Deconstructing The Rhetorical Right

The recent effort to pin blame  — or maybe more importantly to evade it — by the political left and the political right since the Arizona shootings last Saturday offers an opportunity to become a Monday morning deconstructionist

Jaques Derrida. It has been a while.

And, actually, I think there might be some legitimately rational conclusions drawn from such an effort.  So let’s go!

Almost immediately after last Saturday’s shooting, critics on the left made connections between the increasingly partisan and bitter rhetoric they believe comes from the right, including language that references violence and revolution, and the actual act of political violence in Arizona. 

The result has been a lot of finger-pointing and the now-expected call — almost a necessary cliché — to find a calm middle ground and share the blame.  Politicians and the media alike qualify their comments with “balanced” statements which are intended to reflect even-handed objectivity. 

I don’t care about that, not in this post.  That finger-pointing blame game occurs on the periphery of what the debate reveals.  I have my opinions — I do think words and ideas create real environments, both good and bad — but I think if you want to look at what the blaming fracas truly reveals, look not only at what people are saying, but how they say it.

Think of a schoolyard.  When something bad happens, what do children say?  How often do the guilty deflect guilt?  The window didn’t break because I threw the ball at the glass.  It broke because the other kid didn’t catch the ball.  Right?  That’s an easy one. 

But how often does the child about to be punished scream and point at the other children and say “they did it too”?  (Who is “they”, by the way?)  But that’s another easy one.  We all know this.  Simple.  Guilty children, especially little brats, rarely accept responsibility with dignity; they’re children afterall.  When a child caught red handed cries that it isn’t his fault, the child essentially confirms his guilt.  And that, I believe, is the smoking gun.

Hidden within the bluster of people like Limbaugh and Judson Phillips is a trace of what they are not saying.  By rising up and taking an aggressive position countering the blame coming from the left there is, I think, a tacit acknowledgement that blame exists.  What is said is defined by what isn’t being said.   

Look at it this way.  Most rational people would not argue the point that a specific statement by a politician had the direct or intentional result of causing an otherwise rational person to act violently.  No one would draw a  simple direct link like that.  Conservatives, however, are trying to control the debate by framing the criticism precisely in that way.  This is key.  The debate shifts from criticism of dangerous rhetoric generally to the specific absurdity that a specific text (Palin’s sharpshooter map, for example) caused a specific outcome (the Arizona shootings). 

If the “lock and load” rhetoric from the right were not dangerous, they could say as much, but by trying to say that the other side is as much to blame as anyone else, the right admits that there is something wrong with the language that people like Palin and Bachmann routinely use to rally support. 

That’s the key that I think we need to talk about.

The right simply cannot go out and say their combative and divisive speech is nothing more than harmless metaphor and clever rhetoric because the argument would fall flat.  We know they understand this not so much because they choose not to defend the violent language, but because they choose to attack the critics.  In their efforts to say they alone are not to blame they very much admit that fault exists, not specifically for any single act of violence, but for the destructive language of us versus them that poisons public discourse today.

Left, Right, and Some Guy in the Middle.

Finally, language does not have to directly cause violence and killings to create a dangerous environment that enables violent behavior.  Human history shows what happens when we create a divide between us and them, when we create the other.  Rarely do we create divides that flatter the other side.  We don’t create difference to reach out and be more like them.  We do it to create a hierarchy.  This hierarchy exists in the political language of our country and the debate that has followed the Giffords shooting exposes it in a very real, but perhaps somewhat hidden, way. 

The problem is the increasingly bitter and even violent tone of that debate and public discourse generally.  We can — and we should — ask if one group is out of line.  If we are the great democracy we want to be, we should not shirk responsibility.  Own up to it, correct it, and move on.

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