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January 11, 2011

News Flash: Most Americans Believe there is No Link Between Rhetoric and Reality!

By Bud Goodall

The CBS opinion poll released today says most Americans don't believe there is a link between vitriolic rhetoric and the tragic shootings in Tucson. That is a convenient and easy excuse, but it is also wrong. The right can't have it both ways--they claim reading Marx makes you a Commie but then deny that hate speech on the airwaves or targeting images on the Web have any motivational effect. Words matter and here's why ...


What matters in a way is not just the sign or the symbol, but also all the reverberating uncapturable energies that the sign or the symbol alludes to.  The residues of speaking and signaling.  It's not, as Benjamin notes, "what the moving red   neon sign   says - but the fiery red pool reflecting it in the asphalt."  -" Tom Jacobs, "On Clues, Screws, and the True" (http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2011/01/clues.html#more)

I was not entirely surprised when I read this morning that according to a CBS poll 57% of the American people don't believe there is a connection between the vitriolic rhetoric that dominates politics and the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 19 other people in Tucson, Arizona.   The poll showed some differences along party lines, but that isn't what is important.   What is important is that opinion polls consistently show that most Americans believe a lot of nutty things, including, but not limited to, that our diets are healthy, that creationism provides a better explanation for life on earth than does evolution, that the government is keeping aliens and knowledge of aliens under wraps, and that Fox is the most trusted name in news.

Most Americans also don't believe that college professors like me can offer students anything other than indoctrination to our leftist ways.   So why are you bothering to read this column?   According to the vitriolic rhetoric of folks like Glenn Beck, Michael Savage, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and so on, because I am a college professor everything I say is suspect.  

Of course there is no real link between what those commentators on the right say and what you believe, right?   And certainly no tie between what they say and anything that happens in the world, good or bad, right?

Here's the rub, ladies and gentleman.   You cannot have it both ways.   You cannot say, as the right does, that because a young man has a copy of a book written by Karl Marx on his shelf at home that he is a leftist and then turn right around and claim that there is no link between what words are used to create an idea, or an ideology, and the resulting behavior of people who listen to them and treat them as true.   

Think about it.   What do you believe?   Why?   Let's ramp it up a bit:   Why do you behave as you do?   Is it motivated by what you believe?   By what others tell you?   By the master narratives that guide your understanding of America, of what is right and wrong, of what history teaches us, and what we have learned about ourselves from science?   How about your sense of how the world works and your place in it?   Where do those ideas come from?   Because surely they come from somewhere.   And they are expressed in language, in words, that have meaning for you.   Particular meaning.  

The answer to the big question of why we behave the way we do was provided by two social scientists, Professors Donald Snygg and Arthur Combs, a long time ago.   Their answer:   Because we think we should behave that way .   To wit:   "All behavior is rational at the time of the behavior to the behaver."   It's really that simple.

So the question of why Loughner shot 20 people at the Safeway Plaza in Tucson is not a mystery.   He shot those unfortunate human beings, killing six of them, because he believed it was the right thing to do.   He was clearly insane, yes, but in his head he was just doing what he felt he needed to do, and, because of what he believed, he was doing what he thought was right.

That is admittedly a very scary thought.   It is even a scarier thought--at least to me, given what I believe in--that a person with a long history of mental illness who had failed a drug test to get into military service was nevertheless allowed to purchase a Glock 19 with an extended magazine capable of holding 30 bullets.   But that's just me.   I'm crazy like that.   Probably because of what I read.   Or listen to.   Or think about.

My point is that regardless of an opinion poll that severely tests the intelligence of the average American to think much beyond what they get from their most trusted news source on the left or the right, those of us in the communication field who have spent years studying hate speech, revolutionary rhetoric, and extremist violence have a pretty fair Snygg & Combs-type of understanding of the relationship among those terms.   It can be summarized in the words of an 18th century clergyman named George Campbell in his book, The Philosophy of Rhetoric :   "Rhetoric appeals to the imagination for the better moving of the will."

Campbell was interested in finding better ways of using the newly created field of faculty psychology to train Presbyterian ministers to do a better job of leading their flocks to Jesus.   One of his contributions to the study and practice of rhetoric was the critique of Aristotle's belief that humans are rational animals.   Campbell believed that in fact Aristotle had replaced a wish for reality, and that in reality humans are far more easily motivated by their emotions than by reasoning.  

This notion, of course, is still true today.   In fact, so powerful are rhetorical appeals to human emotions even without good reasons or a firm truth behind them that we invest billions each year in new ways to perpetrate it.   It is called advertising, marketing, propaganda, and (in some cases) public relations.   If you, my friend, have ever bought a product hoping it would bring you youth, beauty, riches, world peace, or weight loss; if you have ever purchased a car because you thought it "said something" about you; if you have ever voted for a candidate because they promised you the American Dream -"ah, but let's not go there.   Right?   Because according to that pesky opinion poll, you don't believe in such things as words are made of.   Which means, I guess, that you also never hoped that someone would say she or he loved you.  

But I digress.   If only a little bit.  

Words are symbols and as such they are representations of reality.   But that doesn't mean, as Kenneth Burke teaches us, that we don't act as if the realities they represent are real or that we shouldn't act one way or the other because of them.   Words are symbolic actions , they create the drama that we call the stage of everyday life.

There is a fascinating take on "stochastic terrorism," or the relationship of words that come with a symbolic license to kill and the real attempts (some successful) to take human lives, that I recommend to you.   The author, identified only as G2geek, writes:

"Stochastic terrorism  is the use of mass communications to stir up random lone wolves to carry out violent or terrorist acts that are statistically predictable but individually unpredictable.

This is what occurs when Bin Laden releases a video that stirs random extremists halfway around the globe to commit a bombing or shooting.

This is also the term for what Beck, O'Reilly, Hannity, and others do.  And this is what led directly and predictably to a number of cases of ideologically-motivated murder similar to the Tucson shootings."

I encourage you to consider, as much as you may not want to consider it, that words and ideas have consequences .  

Please do not misunderstand me or my intentions here.   I am NOT calling for limitations of any kind on our freedom of speech.   I am asking for civility and restraint.   I am using what I think we all can agree is an American tragedy in Tucson as a "teaching and learning moment," a place for all of us to reflect on the very real, sometimes very dangerous relationship between what we choose to say or depict in images--what symbolic actions are repeated and repeated and repeated everyday in our political culture--and the outcomes that may accrue from people believing them or believing it is okay to do something because of them.

I know it is easier to deny that there is a link between what happened in Tucson and talk on the radio or images on a website or a metaphor that commentator uses, perhaps just thinking he or she is being clever.   And yes, it was a gun that killed and injured people, not words.   And yes, the shooter was clearly insane.  

But none of these deflections from the reality of what happened, none of these easy denials that make us feel better because they allow us to pretend we aren't part of it, change the fact that we get up every day and walk into the world armed with what we believe.   Nor does it change the fact that what we believe was shaped by words we read or heard about as well as the things we have seen and experienced visually.   And that when you put all of those pieces of the puzzle that is you and me together in a world saturated by media, what you end up with a complicated, sometimes confusing, sometimes joyful, and sometimes scary world.  

As John Stewart put it:

"I do think it's important to watch our rhetoric. I think it's a worthwhile goal not to conflate our political opponents with enemies if for no other reason than to draw a better distinction between the manifestos of paranoid madmen and what passes for acceptable political and pundit speak. It would be really nice if the ramblings of crazy people didn't in any way resemble how we actually talk to each other on teevee." 

Nobody knows for sure what motivated Loughner.   But what we do know is that regardless of what motivated him to mass murder and mayhem, at the time he was pulling that trigger he felt that what he was doing was the right thing to do.   He didn't get to that dark place alone.   No doubt there were many rhetorical and narrative influences that played a role in his illness, many ways in which the rough course of his life shaped by words and images helped him to make a kind of sense out of his experiences in ways that led him to do what he did.   But words and images did influence him, one way or the other.

Because that is what it means to be a human.   We are, all of us, people of the word.

Submitters Bio:

H. L. (Bud) Goodall, Jr. lives in Arizona where he is a college professor and writer. He has published 20 books and many articles and chapters on a variety of communication issues. His most recent books include Counter-Narrative: How Progressive Academics Can Challenge Extremists and Promote Social Justice (Left Coast Press, 2010) and, with Jeffry Halverson and Steven R. Corman, Master Narratives of Islamic Extremism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) .