clean and admit she’s been doing a schtick, and start choosing use her words to communicate rather than provoke (it provokes far more annoyance than it does violence). But if she doesn’t, there’s not much we can do about it without calling into question a significant percentage of political speech, on both sides.

Seriously, it’s us

Regardless of which side we perceive as “worse,” the type of combative rhetoric we’re seeing just begets more of itself. The current political climate is like the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Both sides can justify their violent behavior/speech by saying the other side started it. At this point, “who started it” is irrelevant. It’s just escalating into the ridiculous.

With that in mind, it’s not surprising that the protests against Palin’s speech have degraded into violent rhetoric themselves.

When pressed, many of those attacking Palin admit it’s nearly impossible to establish legal culpability for the shooting, but their language doesn’t reflect that.6 Calling her a murderer with blood on her hands is not reasonable discourse, even if we think she deserves it. It is, however, protected speech.

Many on the political left suggested that inflammatory rhetoric contributed to the murder of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller. Much (not all) of the rhetoric I’m seeing about Palin now is identical to that used against Tiller. The knee-jerk response to this is, “Yes, but they were wrong about him, but we are right about her” (and vice versa for conservatives). The fact is, it doesn’t matter. The actions of both individuals (Tiller and Palin) were legal. (Whether or not they were moral is a matter of conscience, not law.)

We can’t have it both ways. Either this type of rhetoric is legally allowed or it’s not. Either charges should be brought against both Bill O’Reilly for calling Tiller a murderer and those calling Palin a murderer, or they should be brought against neither.

The end

I think it’s a good idea to try to limit irresponsible political speech, but not by legal means. Lines need to be drawn (that’s a metaphor too), but legal limits on speech require serious thought and deliberation—not a knee-jerk response like some are advocating. For someone like me, who is wary of any new restrictions on speech, the issue becomes an familiar one: just because you can say something doesn’t mean you should.

There should be a change, and that change needs to come from within. It’s easy to complain about those on the other side, but that’s not going to change their minds (if anything, it just validates their positions). We need to be alert to our own prejudices7 and reject this kind of speech when it comes from our own—whether we’re on the left, right, or center. It may not seem fair to us if, while we’re cleaning up our own act, it seems our opponents are just continuing on with their violent rhetoric. Maybe it isn’t fair. On the other hand, maybe other thoughtful people will start to follow our example. Or maybe they won’t. It doesn’t matter. “Winning” at politics should not be an excuse to disregard our principles.

  1. I present this link as an example, not as a justification for anyone else. []
  2. Strictly speaking, you can make this argument, if you want to act cute and annoying. But I’m trying to have a real discussion here. []
  3. Politics seemingly renders people incapable of admitting to any mistakes. On some level, this is understandable; even on the rate occasion that someone apologizes for sloppy political speech, the other side routinely derides them as insincere. []
  4. Or pure stupid. []
  5. To me, the argument that crosshairs are somehow more violent imagery than targets smacks of post hoc reasoning; and it is undercut by the argument that, although the crosshair imagery may in fact be metaphorical, an unbalanced individual may act on it. Someone who is predisposed to kill at the sight of gun crosshairs or bullseyes probably isn’t going to ponder the subtle nuances of the imagery. []
  6. Likewise, many conservatives admitted there was nothing the government could do, legally, to prevent the mosque near Ground Zero, but that didn’t stop them from making it a political issue. []
  7. Let’s do away with the go-to response, “My previous standards don’t apply because this situation is different.” Every situation is different, but the same rules should apply across party lines. []