As someone who teaches rhetoric, I can only say that I’ve been profoundly disappointed in the quality of the conversation about the assassination attempt on Gabrielle Giffords. Despite all the condemnation of everyone else’s “violent rhetoric,” I’ve yet to see one post in which the term itself is defined. It seems to mean, in the current political vernacular, anything said by someone else that involves anything even remotely violent. Katrina Trinko’s attempt to tu quoque Keith Olbermann is particularly enlightening, as it describes a number of angry statements by Olbermann that are neither violent nor rhetorical, e.g.
In 2007, Olbermann called rival network Fox News “worse than al-Qaeda … for our society” and said the channel was “as dangerous as the Ku Klux Klan ever was.”
Neither of those statements are rhetorical because neither of them attempts to call its audience to action. For them to be rhetorical, as per Aristotle in On Rhetoric, they would need to be intended to persuade. Moreover, they would need to be intended to persuade a particular audience to undertake a particular action. This is the rhetorical triangle:
Note the interconnectedness of the speaker and audience. The general problem with discussing rhetoric in the current media environment is that the particularity of the audience is absent. Anyone can read or watch or listen to anything without regard for their relation to the intended audience and without reference to the action whose commission the rhetor intends. In such a situation, it is not surprising when the mode of persuasion favored by speakers is the one that is most effectively general. To quote Aristotle again:
The first [mode of persuasion] depends on the personal character of the speaker [ethos]; the second on putting the audience into a certain frame of mind [pathos]; the third on the proof, or apparent proof, provided by the words of the speech itself [logos].
Though pathos is typically translated as an “appeal to emotion,” it is better understood as an “appeal to imagination.” Anything that stokes the imagination, be it an image or a narrative, fits the bill. It goes without saying that the majority of political rhetoric in America is, in this technical sense, pathetic. This is simply because most politicians have questionable ethos and very few have speechwriters sufficiently talented to produce persuasive logos. But it is also because most Americans are too suspicious of political motives to allow politicians to establish an ethos and too untrained in the literary arts to understand an appeal to logos.
Typically, then, we are left in a situation in which politicians, as rhetors, design speeches whose pathos is general enough to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. It stands to reason that if we want to understand what “violent rhetoric” entails, we must focus on whose images and stories are stoking whose imaginations and to what effect. Pointing out that Keith Olbermann associated Fox News with terrorist organizations foreign and domestic does nothing of the sort because the audience and intended effect of his statements is unclear. How unclear?
If we posit his intended audience is liberals and leftists who believe President Obama is a centrist—which strikes me as a fairly accurate assessment—then we need to ask what the intended effect on that particular audience of associating Fox News with al-Qaeda would be. Keeping in mind that we are currently at war with al-Qaeda, are we to believe that Olbermann is encouraging liberals and leftists to join a military-like organization and wage an Afghanistan-type offensive against Fox News? Given that his audience is composed of people who are, generally speaking, opposed to war, does that make any sense? Or is it more likely that he is simply attempting to create an association of like-with-like in which the likeness is supremely unflattering? His rhetoric here is pathetic and inflammatory, but from the perspective of what it is intended to persuade its audience, it is also incoherent. It can’t be considered “violent” because it in no way encourages its audience to have its imagination stoked by reference to violence.
Consider a slightly more infamous example:
Here the intended audience is those who believe President Obama is a radical leftist and associates itself with the center-right. Unlike the audience of liberals and leftists, who oppose war and favor a restrictive interpretation of the Second Amendment, this audience is more hawkish and more likely to support of an expansive interpretation of the Second Amendment. I would contend that this is an example of “violent rhetoric” not because it contains crosshairs aimed at “the candidates” who represent “the problem” in need of “solution,” and despite the fact that talking about “solving” human beings has a rather untoward history, but because its violence is a product of whose imaginations are being stoked and how it is being done.
The intended effect of this image is not to encourage the assassination of candidates; however, the pathetic appeal being made to this particular audience is certainly intended to stoke their imaginations in ways related to their ideological belief in an expansive interpretation of the Second Amendment. This rhetoric is violent, then, because it was intended to appeal to an audience whose imaginations would be stoked by a reference to shooting things. The same cannot be said of this similar map:
Why not? Are bullseye that different from crosshairs? Of course not. However, the intended audience is: the imaginations of liberals and leftists who support a restrictive interpretation of the Second Amendment are not stoked by images of bullseyes. They generally have no pathetic investment in crossbows and so appeals of this sort are less likely to be effective than those like the one above. In terms of rhetoric, then, only the first of these two maps can be designated as “violent” because only it attempts to persuade its audience into action by stoking imaginations by referencing shooting things.*
So now that we have something resembling a proper working definition of “violent rhetoric,” the next question is whether “violent rhetoric” like Palin’s is responsible for the assassination attempt on Gifford. The answer is that I’m not convinced.** From what I’ve read, he never expressed interest in guns until last November, so the likelihood of ads like hers stoking his imagination is slim. The more pernicious rhetoric here is the conspiratorial variety being mainstreamed by the likes of Glenn Beck: rabid and ahistorical anti-federalism feeds into the beliefs of those who believe they’re being persecuted by vast faceless conspiracies.
*I suppose one possible objection is that shooting is not, in and of itself, a violent act, but given that it specifically links the crosshairs to candidates, I think that would be a difficult argument to make here.
**That said, I do believe whichever party was responsible for the dismantling the mental health system—generally in the 1980s and more recently in Arizona—and consistently lobbies for fewer restrictions on the purchasing of powerful weaponry is partly culpable for what happened on Saturday.
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