Friday, January 14, 2011

Yes, Words Do Matter

I find very convincing Stephen Walt's post today at his Foreign Policy blog, where he takes on David Brooks' recent NYT op-ed defending Sarah Palin et al. from accusations that their spiteful rhetoric (and her famous cross-hairs) may have influenced Jared Loughner's warped decision to take his gun to a political event and shoot a Democratic congresswoman.  He concludes:
 If you believe that Palestinian "incitement" is a powerful impediment to peace in the Middle East, then you think words matter in that context and you ought to acknowledge that they probably matter back here too. If you're worried about the dangers of nationalist rhetoric in the Chinese media, then you recognize that what elites and major media figures say can affect what masses perceive and what some individuals do. If you are one of those people who think that what madrasas in Pakistan teach is a source of terrorist violence, then you understand that violence sometimes arises because of what other people have written or said (sometimes over and over and over). If you believe that Mein Kampf had something to do with convincing Germans to commit genocide, then you've acknowledged that words do matter and sometimes they pave the way to unspeakable acts. So why deny it in this most recent case?
And here's the central point to remember: Violent language and hateful political rhetoric don't make most of the people who hear it run out and kill. Rather, the problem is that it makes it more likely that a handful of more fervent, less stable, more susceptible, less socially connected individuals will hear the message and take it to heart. And in a world where guns are cheap and plentiful, all it takes is one.
The solution, needless to say, is not censorship. The solution is to view those who favor violence as a way of dealing with one's political opponents with contempt, and to treat entertainers who use such language and tropes as moneymaking devices as beneath even that. I don't want the government telling Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, or any other xenophobic whack job what not to say; I just want sensible Americans to switch the channel and confine them to the obscurity that they deserve.
 Palin fans, of course, will reject vehemently the implied linking of their heroine to salafist imams and Nazi ideologues; but that misses the larger point.  When "leaders" speak to "followers," they want followers to take their words seriously, and to act upon them.  When Palin/Beck et al. employ the rhetoric ("Don't retreat; reload") and imagery (gun crosshairs) of violence (or a Sharon Angle proposes recourse to "Second Amendment" solutions) to whip up what amounts to "crusader" fury against "liberal" Democrats (who, in Palin's words, have pitted themselves against the "sacred document" of the U.S. Constitution), they have to expect that some devotees (a term which, BTW, describes many of them quite accurately) will feel compelled to resort to violent measures.
Speaking of which . . . That Congress might not finally see its way to legislating some kind of control that will keep the Jared Loughners of the country from packing heat staggers me.  When the Founding Fathers penned the Second Amendment, they lived in a world where ordinary farmer-citizens kept a musket for hunting and self-defense.  They could not have envisioned as part of "our freedoms" the ability of basically any American to walk into a Walmart and come out with multiple semi-automatic weapons, any one of which could take out dozens of fellow citizens.  

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