Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Should You Tone Down Your Rhetoric?

The charges made in this video clip -- eg., that Palin and Beck are (almost!) guilty of the crime of sedition -- are far beneath contempt, but over the weekend Bill Clinton made a related point that raises and interesting ethical issue.

Apparently referring to Cong. Michelle Bachman's remark at a tax day rally that we currently live under a "gangster government," he said:

By all means keep fighting, by all means, keep arguing. But remember, words have consequences as much as actions do, and what we advocate, commensurate with our position and responsibility, we have to take responsibility for. We owe that to Oklahoma City. [See also this.]
That is, rhetoric like Bachman's can cause a new Timothy McVeigh to bomb another Murrah Building.

It's wrong to contribute to causing evil to be done, seems to be the idea.

Now, depending on context, I think there can be very good reasons for avoiding angry hyperbole, but ordinarily I don't think this is one of them.

I am old enough to remember the Vietnam era. I and my young contemporaries were hopping mad about the draft and the war, and we expressed our rage fluently, intemperately, at times obscenely. But I never heard anybody say, "You'd better tone your rhetoric down. It's liable to cause riots, bombings, and arson." Come to think of it, we did have plenty of riots, bombings, and arson. At my school someone put a bomb in the faculty club. It killed a janitor, who apparently thought it was trash and tried to move it. He managed to crawl halfway to the faculty club swimming pool before he died. (He was apparently trying to extinguish the flames that had engulfed his body.) There was a similar case here at UW-Madison (the bomb killed a grad student). But when these things happened, no one said "Tsk, tsk. Now do you see what you went and did with your overheated rhetoric? You better tone it down!"

Why not? The short answer of course is that this would have seemed like a really, seriously stupid thing to say. Just as "Tone it down or you might set off some unbalanced maniac!" would have seemed a stupid response to people who said "Bush lied and people died."

What's the difference between these two situations on the one hand, and Oklahoma City and the Tea Parties on the other?

In the first two cases -- Vietnam and Iraq -- everyone sees the cause of the rage, and any violence that might have come of it, in the policies that people were angry about: the two wars, the death and mayhem they caused, and other horrific government policies. We don't see it as caused by things people said about the policies. Whether we supported the wars or not, we could see how these policies can make people really angry. Governments that do such things had better be ready for some rage, and not snivel and whine about it when they get it.

In the other two cases, some of us see the anger involved as caused (partly) by the object of the anger, while others do not see it as caused (even partly) by the object. Personally, I think that if the Murrah bombing had any cause other than McVeigh's evil mind, it was the government's assault on the Branch Davidian Compound two years earlier, which Gore Vidal later described like this:
during a six-hour assault, the building was set fire to and then bulldozed by Bradley armored vehicles. God saw to it that no F.B.I. man was hurt while more than 80 cult members were killed, of whom 27 were children. It was a great victory for Uncle Sam, as intended by the F.B.I., whose code name for the assault was Show Time. ...

The April 19, 1993, show at Waco proved to be the largest massacre of Americans by their own government since 1890, when a number of Native Americans were slaughtered at Wounded Knee, South Dakota.
I can see how such state actions can make someone really angry. Bill Clinton cannot. He thinks the cause can only reside in what people said about the attack.

Similarly, in the above clip, anti-Obama anger is explained in terms of everything but his policies: "seditious" rhetoric, racism, bad economic times. The bailouts, stimuli, and gigantic new government entitlements, the massive government moves into huge sectors of the economy -- they had nothing to do with it. (Despite a statement in the clip that seems to assert that Obama has only been president for a few months, during which nothing has changed, these comments were made three days ago.)

In a way, there is a difference in value judgments here. Independently of what I might think of the specific policy issues involved, I see all four cases as serious enough to make someone really angry. Bill, and the people in the video clip, do not. That I think is what separates us.
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