Metaphors of violence

There's been a good bit of discussion of the appropriateness of using the language of armed conflict to describe attitudes of public contempt for legislators.  You have Sharon Angle's invocation of  Second Amendment Remedies for problems with Congress.  Sarah Palin posted a map with crosshairs on names of electorally vulnerable Democrats, and she's fond of evoking gun violence in how to exchange with Liberals, with "Don't Retreat, Instead RELOAD" as the catchphrase.

A few years back, CBS golf analyst, David Feherty, offered up the following joke:

If you gave any U.S. soldier a gun with two bullets in it, and he found himself in an elevator with Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and Osama Bin Laden, there's a good chance that Nancy Pelosi would get shot twice, and Harry Reid and Bin Laden would be strangled to death

There was also a Nintendo DuckHunt-inspired game, Lame Duck Hunt (posted by "Americans for Prosperity"), where there are chances to really put the heads of  Pelosi and  Reid in some gunsights. 

Now Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) has been shot.  And John M. Roll, the chief judge for the United States District Court for the District of Arizona, fatally. 

In light of these events, it's right to ask: is the language of violence appropriate for reasonable political exchange?  Here's my initial try at an answer: People should be free to express their frustration and antagonism with those they oppose.  And the manner they express that opposition, I think, can appropriately use the language of violent conflict.  However, it is appropriate under the conditions that we are clear that the use of violent language is strictly metaphorical.  War metaphors for argument can emphasize the offensive tactical elements of argumentative exchange.  Some arguments are full frontal assaults, others are ambushes or surprise attacks, wherein one overwhelms an opponent.  One may lay to waste a position, skewer a point, or blow up a case.  Arguments may have a thrust, like that of a sword.  And consequently, every thrust can be parried.  One shores up defensive positions, and when defeated, one may be engage in rear-guard maneuvers.  One’s best arguments are heavy artillery, and one brings them out in long-standing debates to lay siege to well-defended viewpoints.

That's how I see Palin's crosshairs map and her 'reload' line.  The crosshairs are targets, that is, electoral targets – races that deserve focused attention.  The 'reload' line is more about self-confidence and trying again.   Neither are overt endorsements of violence.  But then there's Angle, Feherty, and the Lame Duck Hunt game.  These are considerably closer to endorsing real violence, not the metaphorical violence of winning an argument or election.  Angle and Feherty seem to be endorsing the use of deadly force in the face of disagreement.  The Duck Hunt game encourages you to put crosshairs right between Pelosi's eyes.

That is, there seems to be a difference between using metaphors of violence to endorse continued vigorous debate and exchange and using the language of violent confrontation as an endorsement of violent confrontation. Only the latter is morally unacceptable.  The former may have other dangers (perhaps in seeing argumentative exchanges through the lens of war), but it is not the overt commitment to physical hurt. 

6 thoughts on “Metaphors of violence”

  1. There are "time, place and manner" issues that arise with any form of inflammatory speech. When it comes to this type of speech, I think it's perfectly reasonable to hold political leaders, political parties and prominent commentators to a higher standard than a person with no similar public platform.
    Perhaps a fair measure of reasonableness is, when something like this happens, will the speaker stand behind her rhetoric, "I was speaking metaphorically and nobody paying attention to what I actually said would conclude that I was endorsing violence", or will they quietly try to flush their rhetoric down the memory hole?

  2. Hi Aaron, I heard that someone (Palin) tried to do the latter.  Having said that, however, I'd agree with Scott on the metaphors of violence, however, I'd think the metaphors of violence employed by certain characters coupled with apocalyptic (and pseudo-constitutional) visions of the legitimacy of the current administration cast their comments in a somewhat less charitable light.  The other day, in fact, Palin maintained that Obama was trying to weaken America.  It's not just that he is wrong or misguided, he's deliberating trying to ruin our country.  None of this, as many have hastened to point out, makes them guilty of the actions of the occasional nutcase, but it does make a case for moderation.  Interesting points, nonetheless, Scott and Aaron.   

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    I like where your argument landed but wonder if it displays the inherent squishiness of language: that people hear words and attach them to a pre-existing grid they continue to build in their head. And that grid may or may not accord with shared reality. So no matter how carefully the speaker uses the language of violent confrontation, even saying “Now look, I’m shifting into metaphor here…,” (which could make for dreary speechifying), listeners hear what they hear, which is often the piece of an argument that bolsters their grid’s position. Then again, if we all keep building an internal crazy grid, no amount of finely-honed logic will manage to intervene.
    I like Aaron’s point of holding people with a public platform responsible for the words they use. I think it less likely public rhetoric will quietly flush away, given the intensity of attention and the memory of the interweb. Maybe the best we can do is develop a sense of responsibility and encourage responsibility in others.

  4. Aaron — a nice point about the fact that who the speaker is changes the responsibilities, and public figures must shoulder the burdens of being good examples.   The problem with war and other violent metaphors in argument is that they can stand in the way of cooperative exchange, mutual regard.  Words like, Palin's "reload" make it very difficult, afterward, to say to the opponent: "well, you're only by metaphorical enemy."
    This makes Kirkistan's observation correct — namely, that it's hard, sometimes, to tell the difference between metaphors and literal speech.  But, I think there is one, and though it's hard to tell the difference sometimes, saying that there needs to be an "assault on the liberal platform of taxes" is different from calling on assaulting liberals.  The former may be an awkward choice of words, but I don't see it as morally (or even argumentatively) inappropriate.  Argument (and political argument) is a rough place, and confrontation is part of the game.  But we can disagree (and even be disagreeable, which also is appropriate sometimes, too) without assaulting each other. 

  5. One quick point about what John noted: Palin does often use language of physical confrontation, and I think it's often metaphorical, and mostly harmless.  Sure, it contributes to acrimony, but some issues are worth getting nasty over.  But portraying the President of the United States as intentionally weakening the country or as attempting to subvert the form of government is unacceptable.  There's calling GW Bush a liar and then there's calling B Obama a traitor.  That's irresponsible.

  6. I think  there are two important questions to ask,

    1) Does violent political rhetoric in the United States lead to terrorism?
    2) Does the US have a high rate of domestic terrorism?

    I have only heard of one example of violent political rhetoric leading to terrorism, but in general I haven't seen any.  I also would guess the US has a comparatively low rate of political violence, and that some political violence is inevitable. If the US level of political violence is minimal than one can infer that violent political rhetoric probably isn't leading to more violence (then would occur without it).
    Personally I think things like "lame duck hunt" are offensive, juvenile, counterproductive and downright unpleasant. But, I also don't see any evidence that they are leading to any violence.
    One more thing, I think it's obvious that people shouldn't be bringing guns to political rallies or shooting at pictures of elected officials (just to clarify).

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