Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The reckless stupidity of Jack Shafer’s defense of inflamed rhetoric

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Jack Shafer
Jack Shafer

In the wake of last Saturday’s Tucson, Arizona shooting, people have been quick to play the blame game (and rightfully so), pointing fingers at predominately right-wing figures for their constant use and elevation of aggressive and eliminationist rhetoric that’s created a poisonous political climate that facilitates such violent acts. Most have been calling for a toning down of the anger and belligerence, while others (mostly right-wingers, unsurprisingly) have gone on the defensive and have only further exposed themselves as hate-mongering hacks.

But other than those who decry violent rhetoric and those who try to excuse their behavior, there seems to be a third category: the defense of violent rhetoric, itself. Cue Slate’s Jack Shafer in a disgusting and stunningly oblivious piece where he actually accuses those opposing the inflamed political climate of “awesome stupidity”:

The attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and the killing of six innocents outside a Tucson Safeway has bolstered the ongoing argument that when speaking of things political, we should all avoid using inflammatory rhetoric and violent imagery.


The lead spokesman for the anti-inflammatory movement, however, was Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, whose jurisdiction includes Tucson. Said Dupnik at a Jan. 8 press conference in answer to questions about the criminal investigation:

I'd just like to say that when you look at unbalanced people, how they are—how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths, about tearing down the government, the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. And unfortunately, Arizona, I think, has become sort of the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry.

Embedded in Sheriff Dupnik's ad hoc wisdom were several assumptions. First, that strident, anti-government political views can be easily categorized as vitriolic, bigoted, and prejudicial. Second, that those voicing strident political views are guilty of issuing Manchurian Candidate-style instructions to commit murder and mayhem to the "unbalanced." Third, that the Tucson shooter was inspired to kill by political debate or by Sarah Palin's "target" map or other inflammatory outbursts. Fourth, that we should calibrate our political speech in such a manner that we do not awaken the Manchurian candidates among us.

And, fifth, that it's a cop's role to set the proper dimensions of our political debate. Hey, Dupnik, if you've got spare time on your hands, go write somebody a ticket.

Sheriff Dupnik's political sermon came before any conclusive or even circumstantial proof had been offered that the shooter had been incited by anything except the gas music from Jupiter playing inside his head.

It seems to be a fundamental law of punditry that whenever a piece is dripping in condescension, the writer will show throughout said piece that such attitude is thoroughly undeserved and most often self-defeating. Shafer’s article yet another example of this, as even the brief excerpt quoted above is riddled with illogic and outright arrogant idiocy. The evidently reasonable Sheriff Dupnik merely stated that a climate made toxic by constant aggression and intimidation is prone to breeding acts of violence. That’s just plain common sense. But to Shafer, a libertarian with an apparent chip on his shoulder, Dupnik’s criticism was aimed at anyone who criticizes the government (when it clearly wasn’t) and to regulate political discourse, which is simply and utterly ridiculous, as neither Dupnik, or anyone else, has ever called for such a thing.

For as long as I've been alive, crosshairs and bull's-eyes have been an accepted part of the graphical lexicon when it comes to political debates. Such "inflammatory" words as targeting, attacking, destroying, blasting, crushing, burying, knee-capping, and others have similarly guided political thought and action. Not once have the use of these images or words tempted me or anybody else I know to kill. I've listened to, read—and even written!—vicious attacks on government without reaching for my gun. I've even gotten angry, for goodness' sake, without coming close to assassinating a politician or a judge.

From what I can tell, I'm not an outlier. Only the tiniest handful of people—most of whom are already behind bars, in psychiatric institutions, or on psycho-meds—can be driven to kill by political whispers or shouts. Asking us to forever hold our tongues lest we awake their deeper demons infantilizes and neuters us and makes politicians no safer.

Ah, so Jack Shafer won’t be turned into a homicidal maniac by belligerent rhetoric? Oh, goodie, then, I guess we’re all safe and secure in the knowledge that no-one else, such as, say, mentally disturbed folks who aren’t already locked up in prisons or psych wards, will ever pose any credible risk to any bystanders or politicians for political or ideological reasons ever again. Good to know.

Shafer’s line about supposedly being asked to “forever hold our tongues”, even if he’s being hyperbolic, only shows how clearly and grandly he’s missed the point. Again, no-one, anywhere, is demanding that people shut up and resort to inane language that would bore a five-year-old. Civilians, commentators and politicians are not being asked to keep quiet and hide their opinions, even the controversial ones, in an over-the-top effort not to offend people. All that some are pleading for is to tone the rhetoric down a few notches. You know, rhetoric like thinly veiled calls to violence such as Second Amendment remedies (Sharron Angle), or better yet, if ballots don’t work, bullets will (Tea Party), amongst any number of other similar examples one can find with a cursory Google search. This sort of language is not merely bickering and debating. Demands that the populace be armed and dangerous (Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN)) are not conductive to a healthy and open political discourse. They are madness.

Asking that people not summon up such hateful and eliminationist imagery is not demanding that they censor themselves. It’s simply asking them to exercise their goddamned common sense and to not fuel an ongoing fire that spawns only more tension, until some of the weaker-minded individuals eventually snap and start pulling the trigger. In other words, “use your heads” – I really don’t see how that is much of an imposition.

The call by Sheriff Dupnik and others to take our political conversation down a few notches might make sense if anybody had been calling for the assassination in the first place, which they hadn't. And if they had, there are effective laws to prosecute those who move language outside of the metaphorical. I can't be overly critical of the sheriff. After all, he's the one who has spent his career witnessing how threats can turn into violence: gang wars, contract killings, neighborhood rows, domestic disputes, bar arguments, and all the rest.

Gee, a gracious show of respect after implicitly denouncing him as a censorial busybody. And indeed, no-one’s called for the outright murder of political opponents – just that people get out their guns and stampede around in a show of force, as I mentioned above. That’s much better.

The great miracle of American politics is that although it can tend toward the cutthroat and thuggish, it is almost devoid of genuine violence outside of a few scuffles and busted lips now and again. With the exception of Saturday's slaughter, I'd wager that in the last 30 years there have been more acts of physical violence in the stands at Philadelphia Eagles home games than in American politics.

I’m not exactly a US political history buff, but I would wager that if acts of violence have been relatively rarer in the last few decades, that might be because politicians (not to mention pundits and large factions of the general population) hadn’t started demonizing their opponents and bordering on calls to armed insurrection, as they have been doing for the past few years, now. Just a guess.

Any call to cool "inflammatory" speech is a call to police all speech, and I can't think of anybody in government, politics, business, or the press that I would trust with that power. As Jonathan Rauch wrote brilliantly in Harper's in 1995, "The vocabulary of hate is potentially as rich as your dictionary, and all you do by banning language used by cretins is to let them decide what the rest of us may say." Rauch added, "Trap the racists and anti-Semites, and you lay a trap for me too. Hunt for them with eradication in your mind, and you have brought dissent itself within your sights."

Our spirited political discourse, complete with name-calling, vilification—and, yes, violent imagery—is a good thing. Better that angry people unload their fury in public than let it fester and turn septic in private. The wicked direction the American debate often takes is not a sign of danger but of freedom. And I'll punch out the lights of anybody who tries to take it away from me.

In other words: “Be as much of an angry, threat-spewin’, gun-totin’ degenerate as you wanna be, cuz that’s called freedumb!”

Of course, Shafer is perfectly free to try and hit whomever he likes for any reason. The thing that he so obviously fails to grasp is that every now and then, someone comes along who’s bigger, badder and crazier than he is. And that applies as much to his potential pugnacious fantasies as it does to the very real world of our increasingly toxic political landscape.

(via The Agitator)