Q&A: Professor of Political Rhetoric Martin J. Medhurst

"Metaphorical violence permeates American political language and always has."

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.

Is there a difference between the kind of violent rhetoric that is used by the “right” and “left”?

I don’t really think so. I think at different times one side predominates over the other. If you go back into the 1960s and you look at some of the rhetoric from the anti-war movement or the women’s liberation movement, it’s pretty extreme stuff.

And I suppose, as some commentators have pointed out, there was a lot of vitriol directed at President Bush.

Yes, yes.

Is this kind of violent political rhetoric particular to the United States? Or is it something you see in Europe, Britain, Australia, and in other democracies?

You do see some of it, although, I must say, Americans from the very beginning have tended to a more violent discourse. You can go all the way back into the eighteenth century and find all sorts of examples of the use of rhetoric. This is very deeply woven into the American culture and in the American experience. Violence permeates our culture in a way that it does not permeate some of the European cultures, especially the social democracies such as Sweden, Norway, and Finland.

Obviously, this whole discussion has arisen out of Saturday’s shooting of Congresswoman Giffords. Do you see any connection between the violence that occurred over the weekend and the violent political rhetoric we’ve been hearing in the past two years? And can those connections be found historically?

The question has always been: What is the nature of the connection? Is it a causal connection? We have over a half-century of research on violence and media for example and over a half-century of truly exhaustive research. And there has been almost no correlation between portrayals of violence in the media, whether it’s television or film, and the increase of violence in the people who view it.

I would say as far as we can tell there’s not a causal connection here. Now, is there a correlation between the amount of violent, emotional rhetoric in circulation and the propensity of people who are not quite all there to engage in violent action? Maybe, but I don’t know how you would ever prove it. It’s hard to know what is the cause and what is the effect.

Right. They might share an underlying cause without necessarily causing each other.

Yes. The one thing we do know that can be validated is the psychological condition of these people. The one thing that you see that holds constant is that these people have psychological problems. Whether it was the culture or the rhetoric or a particular statement or the time of day or what that actually set them off, we will probably never know. The fact of the matter is they have psychological problems. Normal people do not react to this kind of metaphorical violence in a violent way.

From what you’ve seen so far, do you think there’s value to be had in launching into this debate about rhetoric and tamping down inflammatory political speech, so soon after Saturday’s incident?

I think it’s always appropriate. To the degree that the rhetoric has been trained against government itself, I think that would be a very good thing to have happen. In point of fact, in a democracy, the government is us. And to the degree that we are dissatisfied with our government we need to look in the mirror.

What have you made of the reporting that you’ve seen so far?

What I’ve seen I thought has been pretty good. People are taking it seriously, they’re trying to ferret out the various aspects of the story, and I think some of the investigative journalism has been quite good for the first forty-eight hours or so.

Do you have advice or cautions for journalists who will be writing on political rhetoric in the wake of Saturday’s shooting?

Just to be cautious about jumping to what may be easy, but wrong, conclusions. And to look back into history and to try to understand how our current moment is part of a larger mosaic, rather than just fixate on this particular instance as though it is somehow abnormal.

In your view, what is the ultimate goal of political rhetoric?

Well, the goal of political rhetoric ought to be to present one’s ideas and policies in as persuasive manner as one can within the bounds of civility. Clearly some of our politicians have forgotten about those last few words: “within the bounds of civility.” Many of our political commentators and talk show hosts have as well. There is a great temptation to demonize those with whom we disagree. If all one cares about is ratings or the ability to incite or excite an audience, then the bounds of civility don’t matter to the speaker. I think they should, for both moral and pragmatic reasons—morally, because each person is due dignity and respect as a human being, and pragmatically, because democracy only works when people can consider a range of ideas, debate their strengths and weaknesses, and arrive at a decision that will not please everyone completely but which will satisfy most people partially. Democracy only works well when all parties have the common good as their primary goal.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , , , ,