Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Language and Politics

(reprinted from my mediation blog)

Each time we are forced to deal with another attempted or successful political assassination or other violent act, we react in a slightly different way, depending on the political concerns of the moment.  Some past incidents have sparked calls for stricter gun controls.  Sometimes we have heard cries for more law and order.  You used to hear people blame overly permissive child-rearing practices for violent or disruptive behavior.  Sometimes violence has been explained as the result of injustice or prejudice in society.  This time, in the wake of the attempted Giffords assassination, we have heard a lot of talk identifying the high level of violent rhetoric among politicians and the media as a source of the problem.

Attempts to draw a connection between inflamed political rhetoric and this particular violent act started almost immediately.  I'll admit I was pretty quick myself to draw what seems like an obvious connection between a heated political campaign featuring Congressional districts depicted with cross-hairs, and an individual actually targeting a Congresswoman with a gun.  The County Sheriff also identified the highly charged political climate in Arizona as a source of the problem.  More chillingly, the intended victim herself gave an interview last year, after her offices were vandalized, warning of the consequences of violent political rhetoric.  Given the nastiness of the recent campaign season, it seems only natural to attach some blame to to those who have fanned the flames of hate, and seemed to encourage violence.

In response to all of this discussion about our poisonous political atmosphere, it is not surprising that a counter-reaction has already started.  Talk radio hosts and pundits from the right condemn the left for attempting to use this incident to score their own political points. Instead of owning up to right wing campaign rhetoric that seems to encourage the violent overthrow of the government, they are making the weak suggestion that it's all ok because the left sometimes does it too.  They suggest that we should focus on the shooter's own personal responsibility, rather than blaming those leaders who have fomented fear and hate, and that there may not be much we can do, other than perhaps beefing up security, to guard against the actions of a few deranged individuals who will always be present among us. 

It may be beside the point even to try to find out whether this particular suspect was driven to act out a political hate crime by political hate talk.  It may even be impossible to determine for certain what part charged political rhetoric may have played in any particular killer's motivations, just as research never seems to provide a conclusive answer to speculation  about whether violent video games, or pornography, inspire violent actions.   The suspect listed on his MySpace page among his favorite books the Communist Manifesto, Mein Kampf, and Peter Pan.  Should we therefore blame Marx, or Hitler, or J. M. Barrie, for inspiring his alleged violent actions?  It also seems contrary to the effort of drawing useful lessons from this tragedy, to try to use it to score political points, from the left or the right.

But I still think that we should be concerned about excessively inflammatory political speech, regardless of whether or not this particular incident was inspired by violent political speech.  In fact, I would suggest broadening that concern.  It's not just whether politicians or talk radio hosts sometimes use violent metaphors to describe political conflict.  The real problem is that we constantly view the whole political system as a fight or a sport, and we tend to demonize our political opponents, instead of trying to understand their concerns.  The main reason I started a political blog a couple of years ago was to address the issue of whether the Obama campaign represented a genuine opportunity to transform our political culture.  And one reason I have been developing a mediation practice is to further my interest in transforming our adversarial legal culture into a more facilitative, interest-based system.  So I have no hesitation in jumping on this particular bandwagon.

It's some consolation to see that it is suddenly fashionable this week to talk about toning down overheated political rhetoric. The more difficult question is how to do it.  Those who have studied the issue can tell us that changing the nature of our political discourse is a more involved process than just removing overt references to weapons and fights from our speech.  Ken Cloke is a California mediator who has been thinking about these issues longer than I have.  In his book Conflict Revolution, he includes a section on mediating political speech.  Here is how Cloke defines the problem:
The fundamental orientation of politics to power and rights, as opposed to interests, automatically reinforces the assumption that there is a single truth or correct outcome and, more bizarrely, that it is morally acceptable to lie in pursuit of it.  This leads directly to verbal chicanery, character assassination, prejudicial statements, demagoguery, and a pursuit of victory at any price.
I might add that our focus on power and rights, as opposed to interests; our belief that our side is in sole possession of the truth; and our tendency to demonize the opposition, can also lead to violence in language or action.

Cloke proceeds to give many specific examples of questions that can be raised among people of differing political viewpoints to drive political disputes away from unproductive debate to a genuine attempt to find common ground and satisfy divergent interests.  For example, Cloke suggests that we might try asking whether people believe that their communications have been effective in improving understanding in the other side, and what they might do to improve communication.  Or ask people what they have learned from, or appreciate about the other side.  Or how the parties' relationship could be improved.   Then we need to transform political debates into dialogues, in which people are asked to identify what causes them to feel so passionately about particular issues, to search for values and interests they may have in common with the other side, to explore whether any part of the other side's ideas could be incorporated into their ideas, and a whole list of other topics.

As Cloke explains:
The purpose of these questions is not to eliminate or discourage disagreements, but to place them in a context of common humanity and allow genuine disagreements to surface and be discussed in depth.  These questions reveal that political conversations need not be pointlessly adversarial, but can be transformed into authentic engagements by allowing opposing sides to come to grips with difficult, complex, divisive issues without being hostile or abusive. 
(Cloke, Conflict Revolution, pp. 103-08)  Can we learn to transform our political dialogues in this manner?

(Reuters photo)


  1. Most everyone agrees, tone down the rhetoric!

    But Joe, you can't have it both ways at once. Within hours you were pointing fingers. Ironically -- you write about lowering rhetoric yet you continue to point fingers in this post. In fact, you heighten the rhetoric. You undo the very thing you set out to do. You throw a puch -- and then talk peacefully.

    In fact, it is not natural to attach blame moments after a shooting of the kind we just witnessed. Re-read that. What is natural is to mourn for the families. Right after the shooting I specifically posted here saying it was a human tragedy attempting to lower rhetoric. Personally, I would rather erro in an attempt to lower rhetoric than risk raising it by assigning blame.

    Later in the afternoon of the murders I sat with my liberal 23 year old daughter and watched the the County Sheriff give his news conference. She looked over at me and said "what is this, he is supposed to be giving a news conference not a lecture". I apologized for his behavior suggesting he was overcome with emotion. But in the days since it is clear, he was not just over come with emotion. He and others like Krugman in the NY Times went off. I can assure them do their mission a disservice.

    I am as close as I have been in years to giving up trying to understand and communicate with progressives and the far right. Not that they give a damn.

  2. So it's ok for me to suggest that we tone down the rhetoric, but I'm not supposed to mention the rhetoric that I think should be toned down? Sorry, but I don't think I'm trying to have it both ways. People who have been acting irresponsibly, such as by telling voters they might have to exercise their Second Amendment rights if they lose an election, or by putting cross-hairs on a map, should be called out for that. Otherwise we are not being clear about what rhetoric we need to tone down. I've called these people out before--see my post on Sharron Angle: http://www.hopeandchange.net/2010/06/danger-on-right.html
    And I won't hesitate to call them out again. And I'm not going to apologize for immediately making the connection between right wing candidates yelling about taking "their" country back, challenging the constitutional legitimacy of the government with a lot of irresponsible and uninformed talk, and waving guns around, and the effect that all that kind of talk might have on a disturbed young man. This incident is not even the first one that can be traced to the kind of hate speech that irresponsible people have been slinging around the last couple of years; it's just the most serious. And note that I acknowledge we might never be able to make a direct causal connection between hate speech and some particular individual's hateful action. I am just saying is that people should be more careful about spewing hate around, regardless of whether it can be directly tied to a particular crime or not. I also never said that all the hate is on the right, and I'm not afraid to call out people on the left for engaging in name-calling or other forms of hate speech. On the other hand, I do not equate the left and right. Most of the really dangerous talk comes from the right these days, and I think it is fair to acknowledge that.

    And to say that this was just a human tragedy does not lower the rhetoric. That just blinds us to reality, and suggests that there is nothing we can do about these sad events, almost as if it was some kind of Act of God. I'm sorry, but I don't accept that. When someone shoots a Congresswoman, that is not just a human tragedy, it is a political assassination (unless the shooter didn't know it was a Congresswoman). But in this case it appears that the alleged shooter knew full well that he was going to assassinate a Congresswoman. Therefore there is an undeniable political aspect to this event, and you can't say it was just a human tragedy. Sheriff Dupnik was therefore well within his rights by complaining about the toxic political atmosphere in his home state. He has seen it first hand. It is the people who are attacking Sheriff Dupnik who are trying to have it both ways. They stir up hate and fear and tell lies, then they act shocked and outraged when anyone dares to mention that they have been stirring up hate and fear and telling lies. What that amounts to is demanding permission to spew more hate and tell more lies. I do not give them permission.

  3. << So it's ok for me to suggest that we tone down the rhetoric, but I'm not supposed to mention the rhetoric that I think should be toned down? >>

    I think that would have been a great blog post by itself. As well, I really enjoyed the references to Cloke and his "Conflict Revolution".

    Forgive me if I come across as telling you what to believe. I am a guest here, so I'll retreat and focus more on sharing my observations.

    As of now, I see no political ideology in the shooter's past history. Or, evidence that rhetoric from the left and right pushed him to perform the senseless acts on Saturday. They are senseless. Maybe we'll find some maifesto in the coming days detailing his extreme left or right viewpoints.

    Trial Lawyer Aitan Goeleman:


    who spent nine years as a federal prosecutor with the U.S. Department of Justice and was selected by Attorney General Janet Reno as the youngest member of the team prosecuting The Oklahoma City bombing, said this morning that he sees no political or ideological basis on which to prosecute the Tucson shootings. His view is that the gunman is a "looney toone" with no coherent viewpoints.

    Since the finger pointing began the rhetoric has heightened. I am very sure President Obama with take the opportunity tonight in Tucson to be the statesman we need and lower the rhetoric while seeking to unite us.

  4. I would agree with you that the suspect in this case does not seem to have a coherent political ideology. But that might be beside the point. What is interesting in American history is that we seem to have more than our share of "looney tunes" political assassins, whether we're talking about John Hinckley who was inspired by a movie about an anti-social taxi driver with no clear ideological agenda, or Lynette Fromme, who was a member of the Manson family, or Lee Harvey Oswald, who briefly defected to Russia but also seems to have been inspired by right wing propaganda. It's hard to find a coherent political ideology in most of these people, and most of them also seem to have mental issues. There's an article in Slate making this same point that you might find interesting: http://www.slate.com/id/2280697

    So maybe the question we should be asking is what is it in our history or culture that seems to inspire more than our share of deranged killers. Because if it's true that we have more than our share of attempted political assassinations, then there must be something about our society that gives rise to that. I'm not trying to point fingers, but I think it's fair to ask whether there are things we can do to reduce the level of violence in speech and action in our country.

  5. I think it is a very fair to ask whether there are things we can do to reduce the level of violence in speech and action in our country. In fact, I think it is critical -- and I hope my posts have made it clear that we see eye to eye on this.

    Enjoy the speech tonight. I have a gut feeling it may be one of the highlights of Obama's Presidency. He has been on a roll when delivering his message recently. Tonight's speech and tone will likely apeal to most everyone.

  6. Most importantly, providing a needed salve to a mourning nation.

  7. Prayers go out to all those affected by the tragedy in Tucson

  8. I have been around politics for a long long time. Almost as long as you. In the wake of the beating and rape of Lara in Egypt om the 11th of Feb during Egyptian celebration the comments below are as ugly as the left or right has ever presented itself:

    "Left-wing journalist Nir Rosen joked today about the sexual assault of CBS News’ chief foreign correspondent Lara Logan. Logan was assaulted on Friday during celebrations in Cairo that followed Hosni Mubarak’s resignation.

    The initial tweet by Rosen stated, “Lara Logan had to outdo Anderson. Where was her buddy McCrystal.” From this tweet he went further, writing that he would have been amused if Anderson Cooper had also been sexually assaulted.

    “Yes yes its wrong what happened to her. Of course. I don’t support that. But, it would have been funny if it happened to Anderson too,” wrote Rosen"

  9. I think what you are commenting on Kevin, is something different from hate speech, or violent political rhetoric. I'm not going to defend this guy, but I think I understand his crude joke. Anderson Cooper gets beat up by thugs. Lara Logan gets raped. Rosen is making a joke about how foreign correspondents get competitive about their battle scars, or something like that. Tasteless, yes. Insensitive, yes. Stupid, yes. But still, just a tasteless, insensitive, stupid joke. We probably have more important things to get outraged about.

  10. I might add, before anyone accuses me of being insensitive, that I understand that rape is such a touchy and traumatic subject that no one should probably ever joke about it. So to understand this guy's stupid comment, maybe it would make more sense to imagine that this reporter or some other reporter had actually gotten killed (God forbid) instead of raped, and then we might just be able to see a tasteless jokefor what it is.

    Whatever it is, I don't think it's incitement or hate speech, like the kind of speech I was talking about in my post, because it is not trying to inflame anyone to do anything violent. It is just a fellow journalist enjoying some bad gallows humor.

    I hope I'm not digging myself in deeper here, but fortunately this is an old thread that probably only you are going to read Kevin.