Watch where you aim that rhetoric, someone might get shot

Much has been made of this map from Sarah Palin’s PAC in light of the January 8th shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ).

And rightfully so.

#4 on Palin’s target list is the now actually assassinated Giffords who said herself that such rhetorical visuals were dangerous.

The funny thing about words is, they persuade people to do things. Whether you actually wanted them to or not. On Sunday, Salon Re-Tweeted this post from a person named Digby. Writing on “Rhetorical Excess” Digby compares statements made Saturday by Arizona Representative Trent Franks with ones he himself made about Obama. Here’s a sampling of his interview over the weekend with CNN’s Candy Crowley:

Franks: Even in these circumstance, first of all I think our focus should be upon the tragedy that occurred here and I think it’s unfortunate to inject the comments that the Sheriff did in this case because he has been heavily involved in the whole immigration issue and he found himself in this case at ends even different than Miss Giffords. And I think that he’s carrying on that debate even in this tragic moment and I think it’s unfortunate.

Crowley: Probably should say that you all have been personally affected by this and that sometimes you say things you might not want to. The point being that there is now going to be this conversation about “why?” And right now we are seeing “the political conversation is terrible, it is heated rhetoric, we are seeing unhinged people to do things.” Do you see a link between increased sharp rhetoric, sometimes aggressive rhetoric, violent rhetoric, whatever you want to call it, in the political forum and this type of heinous activity.

Frank: Sometimes in any human dynamic there are so many factors that it becomes difficult to really analyze it. But sometimes you can see a central element, and that central element is this unhinged lunatic that had no respect for human life was willing to make some grand statement, I don’t know if he even knows what grand statement he was willing to make to take the lives of his fellow human lives to do it. And there is the problem, a lack of respect for innocent human life. It’s a lack of respect for the constitution, for freedom.

Frank is right, there are a myriad of factors that go into determining motive behind heinous actions like this. He is also right that “sometimes you can see a central element.” Only his element doesn’t seem to explain it as well rhetorically as does Frank’s own statement at last year’s unfortunately named How To Take Back America Conference:

Obama’s first act as president of any consequence, in the middle of a financial meltdown, was to send taxpayers’ money overseas to pay for the killing of unborn children in other countries…there’s almost nothing that you should be surprised at after that. We shouldn’t be shocked that he does all these other insane things. A president that has lost his way that badly, that has no ability to see the image of God in these little fellow human beings, if he can’t do that right, then he has no place in any station of government and we need to realize that he is an enemy of humanity

Not necessarily a direct correlation between words and actions. Yet. Look one more time to comments made by classmates of Jared Loughner highlighting some troubling parallels:

Don Coorough, 58, who sat two desks in front of Mr. Loughner in a poetry class last semester, described him as a “troubled young man” and “emotionally underdeveloped.” After another student read a poem about getting an abortion, Mr. Loughner compared the young woman to a “terrorist for killing the baby.”

So on one hand we have words from a reputable elected official, and on the other we have almost the exact same words used by a “crazed madman” who shot 20 people in a supermarket parking lot in Tucson. The former takes no responsibility for any potential consequences of his language while the latter is a lunatic acting alone. This is straight up what Kenneth Burke would have called “scapegoating” and “language as symbolic action.” And as Saturday’s events have indicated, the symbolic sometimes translates into the material.

Did Palin’s rhetoric, and those that align themselves with it (*cough* Tea Party*cough*) cause Congresswoman Giffords to be shot through the head or Judge Roll to lose his life? No. There is not a direct relationship to those, nor could one probably ever be asserted. But neither could a direct linkage ever be made between the rhetorical choices of Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban and those 19 individuals who flew airliners into two New York City skyscrapers nearly 10 years ago. Only with them the peculiar similarities in language choices were more than enough to declare a war on almost anyone who remotely looked like them.

If dangerous rhetoric does not have unintended consequences then why else would Palin’s camp work so hard to remove Giffords from the list? Well, other than one her “Targets” has been hit.

Dead on.


About Joe Faina

Rhetoric & Media Professor, Writer, Humorist

Posted on 01/10/2011, in Giffords, Palin, Reload, Rhetoric. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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