Sunday, January 9, 2011

Guns don't kill people; words kill people... Time to tone down the rhetoric for the sake of the republic

The purpose her
is not to make a long, drawn out, statement about the killings yesterday in Tuscon. My guess is by the end of next week we will have heard every word there is to say about it from both the left and the right -- and the middle. The hand-wringing has already begun.

It should be gut wrenching not hand wringing.

A time will come to talk about this in class. Nearly every semester, usually as the work winds down, I introduce the idea that our metaphors shape our actions. Lakoff and Johnson are eloquent on the metaphors we live by. Time is money. Argument is war. The effects of these ideas seem quite intuitive.

This, then, is a good time to confront another metaphor. Politics is war. We've been living by this metaphor since the early 1960s. Sometimes the idea has been benign. Sometimes across that half-century the idea has been dominant in politics. Whether this gunman was stirred yesterday to horrific and cowardly action by this metaphor will be anybody's (and everybody's) guess. No one, however, can deny the idea of politics as war has driven and riven our politics the past two years.

For those who write about politics, this idea is a natural. You're on deadline, looking around the spaces of your brain for a metaphor and the phrase "trench battle" comes to mind. Or "quagmire." Or the idea that a position has been destroyed or defended. Or the idea that the candidate is fighting a rear guard action. Or, finally (to cheers) going on the offensive. Then the idea of war gets muddled up with the idea of sports and you have candidates for office who are delivering knock-out punches. I love the sequence from Dan Rather and Bob Scheffer describing Bush I as "a get-up fighter"... "A guy who gets up when he gets knocked down and knocks the other guy down."

An old study once showed 75 percent of all political metaphors to be drawn from either sports or war. With more women reporters, those proportions will, I hope, have changed.

But in this silly season, my guess is they haven't changed much. And, as many have noted, and will note, the ante is at a fever level. We aren't just fighting for good policies these days; the talking heads would have us believe we are fighting for our lives and the lives of our children, for our very way of life, for our beloved country and our un-loved planet.

When you raise the stakes that high, you are invoking the stakes of war. Disagreement is treason. The end is near. No action is too extreme to be considered in such a world.

It's time to ratchet this crap down.

I've been thinking about writing something on this called "Words Kill." Words may not have killed in Tuscon, but we are certainly creating the climate for them to kill elsewhere. The lie to this is that politics is more important than sports and less desperate than war. The essence of politics is compromise and consensus building. Of course, neither compromise nor consensus building make good television or energize the base.

Words do matter. They aren't just the way to sell a car or a newscast. They have very real consequences -- sooner or later.


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