Posts Tagged ‘rhetoric’

When I was a little girl, my dad used to talk about a poem he loved. It was called “The First Settler’s Story,” and it was written by Will Carleton, an American poet who often took the plight of the disadvantaged as his subjects. Much of his poetry was time-specific–his poem “Over the Hill to the Poorhouse,” for example, has largely faded from public knowledge. Likewise his poem about divorce, “Betsy and I Are Out.” Even “The First Settler’s Story,” has largely become a casualty of changing times, values, and worlds.

Will Carleton wasn’t one of our finer poets, but he did manage to produce four lines of text that have been quoted over and over–even if few remember where they came from. Here are the lines:

Boys flying kites haul in their white-winged birds.
You can’t do that when you’re flying words.
Once spoken, though you wish them left unsaid,
God Himself can’t kill them, make them dead.

Words have consequences. Sometimes those consequences are  unintended. In  “The First Settler’s Story” the husband offers them to us as the lesson he learns in the wake of his wife’s tragic death–that his cruel, angry words to her drove her to dangerous behavior that ultimately cost her life.

Words matter. That’s why we have laws against verbal abuse. Here’s how Wikipedia describes it:

Verbal abuse includes the following: countering, withholding, discounting, verbal abuse disguised as a joke, blocking & diverting, accusing & blaming, judging & criticizing, trivializing, undermining, threatening, name calling, chronic forgetting, ordering, denial of anger or abuse, and abusive anger.”[1]

What prompted all this? The onset of our political season. I watched a clip in which a woman at a GOP Town Hall meeting asserted that President Obama should be tried for treason. It doesn’t take a genius to track this back to the overheated rhetoric during the last political campaign, where various spokespeople asserted all sorts of untrue things–and, even when those things were proven false, continued to assert them.

A virtue was made of knowing nothing. Sophomoric behavior became what passed for public discourse. And, as verbal abuse does, the rhetoric and claims became more and more vile and less and less veiled as time when on.

And now we are starting all over again–but we’re starting at a point higher on the abuse curve than we did last time. We are starting with phrases like “Don’t retreat, reload” an established (and hotly defended, even in the wake of shootings that cost lives) part of our political lexicon. We are starting with GOP operatives considering allowing rally participants to attend political events–with loaded guns. We are starting with a mass of swirling falsehoods, all of which have been “flown” not inadvertently, but as part of a concerted plan to defeat a President who “is not like us” by destroying the nation and laying the blame at his feet.

That’s not to say that the Democratic Party has been blameless–there are falsehoods there, too. But a simple look at any of the reputable, non-partisan fact check sites (and I’m defining those as sites funded by non-partisan organizations and not affiliated with any candidate’s election or defeat)–heck, even a look at the email smears reported on Snopes.com–reveals that there is a serious credibility problem in the Republican party and its conservative base today. Count the smears. Do the math.

But it’s not just the number of smears in question–it’s the violent rhetoric at issue here. The right to keep and bear arms has been translated into the right to carry loaded guns into highly charged, heavily-frequented areas. The right to “political imagery” has been cited in defense of the crosshairs marketing congressional districts that are “targeted” for takedowns. Town halls as a means of conveying information have been compromised by concerted plans to shout down speakers–to prevent the exchange of information.

I teach writing. I’m a writer by trade. It breaks my heart to see words, a unique human invention that has allowed us to develop a sense of history, a concept of past and future, a body of literature unmatched in the animal kingdom, and  even a system of jurisprudence and ethics, misused to circumvent their intended purpose.

Words have become the weapons of those who take pride in their ignorance, who maintain that those who value studying the issues and weighing their merits are somehow the enemy. Words have become the servants of rage, the tools of racism, and the weapons of a group of businessmen who use them to turn the rage of the less successful against the very systems and ideas that might better their lot.

Words matter. The kites are flying again, and many of them are dark and drenched with blood. It is time that we took back our words, that we drew clear lines between spirited debate and verbal abuse, between legitimate discussion and incitements to riot, between the sorts of words that provoke us to think, and the sorts of words that can provoke some of us to pick up weapons and start shooting, or stabbing.

And so, to those most guilting (and we and you all know who they–and we–are) I would say, “We’re starting a new campaign. Let’s not make it an escalation of the last campaign. Let’s not turn what should be a uniquely American system of transferring power into a mockery of itself, and an excuse for encouraging the ugliest parts of our national heritage. Let’s not make this election be about how close we can come to actually advocating that someone kill the President.

Before we send up our kites, let’s think about who all is looking at them, and what they are seeing. Above all, let’s remember that while we might not bear physical responsibility for the actions that grow out of our words, we absolutely bear responsibility for the atmosphere our words help to create.

Will Carleton had it right. Words said cannot be unsaid, and like stones, they send out ripples. The time to recognize that–and to change the ripples we are creating–is now.

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There has been a lot of skirt-clearing going on in the wake of the shootings in Tucson. Those who have been the most violent in their language are now claiming, equally vociferously, that violent language had nothing–nothing at all–to do with the tragedy.

They assert their First Amendment Rights, insist that any responsibility lies with the unbalanced young man who held the gun–or possibly with the victims, who had come to meet their representative unarmed. If there had only been more guns there! one commentator mourned.

Others portray themselves as victims whose freedoms are in danger of being stripped away. I’m not naming names; I don’t need to. Whether you agree or disagree, you all know who they are.

It is true that the purveyors of hate rhetoric may not bear legal responsibility for Mr. Loughner’s actions. They did not put the gun in his hand. Our laws made it possible for him to not only buy a gun, but to buy a gun and ammunition whose sole function is killing lots of people, fast. Certainly our gun laws as well as our mental health systems need strengthening. But that doesn’t change the fact that since the last presidential election we have been living in a world where not just passionate debate, but incitements to violence have become the order of the day.

Far too many of us have fallen prey to the ugliness and verbal violence, to the vicious mis-characterizations and outright lies that have taken the place of vital, informed debate. And when that atmosphere of violence erupts into gunfire, the proponents of the verbal violence cry “free speech.”

There’s an old, old story, about two brothers. They had religious differences. And one day those differences erupted into violence, and one of the brothers wound up dead. When the murderer was questioned he responded very much as we have seen those on the right responding: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

I believe the answer to that question is a resounding “yes.” We are our brothers’ and our sisters’ keepers. Precisely because we live in a nation where we have certain bedrock rights–the right to free speech, the right to bear arms, the right to worship whatever divinity we choose in the manner of our choosing, the right to equality before the law–you know these, and if you don’t, you should–we bear responsibility for how we exercise those rights.

We are responsible for how our actions shape the world we all share. We are responsible if we help create a world where violence is not only tolerated, but sanctioned and incited. If we have helped to undermine the structures built to shelter all of us, we bear partial responsibility when those structures collapse. We are our brothers’ keepers.

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This blog is all about words, how to use them, why they matter, and what they say about us. I don’t get very political here very often, but today is a day to do it. A moderate politican, Arizona Representative  Gabrielle Giffords, was shot when she was meeting her constituents on Saturday. So were six other people, including a federal judge and a nine-year-old girl.

The shooting of Representative Giffords started a long time ago–back in 2008, when Sarah Palin stood in front of a crowd and used lies and innuendo to fan the flames of racism, fear and rage in her audience. They loved her for it, and the Republican Party discovered that they had a powerful new tool–populist anger that fed on xenophobia, class warfare, ignorance, and hate. Emotions like that make facts irrelevant. And the Republican party found itself, in the words of Dan Balz in the Washington Post, “riding the tiger.”

The problem with riding a tiger is that you pretty much have to go where the tiger wants to go. The GOP understood this, and a new kind of crazy was born. Bizarre claims about President Obama’s heritage, citizenship, religious affiliations, and goals were born, disproved–with legal documents, no less–and reborn again. Compromise became a dirty word. Leaders who should have been above such things became purveyors of the most scurrilous gossip–and lent it credibility by repeating it. The idea of Democrats and Republicans working together for the good of the nation disappeared.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell could openly say that his party’s primary goal was not advancing a more conservative agenda, or working to advance the interests of their constituents, but winning at all costs by ensuring that President Obama was a one-term president.

It’s a position that makes the failure of a nation desirable, and recovery something to sabotage, and the GOP did its best to make both things happen. They demanded counter-productive amendments designed to suit vested interests, then refused to vote for the bills. They filibustered everything. They organized the disruption of town hall meetings. They demonized organizations that encouraged minority voting.

Intolerance, pig-headedness, dirty tricks, falsehoods, and cynical power-grabs have become the order of the day, and they have been justified and perpetuated with the language of violence. The GOP has justified their runaway campaign to reduce government to a cypher on the grounds that the Democratic party is trying to “destroy” America.

The rhetoric has paid off, not only in a political body that has all but ground to a halt, but in increased threats against that political body. Howard Fineman’s article in HuffingtonPost details how access to our elected representatives is being lost because of those threats.

What has made all of the rhetoric of violence particularly deadly is that we are one nation, under stress. We are suffering the worst depression we’ve seen since the Great Depression. We are fighting a war that looks increasingly like a no-win proposition. We are facing weather and manmade disasters that threaten to destroy precious resources. We face terrorist threats from without and within. Millions have lost their homes. Millions more have lost their jobs. The corporations that have created much of the havoc report record earnings. The measures that were instituted to help beleaguered homeowners have been subverted. There is much to be anxious about.

Under such conditions, the rhetoric of violence becomes more than just distasteful: It becomes something very like shouting “fire” in a crowded theater. And it’s only a matter of time before the stampede starts.

“I don’t see the connection” between the fundraisers featuring weapons and Saturday’s shooting, said John Ellinwood, [Jesse] Kelly’s spokesman. “I don’t know this person, we cannot find any records that he was associated with the campaign in any way. I just don’t see the connection.”

Mr. Ellinwood, here is the connection. You and your political allies rode the tiger. You fed it red meat. You spoke the language of violence, hate, and fear. You spoke of “second amendment remedies.” You painted crosshairs on your political opponents’ districts. You and your allies spoke of an election as if it were a battle. You told your followers, “Don’t retreat–reload.” Your candidate, Mr. Kelly, used a picture of himself in combat gear and holding a gun on his campaign website. He courted donations and votes by offering people the opportunity to shoot a loaded M-16 with him. Can you really be so naive as to not expect someone–perhaps some sad, deluded, young man–to take you at your word? Can you really believe that just because you “don’t know this person,” that your violent language, and the war-mongering imagery you and your allies use, has no effect on him?

The worst part of all this is that the hate and violence being ginned up in the name of the people is destroying the very fabric that binds our nation. The Tea Party was born because of the disconnect between those who govern, and those who are governed. The Republican party’s concerted obstructionism illustrates that disconnect perfectly; while millions lost their homes and their jobs, the GOP held the country’s unemployment benefits hostage until they had extorted tax breaks for the wealthiest–who in many cases had directly contributed to the economic disaster.

If there is already a disconnect–and there is–attacks like the one on Representative Giffords today will only exacerbate it. The Tea Party and the GOP have, together, crippled the few avenues that remained for the governed to speak with those governing. Town halls have been crippled. This tragedy has threatened yet another avenue. Fineman traces the increasingly stringent security measures at the Capitol; where the public was welcome in its halls not so very long ago, that is no longer always the case.

The ever-widening gap between those who govern and those who are governed, coupled with the language of violence, makes it all but inevitable that Gabrielle Giffords will not be the last member of Congress to be attacked. Is this what we really want? Do we really see our neighbors as enemies? Do we really want to make violence our method of selecting our leaders? Do we want to become nothing more than armed camps, warring against each other, or do we still believe that we can be “one nation, indivisible”? How far are we willing to ride the tiger?

Words matter. Facts matter. Working together for the common good is a worthy goal. Open, clear communication between Washington and the rest of us is something to treasure and nurture. We are better than this. Let’s get off  the tiger and put it back into its cage, before anybody else gets hurt.

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