Yesterday’s tragedy in Arizona is beginning to foster a national discussion on “hate speech” and “civility” in politics. There is nothing inherently wrong in this. I’d say its even welcome from the millions of Americans who feel politics has grown especially vitriolic in the past decade.
I do worry that too much will be given to such a discussion, as if the tragedy itself is the direct result of our political discourse. It is an undeniable factor in what occurred, but focusing on “discourse” seems to hide as much as it clarifies for me.
WWII era poster, published by Seagram-Distillers Corp.
One of the disturbing trends in politics from the Right in the past generation has been a willingness to engage in what I call an inflammatory rhetoric of absolutism. (Actually, “willingness” might be a soft word to use in this case because I think we have every reason to believe that it is a political tactic that is knowingly organized in its use.) This language feeds off the idea of crisis, turning political debate into a “war.” It frames the opposition as a threat to “your way of life,” not as a group of people with different ideas, analyses, or philosophies than you, but as “traitors” to the country.
This is where the absolutism comes into play. In this way of thinking, there are only two ways to think: your way and the wrong way. People who oppose you or don’t agree with you are “un-American”; they are “Socialists” and “Communists”; they are trying to “ruin our great country” and to “take away all that makes us great.”
All of the above terms (and more) are employed to end debate by excluding the authority of the opposing side to speak. For example, somebody who advocates “un-American” ideas can not be rationally listened to. So these characterizations become rhetorical tools to limit debate rather than foster it. This is another form of its absolutism.
Of course, much of their language is imbued with the rhetoric of danger and violence, where people are encouraged to “take our country back” with allusions made to revolution, physical violence, death and blood, and the like. These particular linguistic tactics convey the sense of urgency and crisis inherent in their absolutism.
Now this might seem like a defense of the current debate about rhetoric and language, but it’s not.
You see, while I don’t like to hear this language, and while I also think it contributes nothing positive to our political process, I don’t fear it or its use. As a historian of the 20th century, I can’t tell you how many times the Right has policed activities of the Left on the basis of language. Ideas and ideals like “civility” are as dangerous as ones of “radicalism” or “un-Americanism.” The danger does not lie in these forms of debate and rhetoric but in the heavy-handed power that gets to label them and define them as outside the “appropriate” parameters of participation in our political system.
The danger is inherent in the ways power assigns “acceptability” and “unacceptability” to forms of discourse, in effect delineating who can and can not participate in the political system.
I don’t fear language. I do fear many of the ideas behind language. I do fear many of the systems of belief which undergird our current political system and the positions of certain people in power. But even ideas are not the problem.
Yesterday’s tragedy in Arizona wasn’t caused by language. It was caused by the implementation of nihilistic ideas into our political system, comfortably and callously promoted by certain members of the Republican Party. Language and ideas aren’t the real problem, except in how they let us understand the ways our system of power operates. They become reflections of the problem in their use as rationalizing systems for power.
I don’t care if people go around saying they think Health Care for children is “the most un-American piece of legislation ever passed.” It is hyperbole. It is irrational and untrue. If somebody actually believes it they are likely to be ill-informed. But I don’t care if they say it or even believe it.
I do care when a mainstream political party who is in power makes a decision to deliberately use this hyperbole as a political tool to gain more power. I do care when they implement their absolutism as the foundation of political debate in this country.
Too many people in the GOP have been willingly promoting this nihilistic political analysis in order to gain a greater position in the government. I don’t doubt there are many ill-educated or dimwitted Congresspeople who actually believe Obama is trying to dismantle the country, but most of them do not. Most who are engaging in and promoting these ways of thinking have been doing so while know all along that they lack credible foundation.
Most of the GOP opposes Obama’s health care plan because they want to defend the profits of tremendously powerful corporations and because they don’t want a Democrat in the White House. As they nurture a context of crises and political radicalism they do so for the most traditional of reasons–to protect power.
And this is the real danger. This empty and inflammatory political rhetoric is not the reflection of a real political analysis of our present but a tool in order to protect the status quo. People are being mobilized into a political frenzy by people who are trying to limit their real political efficacy.
Congresswoman Gifford wasn’t shot because of rhetoric. She was shot because people in power have made stupidity seem rational, just to protect the powers they serve.
Whether or not politicians believe in white supremacy, vigilantism, armed revolution, that “God hates fags,” or that Obama is a muslim is irrelevant in our present situation. Whether or not they advocate for the killing of Democrats is also. But each must ask themselves if they are comfortable attracting the support of people who do. Each politician must account for their own political ways of thinking which resonate with the kinds of movements that are the real threat to our democracy.
We lose much more than we gain when we live in a society that wants to police rhetoric for inclusion and exclusion in our political realm. That absolutism is bad on both sides of the spectrum.
As a democratic society, we have an obligation to openly debate policy, sometimes by confronting radical, revolutionary, fringe, or extreme views. But this isn’t what we have been doing. Instead, we’ve been using these views as a priori conclusions in order to stifle the free exchange of ideas. We’ve been subverting the heart of the democratic process–the free and open exchange of ideas–by limiting that debate with a fascist tactic of absolutism.
One cannot openly advocate and institutionalize a philosophy of absolutism, crisis, and panic and not take responsibility for the results. Those who have done so must now face the consequences. If those entail a national litmus test for “civil” and “uncivil” ideas–an emboldened absolutism–then we have all lost.