The attempted assassination of Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords has sparked a debate about the nature of political rhetoric in the years since President Obama took office. It’s tricky territory to navigate—not just because Jared Lee Loughner’s motives are as yet unclear, but also because violent flourishes have always been a part of the American political discourse. There have been a number of “opening shots” to the 2012 campaign already.
Martin J. Medhurst is the Distinguished Professor of Rhetoric and Communication at Baylor University, and a professor of political science whose research focuses on the nature and effectiveness of political rhetoric—he recently contributed to and co-edited 2008’s The Prospect of Presidential Rhetoric and Words of a Century: The Top 100 American Speeches, 1900-1999. Medhurst spoke to CJR assistant editor Joel Meares this morning about violence in political rhetoric, calls for politicians to clamp down on such rhetoric, and how journalists should report out this debate. This is an edited transcript of their exchange.
Much of the debate surrounding rhetoric and Saturday’s shooting seems predicated on the assumption that violent rhetoric of late has been somewhat different than it has been in the past. More extreme. Is this the case?
I don’t think the rhetoric has been particularly different. What has changed has been the channels of communication. Now we have a twenty-four-hour news cycle, multiple cable outlets, we have talk radio, we have the Internet and the various permutations there. That’s what’s different; it is not the nature of the rhetoric.
And what effect do those new channels have on political discourse and on the reach of violent rhetoric?
First of all, it invites more people in to participate. And in a sense that’s good—we want to have a more participatory democracy. But on the other hand it also opens the floodgates to people who would not participate in more mainstream channels, both because we have gatekeepers in more mainstream channels and because that engagement would require them to reveal themselves. The thing about the Internet is that people online can maintain anonymity and there are virtually no gatekeepers. Under those conditions, you find the most extreme views being expressed by people who have no way of being held accountable.
But what about messages that are coming from people who can be held accountable? A lot of people are focusing on Sarah Palin’s “crosshairs” graphic. What do these channels mean for the way that those kinds of messages can travel? These new technologies seem to mean that traditional violent rhetoric can travel further and be interpreted in different ways.
Absolutely. And I suspect that the mainstream would interpret that metaphorically. Politicians speak of targeting voters and targeting a district and targeting a demographic—they don’t think anything about that, because they understand that’s a metaphor. But sometimes people take metaphorical language literally and that’s where the problem comes in.
What are some of the dominant violent metaphors that have historically played in American politics?
There are all sorts. I am going to take out someone, or take them down, for example. Others say they’re going to go to battle with somebody. We conduct wars all the time. We have wars on drugs, wars on inflation, and wars on terror. Metaphorical violence permeates American political language and always has.
Do you think it’s an effective device?
No, I don’t, actually. And the more extreme it gets, the less so. To go from a battle to a war is an escalation, right? You can do a battle and somebody will win and somebody lose. But when you engage in war, that presumes that there will be victors and losers. But in point of fact, in most of the so-called wars—the war on drugs or inflation—there doesn’t appear to be any endpoint. I think that’s an indication that it isn’t a particularly useful metaphor. In fact, it’s probably the kind of metaphor that will backfire on you because when people come to the realization that it’s really not the kind of war, like WWII, where we will have a victory and sign a piece of paper and it will all be over, they will be discouraged.
But someone would counter and say that some violent political rhetoric works very well. We’ve seen the way it’s been used to energize the right in this country since the election of President Obama. Just look at the rhetoric around “targeting” politicians like Nancy Pelosi.
There’s no doubt that that has happened. And it’s happened on the left and on the right. And it happens generally speaking at times of some kind of a crisis, whether it’s an economic crisis as we’ve been facing recently or whether it’s a national crisis or a constitutional crisis. Those are the moments in time that bring out the most extreme language.