Subscribe via RSS Feed

What is “violent rhetoric”?

[ 165 ] January 10, 2011 |

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:

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:

Map2-thumb-600x398-37217
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:

Leftists-Target-Republicans-2
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.

This is wonderful news for those who are looking for sleeveless leather jacket and army trench coat. We are the best online shop for plus size leather coats at affordable prices and pink motorcycle jacket as well. Rests assure, we don’t compromise on quality while making summer motorcycle gloves.

Comments (165)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Peter says:

    At some point, I cease to give a damn whether or not Sarah Palin’s rhetoric is responsible for the shooting on Saturday. The question of whether it’s responsible for the shooting or not is a red herring. Regardless of the question of responsibility, Sarah Palin’s rhetoric is reprehensible, inexcusable, and ultimately monstrous, as is Bachmann’s, as is Beck’s, as is Limbaugh’s. Saturday’s tragic shooting ultimately highlights the reason why, any other connection notwithstanding.

    • Anonymous says:

      How about Olbermann’s? Shcultz? Rhoads? How about Obmama tlaking about how he was going to bring a gun to the knife fight?
      The double standard is staggering.

      • Gunnar says:

        Did you read the article? Consider the imagination of the intended audience.

        • Davis says:

          Until a liberal shoots a Republican office holder, there is no double standard.

          • Roger says:

            how many conservative atheists do you know?

            • King Gonad says:

              Supposedly S.E. Cupp is one.

              • Artor says:

                That’s a good one. S.E. Cupp claims to be an atheist, but that’s more like Christine O’Donnel claiming to have hung out with witches. Her writings sound to me like a Christian writing about atheists, and claiming to be one to refute people who point out that she doesn’t seem to know much about atheism.

            • anonymous says:

              Quite a few. They usually call themselves Libertarians. Not all of them are atheists (see Rand Paul) but many are (see Ayn Rand).

            • Pangloss says:

              William F. Buckley? James von Brunn? Probably several dozen (if not hundreds) Log Cabin Republicans? A lot of libertarians?

              • Holden Pattern says:

                Out of how many people who call themselves conservatives?

              • Anonymous says:

                Buckley was famously and vocally Catholic. Log Cabin Republicans are gay, which is not incompatible with belief in God. A lot of libertarians I will give you, although Ayn Rand’s militant atheism appears to have been largely airbrushed out of conservative orthodoxy.

                Rove, mentioned below, has been accused of atheism, a charge he denies. Of course, if we are to go by deeds and not words, the religiosity of conservative politicians is as often a flag of convenience as a felt conviction.

            • Melvin O'Fourke says:

              Number One, what the Sam Hill does that have to do with anything?

              Number Two, the Intermountain West is chock-full of conservative atheists: try poking around in Montana, Idaho, or Wyoming.

              Sheesh!

          • Anonymous says:

            The Federal judge that was shot and killed was a Republican!

            So, how many incidences of violence have been blamed on the right, only to turn out to be nut jobs with a distinct liberal tilt? Union thug violence? Check! Violent environmental zealot? Check!

            Damn Sherlock, your logic astounds…

        • Holly says:

          His comment about the left audience is disingenuous at best. The left has often abandoned it’s ideology and use the weapons they say they are against.
          For example, the left supposed backing of gay rights has no problem throwing gay slurs at their political opponents.

          • Jojo says:

            A specific example or it didn’t happen, Holly.
            And you’re disingenuous in implying that anybody on the left in support of using violence in politics would have any interest in a party as mildly left of center as the Democratic party.

          • n8 says:

            I’m going to call bullsh*t on that, Holly. I’ve never heard of such an occurrence of late, yet you seem to be accurately describing the verbal abuse that flows in the opposite direction…

          • Anonymous says:

            Holly, that’s nonsense. Now what would a person supporting equal rights for gay people use to slur a person who is trying to deny Americans their rights? Would they call that person some sort of “gayness”? What is a homosexual slur, towards people who aren’t in fear of the gay cooties?
            We who are trying to deliver American Rights to Americans can point out conservative un-American thoughts and actions. Those are facts/ actions/actual incidents that the recalling of same feels like an attack. It should feel that way. Conservatives should feel ashamed.

          • GeoX says:

            “Supposed” backing?

          • Anonymous says:

            Are you daft? Do none of you remember Larry Craig, the foot tapping Senator? The jokes, the putdowns?

            Just like the vile treatment Conservative minorities receive by white progressives (house slave, oreo). Example, Donny Deutsch called Republican senatorial candidate Marco Rubio a “coconut.” Racist cartoons about Secretary Rice?

            • Pope Snarky says:

              Hail Eris!

              Black people in the GOP *are* “house slaves”, because the GOP has been baldly racist for decades, ever since Southern Dems jumped ship after the passage of the CRA. Larry Craig is a typical Republican — a closeted, clearly self-hating gay man. There’s absolutely no reason whatsoever to respect him on any basis at all.

              Snarky

      • Mike G says:

        Shorter Anonymous:
        I don’t need to read the article, I came here with my mind made up.

        • psuedoanymous says:

          It’s more than that. This keyboard warrior didn’t understand the article, didn’t really care to, but worse is can’t even express hyperbole. I think this person really believes that Obama’s statement is equivalent to anything emitted by Beck or Michael Savage or any of the other righteous gasbags. We live in a country where bullies feel aggrieved.

      • Anonymous says:

        The name is spelled O – B – A – M – A… only 5 (five) letters. Not that hard.

      • Peter says:

        The one example you actually give is pathetic and you don’t even understand what a double standard is. (Hint: have I given violent rhetoric from the left a pass? No.)

        And even if I accepted your “points”, which I don’t, that still doesn’t change the facts about Palin’s violent rhetoric. All your desperate spinning doesn’t change what Palin said, or what Beck said, or what Bachmann said…

        • Anonymous says:

          You keep blathering about “what Palin said, or what Beck said,…”

          What exactly did they say that freaks you out? Don’t paraphrase, take out of context, or make it up. Most of what you think they said, you probably read on some fever swamp left wing blog.

          Either your panties are easily bunched, or you are being dishonest. There is nothing that I have heard that is not common political fodder.

  2. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by John Nann, Mark Kirwan, jm mcgrath, John Carlton and others. John Carlton said: RT @lefarkins: What is "violent rhetoric"? http://www.lawyersgunsmoneyblog.com/2011/01/what-is-violent-rhetoric [...]

  3. Dan Nexon says:

    SEK: this is a truly outstanding post. Really, really excellent.

    @Peter: that’s exactly how I see it. This isn’t about “culpability.” The assassination attempt and associated murders demonstrates the “monstrousness” of the semi-peripheral right’s political agitprop. Their conniptions (and counterattacks) simply reveals their hypocrisy.

    • bh says:

      Agreed. Excellent post, Scott — it’s one of the very few things I’ve read in the last 48 hours that’s actually advanced my understanding.

    • Anonymous says:

      So, some psychotic lefty with a previous grudge against Congresswoman Giffords goes out and shoots her and other innocent bystanders, and you say that “demonstrates the “monstrousness” of the…” zzzzzzz… Oops, fell asleep.

      I call Bull-Shit. The left and the media have been trying so very hard to paint the right as “evil, violent, ready to explode” for years now, but with little to show for it. Each hoped for example of “Right Wing Rage” turns out to be:
      a) A reluctant Jihadist
      b) An environmental nut (E.L.F.)
      c) A nut case with left wing tendencies (hey, just like this case)
      d) Other (Union thug, Anarchist for more Government, Haters of hate)

      The rush to blame Palin in this case has spawned Death Tweets such as “Someone needs to shoot Sarah Palin“. There are some seriously deranged people out there, and from where I sit, they are mostly on the left!

  4. JJ says:

    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 which consistently lobbies for fewer restrictions on the purchasing of powerful weaponry is partly culpable for what happened on Saturday.

    I can get behind this.

  5. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Andrew, Scott Kotchko and others. Scott Kotchko said: On violence & crosshairs and rhetoric. RT @lefarkins: What is "violent rhetoric"? http://bit.ly/fQ2Mpz [...]

  6. J.W. Hamner says:

    Are you seriously proposing that whether or not rhetoric is “violent” is completely dependent on the audience? That is some of the dumbest semantic games I’ve ever encountered and a pretty sad example of someone BSing to support their “team.”

    • SEK says:

      Did you read the part of the post where I wrote “[n]ote the interconnectedness of the speaker and audience”? I’m emphasizing that when determining whether a particular rhetorical statement is violent or not, it’s of signal importance to take into account all three elements of the rhetorical triangle.

      • wiley says:

        When one of those elements is people parading their guns at public gatherings, I think it’s important to take that into consideration. It’s ridiculous to claim that a gun at a rally is a symbol the way that words are often symbolic.

        • chris says:

          On the contrary, I think a gun at a rally is symbolic: it symbolizes armed rebellion and other uses of lethal force. Presumably most people who bring guns to rallies don’t intend to actually start a gunfight at the rally, but they want people to *think* about gunfights and wars and revolutions when they see the gun. That’s practically the definition of a symbol.

          • 1st Paradox says:

            Hm. Well, I’d give a wide berth to an angry-looking rally attendee displaying an actual firearm, and not because I disagree with the “message” of his “symbol.” Sticks and stones and bullets break bones. They aren’t mere cues for philosophical reflection.

            Are you just pretending to be ignorant of the way weapons are used to intimidate?

          • Jody says:

            …except the guns being displayed at the rallies of political opponents.

            That was not symbolic; it was pure intimidation.

      • J.W. Hamner says:

        The audience is irrelevant, since in this day and age you have no idea who your audience is. I have no control over whether some unbalanced person reads this comment and views it as a signal to start killing people. While you make motions towards a more nuanced view, my reading pegs your argument as almost entirely based on some sort of “conservatives are thugs and liberals are pacifists” canard that any fair minded viewer must realize is complete nonsense.

        • dave says:

          I have no control over whether some unbalanced person reads this comment and views it as a signal to start killing people.

          Best if you just STFU, then, to be on the safe side.

          • Anonymous says:

            Which actually exemplifies one of the intended purposes of hate speech: Making many people feel they should keep their opinions to themselves and not take part in the exchange of ideas.

            • dfhoughton says:

              You think dave’s joke is hate speech? Really? Or are you playing the hate speech card? Because from where I sit it looks like you either don’t know what you’re talking about or you’re aiming at a straw man. The lawyerly wording — “exemplifies one of the intended purposes of hate speech” — makes me think it’s the latter.

              When you’re arguing with someone you want them to shut up and sit down *because they concede you’ve got the better argument*. But gosh! This exemplifies one of the intended purposes of hate speech!

              Otherwise phrased: if you’re opinions are bad it’s entirely fitting that you should feel you should keep them to yourself and not take part in the exchange of ideas. If the exchange has any purpose, then some of those ideas are wrong.

        • Joe says:

          No idea? FOX has no idea who their audience is? Sharon “Second Amendment Remedies” Angle has no idea who her audience is? Politicians and those who write ads (e.g., the infamous “black hands” ad) has no idea who their audience is? Really?

        • Jim says:

          “I have no control over whether some unbalanced person reads this comment and views it as a signal to start killing people.”

          First you dismiss the intent of the audience as “dumb semantic games.”
          And now you’re ignoring the intent of the speaker. Assuming your intent in making the comment is not to encourage someone to start killing people, then you are not engaging in “violent rhetoric” as explicated here.

          • J.W. Hamner says:

            I do entirely dismiss audience as being relevant in this case. These are adult human beings we’re talking about, and suggesting that conservatives are less able and/or too stupid and violent to filter Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck is just as dehumanizing as anything those blow hards have said.

        • Pope Snarky says:

          Hail Eris!

          Not nonsense at all; conservatives are thugs.

          Snarky

  7. megamahan says:

    Scott Aikin has a pretty good post related to this subject at The NonSequitur.

  8. timb says:

    A quote from an AP story about the Arizona shooter

    “At an event roughly three years ago, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords took a question from Jared Loughner, the man accused of trying to assassinate her and killing six other people. According to two of his high school friends the question was essentially this: “What is government if words have no meaning?”
    Loughner was angry about her response — she read the question and didn’t have much to say.

    “He was like … ‘What do you think of these people who are working for the government and they can’t describe what they do?’” one friend told The Associated Press on Sunday. “He did not like government officials, how they spoke. Like they were just trying to cover up some conspiracy.”

    Both friends spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they wanted to avoid the publicity surrounding the case. To them, the question was classic Jared: confrontational, nonsensical and obsessed with how words create reality.”

    So, minus the shooting and random violence, how is that description any different than Jeff Goldtein? He too is nonsensical, confrontation and obsessed with “language.”

    In fact, had I read that a Congresswoman was wrestled to the ground by someone yelling something about Cory Haim and then bludgeoned with a 17,000 word blog post on the Left’s control of language in discussions of whether Scott Beauchamp was evil or just treasonous, then I clearly would have believed it to be him.

  9. hv says:

    The classical rhetorical triangle needs a tiny bit of updating. It is a bit too behaviorist.

    I prefer to include a bit more of the cognitive element, a la Chomsky. Sometimes, the desired outcome of the speaker is just to legitimate ideas. Allowing the legitimacy of an idea to penetrate is not really a behavior that someone is persuaded to take. Also, the wonderful Mr. Aristotle would benefit from the recent work into how dehumanization occurs. Treating complicity in dehumanization or reinforcing tribalism or enemy creation as behaviors produced by the persuasive power of rhetoric sounds almost silly. I think the real problem is everyone needs to have the conviction to call it “violent propaganda.”

    I think that dehumanization and enemy creation are very likely to be at the root of this episode. You are probably right that Palin’s particular graphic rates low; but Palin’s aggregate rhetoric is culpably worse, but she is of course overshadowed by many close confederates.

    =============

    On a more practical note, does your analysis mean liberal rhetoric can be super violent as long as the audience is other liberals? But conservatives speaking to conservatives must tippy-toe? So we have to strap in to defend an explicit double standard. Awesome.

    • SEK says:

      The classical rhetorical triangle needs a tiny bit of updating. It is a bit too behaviorist.

      I’m not sure Aristotle was a colleague of Skinner, but I can go back and check my sources …

      the wonderful Mr. Aristotle would benefit from the recent work into how dehumanization occurs

      You know where the word “barbarian” comes from, no? I don’t think Mr. Aristotle needs schooling on dehumanization.

      I think the real problem is everyone needs to have the conviction to call it “violent propaganda.”

      I don’t think what Palin did/does is sufficiently far-reaching to be considered propaganda. It’s electioneering, certainly, but she’s no Beck.

      On a more practical note, does your analysis mean liberal rhetoric can be super violent as long as the audience is other liberals? But conservatives speaking to conservatives must tippy-toe?

      Yes, but not in a triumphant fashion: every speaker must attend to the needs of and ex post facto reception by every audience. I’m not arguing equivalence here, nor am I saying it’s necessarily fair that conservatives have to walk on egg-shells … but to mix my metaphor, they made that bed, etc.

      • hv says:

        You know where the word “barbarian” comes from, no? I don’t think Mr. Aristotle needs schooling on dehumanization.

        Cute! But you do know that scholarship into dehumanization is not a vocational course, right?

        • SEK says:

          Because I teach vocational courses? You’ve got me confused here.

          • hv says:

            Aristotle’s culture performing dehumanization != his culture deconstructing it

            … unless you thought that scholarship into dehumanization was somehow vocational.

            • SEK says:

              According to the rule book, you’re not allowed to call “Cute!” if you’re going to run a deconstruction the next play …

              … but yes, I see what you’re saying now. That said, I think Aristotle well-knew the effectiveness of dehumanization, even if he didn’t have the word itself available.

              • hv says:

                I think Aristotle well-knew the effectiveness of dehumanization, even if he didn’t have the word itself available.

                Well, I don’t think the effect was unknown to him, of course. But I do think that the modern era has demonstrated a scope to the dangers of dehumanization previously unknown or poorly understood; and also how dehumanization can be done efficiently and mechanically with mass media and graphics arts.

                I doubt he would’ve entertained it as a candidate for the 5th horseman of the apocalypse.

                But now I’m just debating because I can’t let things go, so I’ll try to shut that down and the last word is yours.

              • SEK says:

                so I’ll try to shut that down and the last word is yours.

                Who’s your daddy? Er, I commend you, good sir, on your etc. etc. etc. and no hard feelings.

  10. steve303 says:

    Interesting analysis yet, I feel as though you have glossed over the greater text of the narrative many conservatives seem to profligate. In an exegesis of the text we can find a clear appeal to logos based upon the transference of secret — or privileged — knowledge (eg. the president is a secret X which threatens our country). The goal is not to simply call the audience to action (ie. vote for X), but to construct a particular narrative in which the audience may insert itself as heroic participants (eg. as American revolutionary patriots). The listener becomes active in narrative and extends both the secret logos and the calls for patriotic pathos. Once the narrative is established the introduction of any violent language may constitute a call for violent action. The listener (or narrative participant) cannot trust that his concerns will be addressed by common authorities, as s/he has been isolated by secretive nature of the knowledge they have been called to act upon.

    • SEK says:

      Once the narrative is established the introduction of any violent language may constitute a call for violent action.

      The phrase “[o]nce the narrative is established” is why I think Beck’s paranoid rhetoric is more pernicious. You’re correct that, once certain narratives are established, other rhetorical avenues become more viable, but my point is that “secret logos is far more dangerous in the long run than “violent rhetoric.”

      • Michael Drew says:

        I agree that the paranoid conspiracy propaganda may be ultimately more pernicious in promoting the idea of violence as a legitimate political solution in some unstable minds, but ultimately I think only the use of rhetoric or other communication that directly (if not necessarily explicitly) addresses political violence is clearly enough in its own category that it can be politically marginalized in a conscious, active way by people who are concerned about this process of the legitimization of the idea of political violence. Ideas about conspiracies and paranoid views of government are, I believe, in the end, no matter how unsupportable, still too essentially substantive and not clearly enough distinguishable from entirely legitimate, if still indefensible, ideas that people should be able to hold and promote without being ostracized the way that the use of language or images that specifically invokes violence as a response to whatever views about how things are or should be someone might hold.

        So my intuition tells me that paranoid conspiracy theories may go a greater part of the way toward the legitimization of political violence in many of the people who come to that place, but they are not of a different kind of communication from more defensible substantive beliefs in the way that communication directly treating the idea of violence as a political means is. The only red line I can see where a category of speech could be put clearly off-limits even by means of promoting that a a hard norm in political communication is the one separating this last category from other kinds of communication. This doesn’t mean we can’t criticize those who propagate paranoid conspiracy theories to people they believe will take them unreasonably seriously to the point of acting in reference to them, but it does mean that we won’t be able to definitively reject them as an acceptable category of speech the we may be able to do with speech directly addressing but failing to condemn violence. But perhaps my intuition on this point leads me astray. Any thoughts?

    • Stephen says:

      I think you used the wrong word here: “… the narrative many conservatives seem to profligate.” Propagate, maybe? Profligate is not a verb …

  11. Look at Andrew Klavan:

    The Times’s Paul Krugman—who once encouraged readers to hang pro-war Democratic senator Joseph Lieberman in effigy—chimed in on his blog, deploring right-wing political rhetoric and linking a Sarah Palin–backed political ad to the murders.

    HANG JOE LIEBERMAN IN EFFIGY NO LESS.

  12. Fritz says:

    Unlike the audience of liberals and leftists, who oppose war

    Let me stop you right there. Particular wars? Yes. War generally? No.

    Second, the notion of an “expansive interpretation of the Second Amendment” is in no way necessarily aggressive. Indeed, the right which the Second Amendment is protecting is one of self-defense.

    Also, since liberals favor a greater role for government in private life, by nature a coercive power, it seems just as likely that liberals would favor using force to achieve their political ends.

    • VCarlson says:

      War generally? No.
      For this particular liberal, it’s War generally? Yes. Could be the Quakerism, of course.

      Which leads to my (personal) ambivalence about the 2nd Amendment – I’m inclined to feel the presence of a standing army (originally forbidden in the Constitution) and police departments and the like pretty much do away with the need for a well-armed militia.

      And, for the third part, since it’s not liberals who want to: control who you have sex with and how, control what a woman may do with her body, decide who one may marry, or tell children they must pray in public, regardless of the child’s beliefs, I don’t think it’s liberals who favor a greater role for government in private life.

      • rea says:

        a standing army (originally forbidden in the Constitution

        At least to the best of my recollection, the Constitution does not forbid a standing army, and on the contrary, expressly authorizes one. You must be thinking of the Air Force.

        • mds says:

          Actually, I suspect ve’s referring to a combination of the founders’ well-documented discomfort with standing armies, and its admittedly discreet Article I manifestation as “To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years.” That soon became just a speed-bump in maintaining a standing army, but it was apparently meant to be a slightly higher bar.

          Still, abolishing the Air Force remains a good idea.

      • RobW says:

        Also, since liberals favor a greater role for government in private life, by nature a coercive power, it seems just as likely that liberals would favor using force to achieve their political ends.

        I’d go further and point out that this logic, resting as it does on the assertion government’s nature as “a coercive power,” effectively makes any and all action by government, every statute and ordinance ever written by any legislation ever, an example of “using force to achieve their political ends.”

        In other words, it’s not actually an argument but an attempt to shut down debate: all government is bad, liberals like government.

        Also, the Second Amendment spells out its own justification right there in the first phrase: “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state…” It’s not about personal defense, it’s about national security and/or community defense. Some dude with a pistol on his nightstand does not constitute a militia.

        • dave says:

          But, but, nobody’s allowed to read the WHOLE Second Amendment!

          • asdfsdf says:

            Yeah! If you read the entire thing you could think it means all sorts of wrong things! What does that “well-regulated” mean? Can the government regulate our guns if we are the militia? No, pre-Marx Communism!

            Hell, you could argue that the 2nd amendment doesn’t specifically allow guns for the common citizen, and endorses active prohibition of them by not granting the right.

    • Artor says:

      Sorry buddy, but that won’t fly. Liberals are generally in favor of gov’t involvement in PUBLIC life, not private. It’s the conservatives who want to regulate what you do in private. And while it’s theoretically possible to imagine that liberal ideology might lead to violence, look at the facts at hand.

      Liberal movements in America TODAY are not advocating for violence. References to the Weather Underground & (original, not “new”) Black Panthers are out-of date by generations now.

      Show me the liberal equivalents of McVeigh, Roeder, VonBrunn, etc. ad nauseum.

  13. Rusty Wheat says:

    Nice post. I just want to say, because I’ve been thinking about it, that there is a difference between archery-type bullseyes, and crosshairs, in that while the bullseye just sits there, the crosshairs mean someone is actually looking through a telescopic sight at the thing.

    Okay?

    • Jeremy says:

      You could also argue that an archery-style bullseye is meant to draw attention to the epicenter and is common in graphics showing earthquakes, skeeball, etc. so it wouldn’t be considered a violent graphic.

    • Barbara says:

      and for all we know, the bullseyes could be representing super-Target stores!

    • chris says:

      I think the main difference is that if you’re shooting at a bullseye, then you’re trying to hit *the bullseye*, which is an inanimate object.

      You can shoot through crosshairs at anything. Or anyone. That makes it much more violent, in a violence-to-people sense.

      Now, if you happen to be in a target shooting competition, you may well have the bullseye in your crosshairs. But that’s not the only potential use for crosshairs, especially in the context under discussion.

  14. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Patrick Pray, thrunched. thrunched said: Great article – "What is Violent Rhetoric?" http://bit.ly/hn5ZGX [...]

  15. may says:

    guns don’t kill people?

    guns make killing people really easy.

    guns made to kill people,kill people.

    people with guns kill people.

    take your pick.

    • a different phil says:

      I’m waiting for somebody to tell me how a 31 round magazine for a Glock is used in deer hunting.

      • Tom M says:

        Admittedly, sneaking up on the deer to put a round through its skull is a tad more difficult, but it could be done.
        Just not at a mall.

      • Anonymous says:

        I’m waiting for somebody to tell me how a law saying it is illegal to carry a gun someplace will stop anyone who isn’t being stopped by the much more serious laws against murder!

        And who said anything about hunting with a Glock?

  16. Anonymous says:

    This is ridiculous. The entire point of your post is that “it’s OK if we do it”.

  17. pluege says:

    there is visceral knowledge, a.k.a. intuition and common sense that you can not deny or define with mental masturbation (a.k.a this post). the right’s language is undeniably violent, it animates its psychotic, insecure violent audience. The rest of us that are not so violently impaired know it and receive the right’s rhetoric as violent even though (not being so psychotically impaired) we would never act on it. The right: palin, beck, bachmann, hannity, limbaugh, hate radio, etc., etc., pulled the triggered. Everyone intuitively knows it including the culprits who knowing their guilt are compelled to defend themselves.
    .

  18. Leslie says:

    I live in Vermont .. the gun sights mean nothing to me … and yet I cannot shake off the chilling complaint this congresswoman had about the imagery and it’s potential consequences in the extraordinarily heated atmosphere she was campaigning in … nor can I shake off Sarah Palin’s refusals to back off from her imagery … because winning was all important and costs were not important … not important that is … until the congresswoman was shot in the head .. only then did Palin take action.

    I think Palin knew her imagery was reaching her intended targets of people and she has shown continued lack of concern that the “nut-jobs” are among her supporters. So while I do not believe she ever intended that any of the candidates she targeted should be shot literally, the potential of this was irrelevant to her as long as she was popular for using it.

    So at this point … while my opinion could change upon further reflection .. I do think she is complicit in the shooting.

    BTW .. I am not surprised that Sarah Palin tried to erase her imagery from the net … I am amused that she thought she could … and I am saddened, disappointed, and unimpressed that she has not offered a heartfelt apology for it.

  19. David M. Nieporent says:

    Shorter SEK: Liberals are too wimpy to fight al-Qaeda.

    • Stephen says:

      Shorter David M. Nieporent: I’ve got no counter-argument, so I’m going to call the OP a pansy.

    • hv says:

      I’ve always been willing to ignore al-Qaeda and get on with American business.

      How’s fighting them going? Created any new terrorists with your glorious struggle? Fail.

      • asdfsdf says:

        I think he might have been joking. Don’t know what he’s like since I don’t remember any of his other posts, but it seems a bit like “I disagree with higher education and learning because professors could be on the front lines of our war with everybody. What are you doing indoors, nerds? It’s towel head season!”

        In other words, a bit of a random response to this post.

  20. bob mcmanus says:

    This is so obvious it is barely interesting, no offense intended. However, judging from the above comments, it apparently needs to be said.

    Of course the meaning of a statement depends also on its intended audience and historical circumstances. An exhortation has very different effects whether delivered in a prison yard or to a volleyball team.

    • SEK says:

      This is so obvious it is barely interesting, no offense intended.

      None taken. My disappointment was a result of people making what, to me, are basic category errors, so I wanted to press the reset buttons and get back to basics.

  21. muldoon says:

    Wrongo, David. Recent studies in the U.K. indicate a startling difference in the brain scans of conservatives and liberals: larger amygdalas (fear/primative emotions) = conservatives; larger anterior cingulates (courage/optimism) = liberals. Which pretty much matches up with psychologist Dr. Robert Altemeyer’s 20+ year study of authoritarian followers.

    So which group–fearful people or courageous, optimistic ones–would be most susceptible to violent rhetoric?

    • dave says:

      One recent half-ass study done for a radio programme. And what about liberals who are scared shitless of conservatism, and think the USA is degenerating into a moronic inferno: where’s their big anterior cingulate, eh?

  22. tristero says:

    The biggest problem with the triangle is that it is too schematic and fixed to be all that useful in understanding modern political discourse.

    Perhaps in Aristotle’s time the intended audience and the actual audience were roughly the same. That is no longer true – eg, Palin’s intended audience is a subset of all the people who actually saw the crosshairs. Ditto the target.

    Such a large actual audience will, or should, be accounted for in a definition of rhetoric. In the case of Palin, some people may have been persuaded by the violent rhetoric to agree with her, in the classic definition. But many others would feel intimidated, others contemptuous, and so on. I suppose one could argue all of that was persuasion, too, but of a rather different sort. There is nothing in the triangle model that takes this into account with any kind of nuance.

    The crosshairs have only a few metaphorical meanings, the most obvious by far being those of a gunsight. The target, on the other hand, has numerous meanings only one of which is an actual target for a weapon. It is the precision of the metaphor more than the intended the audience that makes the crosshairs an example of violent rhetoric and the target far less so.

    Conceiving of it this way, the issue then becomes the mainstreaming of more and more violent imagery. Ultimately, the crosshairs will become ubiquitous. Then, in order to reach that subset that is persuaded by violent imagery, more violent imagery will have to be appended (blood?). The question many of us have is how far will the violent imagery get pushed, and the fear we have is that the metaphors will ultimately collapse into real violence. Which, in fact, we have begun to see.

    Nothing in the triangle takes note of the diverse nature of the modern audience for rhetoric, nor of the always evolving meanings of logos. Aristotle certainly was a genius, but the means of persuasion and the nature of the audience have changed enormously since his day.

    We need far more supple definitions of rhetoric (and persuasion, pathos, and logos) than this.

    • SEK says:

      Perhaps in Aristotle’s time the intended audience and the actual audience were roughly the same. That is no longer true – eg, Palin’s intended audience is a subset of all the people who actually saw the crosshairs.

      That’s a fair criticism, but I meant this post as a starting point, not a finishing. As I noted in response to a similar complaint on Facebook last night, that’s the weakest point in the post, as there’s a missing sentence that should go between these two:

      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.

      The missing sentence obviously concerns your question: how to discuss the difference between the Athenian polis and our current media environment. The reason I didn’t include such a sentence is that I’m not entirely sure how to phrase the scope of my argument. What I mean is, in shorthand, could you call Fox News viewers equivalent to the Athenian polity? Most think not, but the Balkanization of modern media gives me pause, hence the missing sentence.

      All of which is only to say that you’re advancing the conversation in the right direction: how can we understand this in rhetorical terms, if we’re going to be discussing “violent rhetoric,” etc.

    • Wapiti says:

      Perhaps in Aristotle’s time the intended audience and the actual audience were roughly the same. That is no longer true – eg, Palin’s intended audience is a subset of all the people who actually saw the crosshairs. Ditto the target.

      I think that perhaps the intended audience and actual audience aren’t hugely different in many cases.

      A map posted on Palin’s website: I certainly never went to the site. I’d propose that most Americans who aren’t Palin fans don’t go to her site or read her tweets. So the audience is self selecting and she’s talking to that audience. The few liberal bloggers or political opponents who scan the pages are a small and secondary audience.

      Sharron Angle only appearing on Fox: in the liberal blogosphere, politicians that appear on Fox are slammed for attempting to control their message. But don’t they also control their audience? This allows them to use language that inspires their self-selected believers to perform some action. The same speech given to a broader network audience may have unpredictable or negative results on the electorate as a whole – so the wily politician doesn’t do that.

  23. Joe says:

    I don’t think his interest in guns is the deciding factor here. For instance, an analyst on Keith Olbermann last night suggested that he had a general fear of government and government control. One party at the moment promotes the message that another party wants to rob our liberties in tyrannical ways. Palin’s ads is but a piece that adds to this, including violent imagery against certain people. I don’t blame her in particular. Making it about her is annoying actually, she again getting more attention than she deserves.

  24. Andy Kern says:

    SEK,
    I think this shirt mock up helps illustrates what you are saying. http://twitpic.com/3p0nq4
    As a thought experiment, imagine the reaction of Olberman’s audience contrasted with that of Beck’s audience.

  25. aspasia says:

    Because I too am a teacher of rhetoric, I thank you for bringing rhetoric to the attention of your readers. I hope it is not ungracious of me, then, to point out that the “rhetorical triangle” is a modern invention made famous by James Kinneavy. It cannot be found in Aristotle. My beef with it, however, is that it simplifies what can be extremely complex and reflexive interactions between speakers and audiences. And all those years studying literature should have alerted you to the dangers of relying on “intent” as a critical tool.

    • SEK says:

      I hope it is not ungracious of me, then, to point out that the “rhetorical triangle” is a modern invention made famous by James Kinneavy. It cannot be found in Aristotle.

      I never said it could, but thanks for the gentle condescension! I think it’s obvious that the situation is more complicated, but it’s also obvious that my first-year composition students have a more sophisticated understanding of the rhetorical situation than most of the people hammering out this debate on-air and online, which is why I felt compelled to write this.

      And all those years studying literature should have alerted you to the dangers of relying on “intent” as a critical tool.

      Because that’s a bullet point, not an argument, right? Thought so.

      • aspasia says:

        Not sure what you mean by “because that’s a bullet point, not an argument.” What does “that’s” refer to? My comment about the difficulties of using intent as a critical tool harbors an argument–one that went on for years in literary studies between hermenuticists and new critics. I can’t imagine that anyone here cares to see it rehearsed, however.

        • SEK says:

          My point was that it is an argument, ongoing, and that suggesting that one side won it is disingenuous. In short: yes, I’m aware of the “dangers” of appealing to intent, etc.

  26. jack slack says:

    Seems like a circular argument: “liberals (olberman) can’t be violent rhetoricians because liberals (audience) aren’t violent.”

    • dave says:

      It’s more a case that, there could be someone who tried to whip up a liberal base with language such as that used on the right, but they would fail, because there would be an excessively large gap between what those kinds of people want and expect to hear from their leaders, and the summons to lynch Sarah Palin – in a literal sense, not merely by posting funny photoshop images on the internet. Whereas it appears that there are plenty of people only too eager to agree that the best thing to do with libruls is to hound them out of the body politic, by force if necessary.

      In those senses, then, ‘violent liberal rhetoric’ collapses as a concept, because of the communicative and performative dimensions of the concept of ‘rhetoric’ which is under discussion here.

  27. Andy Kern says:

    @jack slack Did you look at the graphic?

  28. Anonymous says:

    “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.”

    so, shortly after the ad debuted, he showed interest in guns, and that -precludes- a linkage?? not sure i or Occam see it that way.

    aside from that, stellar post. thanks!!

  29. [...] A brief lesson on violent rhetoric. Also, Greg Sargent reminds us that calls for civility usually don’t [...]

  30. Blue says:

    **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.

    Whichever party? All roads to our demise lead back to Saint Ronnie and the Republicans. Massive cuts in mental health programs (among other socially beneficial programs) have all but ensured that the mentally ill have become our homeless, our prison inmates … our assassins.

  31. Chris says:

    Hey Scott, just heard them talking about this post on the Stephanie Miller show, though they only referred to you as an “expert on rhetoric from the blog Lawyers, Guns, and Money.” Thought you might find that interesting.

  32. c u n d gulag says:

    Thanks, SEK, that was one of, if not, THE smartest ‘takes’ I’ve read on the subject of violent rhetoric.

    And I admire your restraint when answering some of the comments above. I don’t think I’d have near as kind. But of course, I wouldn’t have used any ‘violent rhetoric.’

  33. [...] actually gives us a working definition about what is violent rhetoric (and rhetoric generally) that will hopefully clarify the debate about what is happening with the [...]

  34. wengler says:

    I think that the problem is that the Republicans use rhetorical devices to spread general fear because they can’t win arguments on the merits.

    The whole “death panels” construction proves this point. That entire argument came out of a provision in the initial draft of the healthcare reform to compensate doctors for time they spend with patients discussing end of life care. The willingness of the Republicans to spread these lies far and wide without regard to how they would be perceive, makes their motives suspect, but it also implicates themselves in the sort of rhetorical flame-throwing that energizes crazy people to do bad things. The Republicans didn’t appear to care that what they were saying were lies, they were just happy that it seemed for a time to be having the intended effect- keeping Obama’s healthcare overhaul from passing.

    That is the real problem here with the climate created by Republican rhetoric. It is dispensed without care or responsible forethought, and it relies on fear and ignorance to be successful.

  35. mark f says:

    I just thought of this incident: Is this violent rhetoric? The threats are unmistakable and the audience reaction is rabid and terrifying. Do you think it has any relation to what happened Saturday?

    Even granting that Loughner is less of a Tea Party type than an extreme Alex Jones-style paranoiac, it seems to me that it’s only half-step form the guy in the video to Saturday’s shootings.

    I mean these questions sincerely; I am not trained in rhetoric in any way.

    • SEK says:

      I don’t think that’s particularly violent rhetoric, but it is a particularly vehement delivery. I take it there was some context for him pointing out that he was a Marine — the speaker seemed to indicate as much — so that’s not necessarily the threat it would be in other contexts.

  36. [...] actually gives us a working definition about what is violent rhetoric (and rhetoric generally) that will hopefully clarify the debate about what is happening with the [...]

  37. Leo Soderman says:

    Coming from a background replete with marketing experience, what strikes me is that the issue of “violent rhetoric” has not been addressed from the marketing point of view.

    As has been pointed out in the comments, the pols who speak on Fox News, the maps posted on Sarah Palin’s website, the various and sundry statements made involving violent imagery are not made haphazardly. They are to self-selecting audiences who are likely to be receptive.

    Crosshairs were chosen over bullseyes not in terms of graphic license, but in terms of specific connotations based on the audience. They are designed to address a specific, interested segment of the populace who wants to hear from a woman who is proud that she hunts. A woman who speaks frequently of protecting gun rights and the Second Amendment.

    When Sharon Angle spoke of Second Amendment remedies, that was no accident. It was no gaffe. She knew who she was speaking to, and what the reaction would be to such statements.

    Likewise, when Keith Olbermann lampoons the right, referring to them as dishonest or fools, he knows who he’s speaking to. The audience is always a consideration. Anyone thinking otherwise is being naive.

    In marketing, one goal is to create a visceral, strong response with as few words as possible to your target audience. You do this by relying on already established metaphors. These metaphors can be subtle. For example, a clown doll on a bed – the image of a young kids room. Same doll, under the bed – a creepier image. It is the use of these predetermined metaphors and their juxtaposition to the message and the intended audience that determines how the message is received and who receives it.

    Crosshairs, a huntress, people being a problem and asking you to be the solution – these are all crafted with a specific, intended shorthand to deliver the message quickly and unequivocally. That’s what marketers and PR people do.

    This is not about responsibility for what they say. They know full well what they say and who their audience is. Perhaps the real issue is how to make their audiences aware of how they are manipulated. Then again, that would put a whole lot of marketers out of business.

  38. hv says:

    Perhaps the real issue is how to make their audiences aware of how they are manipulated.

    I agree with this precis. Rhetoric should be studied under the Immunology department, not the Comp Lit department.

    Heck, maybe it’s a vocational thing after all!

  39. BlueTickDem says:

    One issue that I have yet to see fully addressed regarding “violent rehetoric” in the media (TV, radio, Internet, etc) is the affect that the frequency of exposure to it has on a person.

    Does how often a person hear “Second Amendment remedies” or “reload” have an affect one way or the other in swaying or persuading them to act on their imagination?

  40. RS says:

    This is a good post–it explains what I’ve been thinking for the past few days without being overly pedantic about the meaning of words. “Rhetoric” is just being bandied about by media people as shorthand for “inflammatory language.” They all used their thesaurus one day or something.

    But I think your point about the intended audiences is very significant. The word “Target” is used a lot in politics in reference to areas where a party feels it has leverage to change a particular seat if it can find enough votes. Maybe it’s a product of the single-member district system in the US. Targets have never implied any sort of violence, but it would be natural for the DLC to use archery targets, since they represent the idea nicely on a graphic map.

    The thing that Sarah Palin did, however, was take it a step further to capitalize on the macho gun-loving culture she is courting. She’s not only a big gun-advocate, she takes photo-ops killing animals from a helicopter.

    My guess is that this kid Loughner played some video games where the point is to focus crosshairs on people and pull the trigger. Watching people bleed to death would hardly phase a person who’s played many of these games. Now he was obviously obsessed with his representative since at least 2007, so it would be hard to say that Sarah Palin motivated him to attempt assassination, but he’s been hearing anti-government RHETORIC all over the media for years. Not hard to connect these dots.

  41. Wynter says:

    I would appreciate a closer examination of Glen Beck’s broadcasts during the November timeframe and compare the content to the shooter’s sudden desire to purchase a handgun and plan an assassination attempt. Beck is well known for shooting off his mouth in terms of taking violent action against the Democrats in office. Perhaps one of his broadcasts struck a chord with this twisted individual.

    This is the most likely scenario as the individual’s mental state was set in motion by external events. He was clearly determined as a dangerous weapon from his history. But someone said something to him to cause him to be aimed at Giffords. One should examine all the sources of political rhetoric during the timeframe when he likely made his choice to kill.

    • SEK says:

      I did actually listen to Glenn Beck in November one day, and believe you me, that one time was one time too many.

    • Anonymous says:

      Typical progressive fish story, just make shit up!!!

      Instead of “I caught one as big as my boat”, it’s “I heard Glenn say go out and beat Democrats, with a bat! Well, I heard him say kill George Soros.”

      Glenn has never, ever, advocated taking violent action against Democrats, instead pleading and praying for their safety. The worst you have is a joke about Michael Moore, not nearly as bad, but similar to Chris Matthews joke about shoving a CO2 pellet into Limbaugh’s head and watching it explode.

  42. MGR says:

    The rhetorical triangle reminded me of Saussure and Lacan. “The meaning of a sign needs both the signifier and the signified as created by an interpreter. A signifier without a signified is noise. A signified without a signifier is impossible.”

    Lacan contended that words by themselves do not create our reality. The external is not “truly” known to us.

    Conservatives like Beck and Limbaugh get-away with their use of flammable words by disguising them legally as “opinion” and not “facts”; yet they are quoted as factual pundits by the remaining right. They are quoted by others not because they are right or speaking factually but because the interpreter or listener agrees with their use of the symbol/idea. Ideas by themselves are pointless. We give words meaning.

  43. Anonymous says:

    They have had leftist terrorist groups, weatherman underground comes to mind. I’ll use Olbermann as an example. He isn’t doing violent rhetoric, but he is an instigator. He demonizes anyone who doesn’t agree with his point of view. To me that’s stirring the pot. For the record I voted for Obama, I just don’t believe in sticking to one side or the other. I call it as I see it.

  44. john says:

    Persuasion to take a particular action is not a requirement for rhetoric, neither for Aristotle nor for us. Persuasion, with or without action, suffices.

    From the translation of Aristotle that you linked to: “Rhetoric may be defined as the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.”

    I agree that the audience is a key element to Aristotle’s understanding of rhetoric, but I am sorry that you are misinforming your students — and probably thousands of internet readers — that rhetoric requires a goal of action. Persuasion is all that is required. Please correct your post. Thank you.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

  • Switch to our mobile site