Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Climate of Hate Theory Explained

As everyone knows, when Sarah Palin put her "targeted districts" map on a web site, there instantly were complaints that this "violent image" was an incitement to bloodshed and could actually cause it to happen. And yet, when the Democratic Leadership Council in 2004 published a very similar map with exactly the same theme (see below), we heard not a peep of protest. Why the difference?

Obviously there are a number of reasons, but surely one of them is this: The only people who would say that about you would be your critics, and the critics of the DLC -- conservatives, radical libertarians, Marxists, racialists, etc., etc. -- don't think this way, but a certain group of critics of Palin -- namely left liberals -- do.

What way is that? This of course is the climate of hate theory, as I have called it. (See also this.) I think this theory, which seems so silly to a lot of non-liberals -- is firmly embedded in the following features of the left-liberal view of the world:

1. Liberalism is based on the a strong desire to improve the world by means that are now within our reach. (It is both idealistic and optimistic.)

2. This means that the changes must be piecemeal: huge, systemic, revolutionary changes are not currently within our reach. (Thus they are committed to thinking that the problems of the world are not deeply rooted. This makes left-liberalism seem shallow to people who hold the opposite assumption, including Marxists, conservatives, racialists, and some radical libertarians.)

3. It also means that the causes of the world's problems must be subject to human control.

Believe it or not, I think 1-3 can explain the seeming obsession that so many left-liberals have with controlling the way others use words and other symbols (an urge that includes so-called "political correctness").

Here is one example of how these basic assumptions play out in terms of policies and practices:

Since everyone is equal, there is no reason why African Americans should be so much poorer than others are -- except that others keep discriminating against them. Why do they do that? Because they have bad ideas and attitudes. Where to they get these bad ideas and attitudes? From each other. How? By means of the things they say to each other. Through bad speech, they plant bad ideas in each others' brains. Institutional racism is a complex web, but it includes a choke-point that is subject to manipulation and control: speech, bad speech.

The climate of hate theory is simply a corollary: It just identifies one of the most obvious ways in which bad speech causes problems in the world. The fact that it is rooted in the way it is can easily explain features of the theory that seem anomalous to outsiders:

a. Though it sounds like a causal, empirical theory, they never give any evidence for it. Where are the studies correlating hateful speech with violence? That is like asking "where are the studies showing that the physical universe exists?" This theory is very close to their fundamental assumptions about how the world works. For a several reasons, people don't generally feel compelled to give evidence for such assumptions. For one thing, they seem far too obvious to need evidence.

b. The theory is only applied to right-wing speech, never to liberal, socialist, Marxist, feminist, or environmentalist speech, no matter how hateful or intemperate it might seem. It is of course a theoretical possibility such progressive speech could cause some violence, but we don't focus on that possibility because such speech is progressive: it is part of the solution, while right-wing speech is part of the problem. It is just the sort of speech that causes so much of the trouble in the world. The talk of "over-heated rhetoric," as if it only occurs on the right, does make sense, but only if you see it from inside the left-liberal world-view.

c. Though the theory often takes the form of dire warnings about bad things that are about to happen, the people who warn us about these things never seem to be genuinely frightened. Their tone seems scolding, not fearful. These dire predictions are not spontaneous expressions of emotion. They are attempts to make the world better. If we can just shame right-wingers into toning down their speech, progressive speech would have more effect and the world will eventually be cured of some of its serious troubles.

This is the best I'm able to do, so far, in understanding this curious phenomenon: the over-heated right-wing rhetoric theory.


Michael Drake said...

Palin's "targeted" districts is a synecdoche (though I would say a not very good one) of what is considered to be mainstream paranoia on the right, so treating it as if it's supposed to be "the cause" of Loughner's actions is a bit of a strawman.

The real questions as I see them are two: (1) Is the paranoid, insurrectionist rhetoric on the right distinctively mainstream (i.e., of a scale not seen on the left)? And (2) can the mainstreaming of such paranoia be expected (in light of its content and of its scale) to have causal effects?

I think the answers are yes and yes. But more importantly I think we need to at least get the questions right.

Lester Hunt said...

It seems to me those can't be the right questions, for at least two reasons:

1. They are phrased in a question-beggingly biased way. I'm not sure what "mainstreamed" rhetoric you have in mind, but I suspect strongly I would regard much of it as not "paranoid" at all, but as rationally angry.

2. Once they are cleaned of such emotive language, both questions are easy to answer, and the answer in both cases is "yes." In particular, of course this discourse has effects. It already has. The November election result was an effect, a fairly big one. The question is whether a wide array of rhetoric (including gun metaphors) will have certain specific effects (violent acts).

The "gun sight" image is not a visual synechdoche. That's the part/whole one. Did you mean metonymy?

R. Kevin Hill said...

I think these are important questions. Something tells me that your explanation isn't quite right, or that there is a deeper one. I'm not sure you're right about the absence of fear, but possibly. I'm not sure. I need to think about this some more. I suspect that something about all this is rooted (1) in Frankfurt School assumptions about Nazism, and (2) perceptions of Jim Crow. But I'm not clear yet. I recall reading in the biography of Wilhelm Reich many years ago that Reich understood "freedom of speech" as the right to tell the truth, which is readily ascertainable by rational means, and that there was no related right to say things that are *wrong*, or irrational, or rooted in emotion, etc.