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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.

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  1. john says:

    In particular, epideictic rhetoric, which Aristotle named as one of the three branches of rhetoric, does not have the audience taking action as its goal. From Wikipedia:

    “This is rhetoric of ceremony, commemoration, declamation, demonstration, on the one hand, and of play, entertainment, display, including self-display. It is also the rhetoric used at festivals, the Olympic games, state visits and other formal events like openings, closings, anniversaries as well as at births, deaths, or marriages.”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epideictic

  2. Bill Tankerslu says:

    Have you read the book John or are you just citing wiki as a source?

  3. [...] much more about his character and actions than the current debate over whether he was enflamed by violent rhetoric or insane. Take, for example, this article in the Christian Science Monitor, which attempts to [...]

  4. [...] country and the use of violent rhetoric by one of them. SEK at Lawyers, Guns and Money wrote about what violent rhetoric is, and why the use of certain imagery by the right is different than that of … and Paul Waldman at Tapped had a similar [...]

  5. - says:

    Rifle sights are not symbolically equivalent to bulleyes.
    Bullseyes have non-weapon uses, though they imply something fast with concentrated impact (ideally striking the center of the bullseye). Darts are most commonly associated with bullseye targets.
    ‘Crosshairs’ have only two (similar) uses, afaik: Rifle scope sight, or bomb aiming device (I’ve only read about those, and i suspect the modern equivalent is a marker on an electronic display).
    A ‘defensive’ blog pointed out that Palin’s ‘crosshair’ is a defective representation of a scope sight in that the bisecting lines extend beyond the cylinder of the scope, and so cannot be crosshair symbols. i disagree because: The symbols *are* symbols. Rifle shooting is roughly half of Palin’s PR image.

  6. [...] of what the people who use these terms really mean when they use them. Via the Daily Dish, I found this article at Lawyers, Guns, and Money that attempts to include the intended audience in the definition of [...]

  7. some guy says:

    So the point of all this is that if one agrees than a phrase or image is acceptable and if one does not agree than that phrase or image is not acceptable.

    Of course. But I guess only in America would one be so blinded by team loyalty (“our team good; your team bad”) that they could reach this conclusion.

    You can hold whatever opinion you want, sir or madame, but that does not make you correct. The fact that you are just another ignorant American who bases his view on politics solely on political team would be evidence of the opposite.

  8. Jazzo says:

    I think think this article is pretty much right. Most people are ignorant and just don’t take the time to fully understand things, and when we’re faced with something that we don’t understand we get confused or fustrated. But point blank don’t just believe what hear, find the scource or ask yourself why and get a real answer. Then you might not be as confused and you’ll feel more comfortable about the situation. Words are only as real and dangerous as we let them be.

  9. Quora says:

    Is it over the top for people to say the Tea Party is made up of “terrorists” who “put a gun to the head of America” on the debt deal?…

    Yes and no. Is it over the top rhetoric? Yes. Were the tea party folks willing to default, with a possible economic cataclysm resulting? Also yes. Did they time it to be politically advantageous and to apply overt pressure on the Democrats? Also yes. C…

  10. [...] you well know, I’m opposed to violent rhetoric on principle and should be offended, but honestly? A second-long Easter egg that no one notices until the [...]

  11. [...] are effective on a given audience in a particular historical situation. It’s called “the rhetorical situation” and Murdock’s defined the Republican National Convention as one in which a person of [...]

  12. [...] are effective on a given audience in a particular historical situation. It’s called “the rhetorical situation” and Murdock’s defined the Republican National Convention as one in which a person of [...]

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  16. Sure, because no leftist could ever potentially be bent on violence but everyone sided on the right is clearly going to shoot someone. Inane.

  17. Davis says:

    You’re protesting a bit much, Rick.

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