Let’s be clear: no one should advocate censorship.
That said, we need to understand the power of language. Images matter, words matter, what you say has an effect. Every propagandist in history has grasped this essential truth. Without oratory, Hitler and Goebbels would never have turned Germany into a killing machine.
The only antidote, however, is not less but more. Not more propaganda, just more words, more images, more information. More truth.
Ah, but, as the man said, What is truth?
Sarah Palin, or her speech writers, has decided to play with that a bit and compare the criticism against her rather fevered rhetoric to the Blood Libel. Now, she has a perfect right to do this. Metaphor, simile, hyperbole—these are all perfectly acceptable, even respectable, tools of communication. No one—NO ONE—should suggest she has no right to state her case in any manner she chooses.
What is lacking, however, is perspective and a grasp of the truth. Not fact. But truth. Is there any truth in her assertion that the backlash against what is perceived to be an inappropriate degree of aggressive even violent imagery is the equivalent of two millennia of persecution resulting in the near-extinction of an entire human community? Absolutely none. In fact, what she has done is add substance to the perception that she is a callous, insensitive, and rather inept manipulator of public opinion. In other words, a propagandist.
What should follow now is a discourse on the actual Blood Libel and debate on the public airwaves over whether or not this is a valid comparison. Then there should be a review of the statistical links between violent political rhetoric and actual violence. We should have a discussion—not a condemnation, but a discussion, bringing into the conversation more information, more fact, and more than a little truth.
Do I think Sarah Palin is responsible for Loughner’s actions in Tuscon? No. Loughner is, in my opinion, a seriously disturbed young man and would likely have gone off on anyone at any time. However, he chose as his target a politician, one who had been singled out by the party machinery of the Right as a target. I believe Palin when she says her intent was to eliminate Gifford by popular vote. I do. I don’t accept as credible the idea that she would have sanctioned assassination on anyone. She wants to play a part in national politics, she wants to win, and insofar as it may be understood, I think she wants to win within the system. Do I also believe she thinks some of the rules of the system are bad and that she is willing to color outside the lines? Certainly. But that’s not a singular criticism, either.
Do I, however, believe that we have a toxic atmosphere of political discourse which a certain segment of the population may be incapable of parsing as metaphor? Absolutely.
Here’s a smattering of samples from over the years from a variety of sources.
“I tell people don’t kill all the liberals. Leave enough so we can have two on every campus—living fossils—so we will never forget what these people stood for.”—Rush Limbaugh, Denver Post, 12-29-95
“Get rid of the guy. Impeach him, cen…sure him, assassinate him.”—Rep. James Hansen (R-UT), talking about President Clinton
“We’re going to keep building the party until we’re hunting Democrats with dogs.”—Senator Phil Gramm (R-TX), Mother Jones, 08-95
“My only regret with Timothy McVeigh is he did not go to the New York Times building.”—Ann Coulter, New York Observer, 08-26-02
“We need to execute people like John Walker in order to physically intimidate liberals, by making them realize that they can be killed, too. Otherwise, they will turn out to be outright traitors.”—Ann Coulter, at the Conservative Political Action Conference, 02-26-02
“Chelsea is a Clinton. She bears the taint; and though not prosecutable in law, in custom and nature the taint cannot be ignored. All the great despotisms of the past—I’m not arguing for despotism as a principle, but they sure knew how to deal with potential trouble—recognized that the families of objectionable citizens were a continuing threat. In Stalin’s penal code it was a crime to be the wife or child of an ‘enemy of the people.’ The Nazis used the same principle, which they called Sippenhaft, ‘clan liability.’ In Imperial China, enemies of the state were punished ‘to the ninth degree’: that is, everyone in the offender’s own generation would be killed and everyone related via four generations up, to the great-great-grandparents, and four generations down, to the great-great-grandchildren, would also be killed.”—John Derbyshire, National Review, 02-15-01
“Two things made this country great: White men & Christianity. The degree these two have diminished is in direct proportion to the corruption and fall of the nation. Every problem that has arisen (sic) can be directly traced back to our departure from God’s Law and the disenfranchisement of White men.”—State Rep. Don Davis (R-NC), emailed to every member of the North Carolina House and Senate, reported by the Fayetteville Observer, 08-22-01
“I’m thinking about killing Michael Moore, and I’m wondering if I could kill him myself, or if I would need to hire somebody to do it. No, I think I could. I think he could be looking me in the eye, you know, and I could just be choking the life out.” —Glenn Beck (on air), May 17, 2005
Do I think Sarah Palin has contributed to that? Yes. Ever since her appearance on the national stage and her absurd squib about pit bulls and hockey moms. A great many people reacted positively to that, but I think a great many more, even if they were inclined to support her, scratched their heads at that and went “Huh?”
Why a pit bull? Why hockey? Pit bulls, of course, are perceived as dangerous animals. And hockey is perceived as a violent sport. (In a completely unscientific and wholly personal anecdotal sample, I have attended two hockey games in my life. One a professional game, the other at a community rink through the Y. Fist fights were a feature of both and at the pro game it was the fist fight that seemed to get the most audience applause. At the Y game, it was between 10 to 12 year olds, who did not fight, but the adults at one point, in a heated exchange over a perceived infraction, did get into an altercation.) Traditionally, it would be soccer moms. Why the substitution? Well, you could say that Alaska is simply not a big soccer state and hockey would be the sport of choice. On the other hand, she was addressing a national audience and her speech writers should have known that the more commonly understood expression would be soccer, so we have to assume it was a deliberate choice. And comparing mothers to a dangerous pet?
I could go on. The fact is, she was challenging her potential constituency to be tough, to be aggressive, to be willing to tear into the opposition, to support the brawl over the debate. It was a very clumsy way to do it, but the phrase has become part of America’s lexicon of aphorisms, so it must have had some cachet with enough people to matter.
The people who were unaffected by this were those who simply had broader experience with hyperbole. If you wish to protect people from the negative influences of certain kinds of speech, you expose them to more and more diverse types of speech, not less. You do not censor. Rather, you widen their scope, show them alternatives, and give them more. The antidote to bad speech is not a ban, but to provide good speech, and allow people to become experienced in how to deal with it. The people who are often the most susceptible to deriving the wrong signals from speech are those who have the least experience with diverse speech.
So when someone decides to compare Obama to a Nazi, the solution is to rehearse what the Nazis were and point out how the comparison is ridiculous. If someone asserts how horrible liberalism has been for the country, the answer should be a catalogue of liberal successes that have now become part of what conservatives are defending. If someone suggests that our countries injuries are because we have extended civil rights to gays or banned prayer from public schools, ask how any of that played into Pearl Harbor, the Lusitania, the Maine, or the Civil War?
The answer to hatemongers is not to tighten controls on speech but to open the floodgates to fact and truth. You don’t expunge what you find disagreeable, you displace it with something of value. Take their audience away.
If we wish to have reasonable discourse, then we must produce reasonable speech and put it out there, unapologetically, and in sufficient quantity that the propagandists lose credibility. We haven’t been doing that. We’ve been, perhaps, assuming too much. We assume people are reasonable. People can be, but many have to be taught how, or at least shown the methods of communicating that reasonableness. We have assumed that the absurdisms of the pundits will fade simply because they are absurd, but maybe that assumption is in error. Confrontation is difficult and often disagreeable, but conceding to misrepresentations, half-truths, and distortions only makes us look stupid and weak and makes us all vulnerable.
So maybe we should opt not to lay blame. Maybe we should just do what we should have done all along—challenge the bullshit.