On Violence, Language and Public Responsibility

Civility. It is what we are all supposed to be in the wake of the shootings in Tucson, Arizona, last weekend. Because “uncivil” language in our overheated partisan political environment was alleged — or suspected, or merely felt — to contribute, in some way, to shooter Jared Loughner’s motives when he shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (and 17 others), killing six people. I’ve already received Jim Wallis’ “Peace and Civility Pledge” (yes, I somehow got myself on the Sojourner’s e-mail list):

Part of building a better society is relating to others with whom we disagree on important issues without calling them evil. It is out of that work that we recommit ourselves to being peacemakers in our country. It is on that Covenant that we have based this new Pledge.
As the county sheriff in charge of the criminal scene in Tucson said on Saturday, this must be an occasion for national “soul searching.” In the midst of tragedy and violence, I believe this means every Christian must ask: “How am I responsible?”

I have also had many qualms about the nature of political language in the United States, particularly that of Republicans, which rhetorically creates a world in which the values of conservative, middle-class Americans (and the people who hold those values) are threatened and besieged from all around, a world in which only violence can redeem those values and the holders of those values. This has been their language for a long, long time, both in and out of power. It is a language with logical consequences. In power, it prompts fairly merciless state violence; out of power, it whips up and maintains unreasonable fears of those who have state power, and creates a rhetorical logic in which — because so much is at stake — that at some point the opposition must not be allowed to gain or continue its hold on power because that political opposition is the existential threat. The GOP’s leadership have walked this line pretty carefully — cultivating this violence rhetorically as a way of mobilizing and maintaining the base, and yet not cultivating so intently as to actually organize it and then kick it into action. It may be that people can live on that edge for years, even decades, without actually organizing to murder their neighbors. We’re going to see. 

(I’m picking on the GOP because since the 1970s, it has been much more attached to the language of overt violence than have the Democrats.)

But precisely because the GOP has never kicked the violence into action, those bursts of violence that have happened seem to be the result of single, unstable individuals. (Or tiny groups of unstable people.) It appears that Loughner (and I don’t know him) falls into this category, a lone individual suffering from some kind of mental disorder, very likely schizophrenia. Attempts by observers rummaging through his booklist or his Youtube postings to root his violence either in the ideology of the left or right, and thus blame the other for violence and incivility, is widely off the mark, as Laura Miller noted on Salon.com on Monday:

The sole ideological thread running through Loughner’s list is an inchoate anti-authoritarianism. It’s likely that what attracted him to “Mein Kampf” and “The Communist Manifesto” was less the political thinking in either book than their aura of the forbidden, the sensation that he was defying the adults around him by daring to read either one. The rest of his favorites — “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Brave New World,” “Animal Farm” and “Fahrenheit 451” — depict deceitful and oppressive regimes committed to squelching individual initiative and thought.


But chances are that Loughner’s motives will prove as irreducibly complex as those of most of his predecessors in assassination. Violence in American politics tends to bubble up from a world that’s far stranger than any Glenn Beck monologue — a murky landscape where worldviews get cobbled together from a host of baroque conspiracy theories, and where the line between ideological extremism and mental illness gets blurry fast.
This is the world that gave us [Lee Harvey] Oswald and [Arthur] Bremer [who shot George Wallace in 1972]. More recently, it’s given us figures like James W. von Brunn, the neo-Nazi who opened fire at the Holocaust Museum in 2009, and James Lee, who took hostages at the Discovery Channel last summer to express his displeasure over population growth. These are figures better analyzed by novelists than pundits: as Walter Kirn put it Saturday, they’re “self-anointed knights templar of the collective shadow realm, not secular political actors in extremis.”
This is politics, yes, but it is not normal, reasonable, emotional politics. It is a politics unattached to reality, one that revels in the magical. I’ve listened to such rantings on the shortwave before (I actually find them entertaining, when I get them in short bursts). I’m not entirely sure how much a more civil political discourse in the United States would prevent crazies from acting out — that’s a little like asking how much rain didn’t fall last night. It’s a hypothetical question also ungrounded in the real world. We live in a world of violent language that mostly does not prompt violent action.

But I have two concerns that I expect will not be addressed by Wallis’ (or anyone else’s) civility pledge.

The first is the violence of the state itself. In effect, we are being told we must have a “civil discourse” about politics, which is the process we engage in to control the state, which is defined as that entity which has a lawful monopoly on violence. Those agents of state power, and their apologists, tell us who are subject to state power that we must be civil and eschew violence, but the state doesn’t have to. It can still threaten, accuse, investigate, imprison, marginalize, bomb, destroy and annihilate, both in word and deed, as official policy or as something its apologists aspire to. It’s agents can still use violence with impunity. How long, I wonder, until the next congresscrittur or pundit demands Julian Assange’s rendition to the Black Hole of Guantano, or supports Bradley Manning’s continuing abuse at the hands of the state, or continued bombing of Yemen and Pakistan (or elsewhere, violence that results in the very real injury and deaths of very real human beings), or an attack upon Iran? Will that be seen as uncivil? Why do I doubt it?

The truth is the state wishes to maintain its monopoly not just on violence, but the language of violence, and those who parry and thrust to control that violence must not themselves EVER use the language of violence in their struggle. State violence is sacred, and it is only to be used against enemies of the state.

This leads me to a second point. In principle, I have no problem with the notion of a public responsibility for language. Words do have consequences, in that they create an interpretive reality by which the world is understood and that understanding is acted upon. It is reasonable (though it may not necessarily be correct) that language steeped in violence and fear will tend those who accept that “interpretive reality” toward violence responses. It may also be that human beings are quite capable of living with quite a bit of cognitive dissonance for long stretches of time, and will only act upon fear and anger when actively prompted and organized.

But pledges like Wallis’ seem disingenuous to me. More to the point, they seem like a power play, a way to dictate the terms of the debate, to gain advantage. What, exactly, is uncivil? How do we agree what is uncivil? We already know that “enemies of the state” — at least those residing outside the boundaries of the state — don’t merit any civility from agents of the state and their supporters. What about opponents of the state (and not merely partisan opponents of whoever governs) at home? I have no doubt that Wallis and his ilk would like to marginalize anti-state and anti-government speech, to relegate it to the land of uncivil. And those who speak such language to the land of enemies who can be legitimate targets of state violence. 

Civility pledges, then, are — like most efforts to rewrite rules — a pure power grab. A way to privilege one speaker at the expense of another by thoroughly marginalizing language, ideas and those who speak them. 


One thought on “On Violence, Language and Public Responsibility

  1. There is more than one world view with its corresponding ultimate concern. So if we are in the rugged individualism point of view, then it is natural to feel that use of the tools of violence whether words or guns is the decisive factor. I think you understand Wallace’s view that this as an expression of utter powerlessness before, if not surrender to the enemy. Naturally, this is characterized by the rugged individualism memeplex as a tool of the powerful to delude the weak. Who’s right? Charles Bronson or Jim Wallace?Science judges the correctness of their models by how well they make predictions that can be empirically verified. I propose the simple metric for evaluating the correctness of a memeplex that addresses ultimate concerns: Know them by their fruits. The failure of Christian Liberalism to stand up against the Kaiser and Nazism is said to be a major impetus to the rise of alternative postmodern christian thought such as neo-orthodoxy. The failure of my church to say anything- Anything- about Tuscon or Martin Luther King’s message, or anything about the use of violence was indication that there is very little interest from the Christian Right in confronting the moral bankruptcy of blocking any form of gun control legislation in the wake of this tragedy. There is compelling language to use, but it touches many other brain stem responses that deeply motivate people. Wallace I think genuinely believes he is using a powerful language but I think his mistake is born of his insularity. The language that is compelling for him and his typical audience is not compelling to the audience that is not already persuaded by his message. Obama’s speech demonstrated how you can speak to an ultimate concern that triggers primal feelings not of fear and self preservation, but of nurturing the young and the innocent. That is a language of power. Is it decisive against the language of the rugged individualism language of fear and violence? I think not, but it is not that the memes have roots any less deep below below the cerebral cortex, it is simply that there is not as formidable array of interlocking memes to support a world view that is as resilient and as motivational as that of those clinging to their guns.

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