Tuned In

Did Extreme Talk Pull The Trigger? Wrong Question

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One of my first reactions to the sickening shooting in Arizona, and to the charge that it resulted from violent imagery from politicians and media figures: the Rally for Sanity is suddenly not looking so wishy-washy and irrelevant for focusing on the tone of politics.

One of my next reactions: something else will happen. At some point, someone will do something terrible, and someone else will want to draw the same kind of connection to a certain cause, or a videogame, a TV show, a song, a movie. There will be talk about the danger of extreme expression (generally, someone else’s) because of its effects on impressionable or easily-led people (generally, someone else). And the lessons we take from this atrocity will set the precedent for the next atrocity.

It will happen, because it has happened before, and when it does, my response will be what it was before. Expression has effects. Tremendous effects. Rhetoric shapes our worldview. Narratives change people’s lives. Arguments move listeners and infuriate them. Does rhetoric cause anything? You could make a good argument that, when it comes to human behavior, rhetoric causes everything.

Expression has profound, undeniable effects–but it rarely has directly traceable, because-A-thus-B effects. It’s possible for a novel to drive one person to appreciate beauty and another person to kill a celebrity. It’s possible for fiery rhetoric to turn one person into an activist and another into a criminal.

What’s not possible, short of a direct admission, is to prove that an “atmosphere” of any sort led anyone to commit an act of violence they otherwise would not have. Setting the argument on those terms–who has “blood on their hands,” etc.–frames it in terms of one more eternal unprovable debate between the already-convinced. (I give Keith Olbermann credit, at least, for including himself in his Special Comment as someone whose language has also crossed a line.)

And that misses the point. Hostile, belligerent rhetoric isn’t wrong for what it causes. It’s wrong for what it is in itself.

There’s already a reason that it’s inappropriate to use “fight” and “target” and “battle” metaphors cheaply; to suggest “Second Amendment remedies” for frustrations at the ballot box; to put crosshairs or bullseyes on a map over the districts of your ideological opponents; to make a campaign ad where you take out a rifle and shoot a bill you don’t like.

That reason is not that somebody is going to see that and suddenly decide that murder is a legitimate means to an end. It’s that responsible, grown people don’t act that way in public. It’s because it cheapens us. It’s because acting as if every triumph of your political opponents is the end of democracy, every concession of your allies the appeasement of Hitler and every election loss a secret coup is bitter, small and ugly. (No one inscribes the monuments of beloved leaders with their greatest political insults.) It’s because our automatic habit of seeing every disagreement as a “battle” with “targets” and “war rooms” makes us a cynical, depressed, crabbed electorate–at minimum.

If Jared Loughner were somehow definitively proved to have acted for reasons entirely unrelated to violent political rhetoric, would that violent rhetoric suddenly become any better? No. Here’s a good rule of thumb: if you’re looking at a campaign graphic and thinking, “How bad would this look if somebody tried to kill one of the people on this map tomorrow?”–guess what? It’s probably a bad idea.

Most people already realize that. But if it makes a few people ask themselves a simple, decent question before they put their rhetoric out there, it would not be such a terrible side effect of a truly terrible act.