Notes on the “Flash Forum” on civil rhetoric and violence today

Today the Center for Democratic Deliberation had a Flash Forum in response to the Arizona shootings in Foster Auditorium of the library. I was super excited for this, because it’s a great and timely opportunity to talk about civility and violence in public discourse. I wanted to write a brief summary of some of the claims made, and then ruminate a bit on one encounter during the discussion. The event was structured with four speakers, who each spoke for 5-10 minutes, and then a discussion that involved the audience. I’m going off notes, so some things might be truncated or simplified a lot.

Matthew Jordan in the College of Communication started off with a talk titled “‘Nothing wrong with me’: Media Aesthetics and the Cultivation of Rage.” Jordan explored connections between aesthetics and the deliberative process, defining deliberation as a process of convincing others and oneself that it is proper or necessary to take certain actions. He noted that Drowning Pool’s “Bodies” was one of the songs that Loughner listened to. Here’s the music video:

This type of music, Jordan claimed, often accompanies violence (professional wrestling, shootings, etc.). He asked what the effect of repeating this song and others like it is, and speculated that it results in turning away from deliberation. Following Nietzsche in The Case of Wagner, who argued that the repetition of Wagner can create in consumers “a somnambulist trance,” Jordan argued that perhaps this type of music feeds the belief that one doesn’t need information, helps assist hysteria from too much stimulation, feeds narcissism, and leads to the rejection of the need to learn about others’ experiences and the ability to differentiate between fantasy and reality. But he certainly made an interesting case.

Jordan acknowledged that it’s possible that this music does “good work” (my words, not his), but ultimately, perhaps it is morally and ethically bad. I found Jordan’s talk provocative, which I liked, but I’m not sure I agree with him. It too easily slides into the same scapegoat rhetoric we have heard since the 90s (if not before): violent video games and music lead youth awry and cause violence.

Jeremy Engels, from the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences, discussed the consequences of rhetoric like Humphreys’ (spelling? — who blamed Giffords herself for the shooting because she didn’t have security and protection) and Palin’s (who put sole blame on the shooter); this rhetoric that blames individuals and denies the importance of rhetoric makes it appear that our political discourse is just fine. However, Engels argued, violent rhetoric makes it harder to get along, because it makes argument out like war. If we focus on individuals instead of on rhetoric, it makes it harder to continue conversations because incidents are seen as isolated. Engels ended by asking what sort of politics do we want.

Ellen Dannin, from the Dickinson School of Law, gave a nice talk that started with Martin Luther King and argued for the need to end injustices like poverty, and for the need to work together to build community and reach our ideals, our “promised land” in the words of King.

Lastly, John P. Christman (in Philosophy, Political Science, and Women’s Studies) started with claiming he had “no idea” if incendiary rhetoric is relevant to the events in Tucson. Rather, he focused on structural conditions that made the violence possible: a culture of crime, made possible by a proliferation of guns and the right to carry guns, the destruction of mental health resources and the difficulty in accessing them, the NRA’s stranglehold on Congress, among other things. Chirstman argued that discourse about discourse about discourse about discourse (especially talk about Palin and how she responds and how people respond to her, etc.) might be distracting because it is entertaining and not really about policy. He also made the (right on!) claim that the “right to freedom” argument used by all sides is actually camouflage for underlying arguments and claims: “There is no such thing as a right to freedom. What freedom refers to is a range of rights, privileges, and immunities,” as he roughly said.

I enjoyed most of what was said, and thought some points were really interesting. I wish we as an audience could have explored them more. There were some questions, which were good questions, but pulled the audience in all sorts of directions. But then a young man had a chance to ask a question, and this is when the event got really instructive. This young man passionately claimed that objectively Loughner was mentally insane, that there was no rational basis for cause and effect between rhetoric and this man’s actions, and that any rational person would agree with him, and that the panel had a leftist bias and was ignoring violent rhetoric from the Left (like Obama, for instance).

The panelists’ and Debbie Hawhee’s responses (she was moderating) were fairly good. They thanked him for his perspective, and expressed their happiness that he was passionate about this issue. Mostly the response was that words like “objective,” “rational,” “irrational,” and “ridiculous” were words that shut down discourse, that made argument about winning and losing. I thought this was a great point, and for many students in the audience, it was probably instructive in how language works to shut down certain dialogue, and the differences between a fruitful discussion and an argument about shame and winning/losing.

I spent the rest of the day thinking about how I might have responded to the young man if I were up there. I’m not sure I would have done better: the panelists’ responses made a point, were cordial and respectful, and also kept the young man from dominating the discussion for too long by (after the young man had argued back a few times) conceding that the conversation was going no where and offering to talk to him later. In the moment, I can’t image doing much better, though the young man’s response was fairly predictable (I’m not sure you can get more predictable that accusations of left-wing or liberal bias during an academic forum about politics). Part of me would want to engage more slowly than the panelists with his assumptions, starting off with paraphrasing his claims, and then explaining more slowly why I think the language he chose made it hard to have an open dialogue about it (because, as one panelist pointed out, deliberation is pointless if it’s apparent someone won’t change their mind and is not open to hearing the other side). One thing that wasn’t addressed was bias, and the assumption that bias is bad and that someone can’t have a valid perspective with a liberal (or conservative) bias.

Overall, that confrontation was probably the most instructive moment of the dialogue for most people in the room. I was a bit disappointed that discussion didn’t go into some deeper questions about civil rhetoric and violence: the nature and distinction between them (if a clear distinction can be made), why violent rhetoric is so bad, and if it’s bad, in what contexts and why. I felt like there were assumptions made or touched upon that could have been fleshed out more.

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2 Responses to Notes on the “Flash Forum” on civil rhetoric and violence today

  1. Chris says:

    One problem I see with violent metaphor in political discourse is it leads people to the wrong conclusion about what will be effective. An effective hit in a physical fight leaves your opponent weaker, and therefore more likely to succumb to your next blow. But an overwhelming barrage of angry words in political discourse only makes your opponent angrier, and less likely to come around to your point of view in the long term. So the war metaphor gives you exactly the wrong intuition about what will work.

    So, if your angry “leftist bias” kid is using that poor metaphor in his head to understand political discourse, he’s likely to get frustrated with it — he keeps hitting harder, with the most pointed barbs he can deliver, yet the harder he hits, the more intransigent this panel of lefty academics seem to be. If he’s a little on the angry side already, it might eventually lead him to the conclusion that talking *doesn’t work* — such a weak substitute for fists and bullets.

    That’s why I think media framing of politics as “culture war” is corrosive, and it’s not going to get better until we resume thinking about how to enlighten instead of defeat each other. I don’t think Palin’s bullet map makes crazy people shoot people, but I think it does subtly encourage us to give up on trying to reach out to people we disagree with.

  2. Michael says:

    Chris, I largely agree with everything you said. I believe Howard Zinn put it that the turn to war is evidence of a lack of imagination, and I’d generally say the same thing about a lot of violence — and violent rhetoric seems to limit our imagination about what we could do and say differently.

    Thanks for your comment!

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