Kathryn Ruud is a contributing author to the book “At War with Words,” published in New York and Berlin in 2003. Hood College is hosting her talk “Understanding American Political Talk in the Age of Infotainment” 4 to 6 p.m. March 27 at the Whitaker Center. The event is free and open to the public.
Barely a week into the New Year, 19 of our fellow citizens were shot, and six of them killed, at a “Congress on Your Corner” event for the constituents of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. A single statement in a news conference in the hours afterward reverberated across the land. Of the vitriolic tone in our politics, Tucson’s sheriff said, “This is not the nice United States that most of us grew up in, and I think it’s time we do some soul-searching.”
Instead, we witnessed a steep ratcheting up of the finger pointing and opposition bashing that now passes as our national dialogue. When tragedy strikes, and when we are reeling in horror, humans often look for a simple explanation. Sometimes this takes the form of a scapegoat: a person, or a group, who can be blamed for the wrongdoings of others.
Sarah Palin was a convenient and obvious scapegoat for the rage. Many voices, primarily from the left, blamed Palin for the attack on Giffords and her constituents.
The claimed justification for the fury was two-fold. During the 2010 election season, Palin had posted a map with crosshairs over Giffords’ district on Facebook. And Giffords, who had received threats of violence after her vote for health insurance reform, had worried about the image. About Palin’s map, Giffords had said, “When people do that, they’ve gotta realize there’s consequences to that action.”
Though most people shared shock and sadness over the shootings, the political debate immediately splintered into vicious antagonism. The question was whether words and images might have led to this violent action. Voices on the right argued it was the act of one deranged individual. Only he could be held responsible. Voices on the left pointed to numerous battle metaphors Palin used when talking politics, such as “set your sights”, “the crossfire is intense”, “penetrate through enemy territory”, “use your Big Guns”, “shoot with accuracy”, and “don’t retreat, reload!” These words were seen as “trigger words” that highlight violence as the solution to political grievance.
The fact is, none of us knows the motivation behind this act. But when it comes to language, we all swim in the same water. Whether we watch the same TV shows, listen to the same radio stations, read the same newspapers or Internet sites, or not, we communicate to each other with language that floats in from sources all around us. But despite the ample information available to us, genuine communication is becoming more difficult.
Because of my background in linguistics (the scientific study of language and its structures), and my research, writing and public speaking on the topic of polarized political discourse, both Democrats and Republicans have approached me to tell stories of harsh division seeping into workplaces, classrooms, and even into family get-togethers. Political talk is getting ugly.– People are quicker to express hostility than in “the nice United States most of us grew up in.”
Most people, even many of the most ardently political among us, think this is a shame. There is a genuine longing for a return to a civility that leaves room for sharp, pointed criticism. We can argue fiercely without degrading or dehumanizing persons who think differently than we do. This is possible to do, and America stands on nearly 250 years of exuberant practice in this art.
We could do without some of the current intensity and nastiness in our political dialogue, but the answer is not censorship. Instead, we need much more speech. No one likes to be told what can or cannot be said or how one should think. Those two freedoms are necessary, precious components of vigorous political debate.
Basic tools to cope with the loud, often derogatory edginess of politics in our information age were written long ago. They are in the writings on rhetoric studied by America ‘s founders, who understood the difference between the ethical and unethical use of strong language.– With accumulating knowledge in linguistics and communications, we, too, can learn to identify modern unethical language that is harmful to democracy. And like the founders, we can find ways to counter polarizing talk, and we can work together to forestall the fracturing of our country.