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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 1/10/11

Killing Words, Metaphors, and Images: Narrative IEDs Come to Arizonistan

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Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Sharron Angle, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, Glenn Beck, the crew at Fox News, and others must be held accountable for it.   As Paul Krugman put it this morning in an op-ed for the New York Times :

"Where's that toxic rhetoric coming from? Let's not make a false pretense of balance: it's coming, overwhelmingly, from the right. It's hard to imagine a Democratic member of Congress urging constituents to be "armed and dangerous" without being ostracized; but Representative Michele Bachmann, who did just that, is a rising star in the G.O.P.

And there's a huge contrast in the media. Listen to Rachel Maddow or Keith Olbermann, and you'll hear a lot of caustic remarks and mockery aimed at Republicans. But you won't hear jokes about shooting government officials or beheading a journalist at The Washington Post . Listen to Glenn Beck or Bill O'Reilly, and you will."

Why should we hold these media figures accountable for what they say?  

It's really very simple.   Because I don't want to see Arizona become Arizonistan.   Nor do I want America to become akin to Pakistan, where a duly elected leader--Governor of Punjab Salman Taseer--is   gunned down because the holy warriors have targeted him for moderate views.   As a person who studies jihadists over there, I can tell you with a large measure of evidence to support it, that hate speech fuels violence.   Words are never neutral.   And narrative IEDs that link political violence to ideas such as "freedom" (in our case) or jihad in theirs, are dangerous narratives.

I warned about the relationship between the IEDs in political extremist talk and the likely real violence in later outcomes last year in my book Counter Narrative: How Progressive Academics Can Challenge Extremists and Promote Social Justice .   Here is an excerpt from Chapter 2:

"Just as in that rugged war-torn landscape "improvised explosive devices' tear apart everything from the local peace to military transport trucks, rumors there are used as weapons of mass persuasion to seed distrust among the population and to cast doubt on the motives of American forces. Because the rumors are generally effective, and because they are difficult if not impossible to counter, they operate as explosive rhetorical devices that disrupt the possibility of meaningful dialogue and mutual trust.

The same could be said of phrases [such as those used by right wing extremists at home]. In our rugged political landscape, these narrative IEDs are effective because they combine the mediated political power of the repetitious soundbite with a transparent call to arms that divides citizens from government, the right from the center and certainly from the left, and those who side with their extremist views from anyone else.

Plus, mouthing expressions that sound tough--the tactic of the schoolyard bully--often provides just enough narrative appeal to be confused with actually being tough, which is one way that the weak gain power and influence among those truly vulnerable persons who themselves want desperately to identify with strength. Again, as the spread of an anti-America rumor in Iraq or Afghanistan or Yemen sows seeds of doubt as well as organizes vulnerable local populations against us, so, too, do the narrative IEDs of the violent extremist political right in our country sow seeds of doubt about the integrity of our leadership and at the same time organize populations against it and the rest of us."

Bottom line: My freedom of speech does not come with a cultural or a political permit to carry concealed weapons of mass destruction or to unnecessarily detonate narrative IEDs in public places.   The choice to do so--because it is always a choice of how we speak in public, what words we choose--is an act for which we must hold ourselves and others accountable.

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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 (more...)
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