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.


Neth said...

After that wack-job assassinated the abortion Dr. George Tiller, there was an FBI criminologist on TV talking about how these extremists almost never become violent unless people around them provide moral support to commit the violence. The perceived injustice alone isn't considered sufficient by the experts.

So Clinton might just be saying 'hey, i understand you've got a gripe, but don't add that second ingredient, lets keep this political instead of making it physical.' You're assuming he thinks Waco and the Tea Parties are not legitimate gripes, but he does tell the tea partiers "By all means, keep fighting. By all means, keep arguing." He might think the Waco gripe was perfectly legitimate, but (consistent with the findings of these criminologists) insufficient in and of itself to create violence, and that's why he doesn't want people being encouraged to throw bricks and cut people's brakes.

During those Vietnam protests, a lot of the violence was arising out of mobs, where people would give each other moral support to act outrageously, and as is common among mobs, people end up doing violent things that they'd never think of doing on their own. I wasn't alive then, but plenty of people probably did think the rhetoric was an incitement to violence and that's why the cops would try to disperse a non-violent protest. Maybe that's been forgotten because of all the benign marijuana that was going around back then.

Lester Hunt said...

Note that your comments apparently commit you to saying that the Vietnam demonstrators and Bush critics should have toned down their rhetoric, which I don't think is true.

You also seem to be committed to saying that the cause of the arson and bombings during the Vietnam period was angry speech, which no one said at the time and I think no one would say, unless driven to do so by a theory such as yours.

I don't know who these criminologists are you are referring to, but it is easy to think of people who committed acts of political violence who were almost certainly not moved by the hot rhetoric of others. Lee Oswald and Ted Kaczynski, for instance, were both loners who were little influenced by others in any respect.

Finally, the fact that Clinton thinks people should go ahead and criticize BHO's policies doesn't show that he understands that they provoke serious anger in and of themselves. I don't think he does.

Lester Hunt said...

To the person who just submitted a comment to this blog: I don't publish comments that advocate violence on this blog. Sorry.