Definitely politicize this tragedy

Lately, I find myself disagreeing with PZ far more than I used to on a number of matters. Today though, I think he’s 100% correct:

What we have here is an attempted assassination of a politician by an insane crank at a political event, in a state where the political discourse has been an unrelenting howl of eliminationist rhetoric and characterization of anyone to the left of Genghis Khan as a traitor and enemy of the state…and now, when six (including a nine year old girl) lie dead and another fourteen are wounded, now suddenly we’re concerned that it is rude and politicizing a tragedy to point out that the right wing has produced a toxic atmosphere that pollutes our politics with hatred and the rhetoric of violence?

Screw that. Now is the time to politicize the hell out of this situation.

For anyone living in a cave (or in a lab) – a man walked into a crowd and fired a semi-automatic weapon many times, apparently targeting a conservative democratic congresswoman, and killing or wounding 20 people.

There’s been plenty of talk about the violent rhetoric that’s been spewed for the last 2 years, and many have blamed talk radio, Sarah Palin’s map with cross-hairs over congressional districts (including congresswoman Giffords’) and the like, and I don’t have much to add on that front. There’s been no direct connection, and there may never be, but I find it hard to believe that this atmosphere of violent hatred had nothing to do with this gunman’s actions.

But I’m seeing the word “tone” coming up again. Some of you may remember there was a little event in Washington a few months ago that had the intention of restoring sanity to our political discourse. This event was panned by folks like PZ for being to squishy, and by others for a feeling of false-equivalency. I went to DC to join in because I think Jon Stewart’s rally was an attempt to shine a light on the political environment that allows, if not outright condones the hate-mongering of the Limbaughs and Palins of the world. Others saw it differently, but let’s be clear about a couple things in the next few skirmishes in the tone-wars that are likely to flare up due to this tragedy:

– Folks like PZ Myers, for all their insulting and derogatory rhetoric have NEVER advocated violence. Ever. Against anyone.

– There’s a fundamental (not incremental) difference between calling someone stupid and calling them a traitor.

– Calling for people to speak out against government abuses, or attempt to vote someone out of office is not the same as calling them terrorists.

Wherever you stand on the tone debate, let’s just remember not to fold all passioned disagreement under the same umbrella with “Don’t retreat, reload.

Mike’s got way better summaries here and here

Update 2: Paul Krugman makes largely the same point:

It’s important to be clear here about the nature of our sickness. It’s not a general lack of “civility,” the favorite term of pundits who want to wish away fundamental policy disagreements. Politeness may be a virtue, but there’s a big difference between bad manners and calls, explicit or implicit, for violence; insults aren’t the same as incitement.


  1. #1 Elyse
    January 10, 2011

    Thank you for the way you describe the difference here – I also attended the Rally and disagreed with PZ’s position on it. Rather than a wishy-washy argument about tone, I took the Rally to be saying that we need to remove violent fear-mongering rhetoric from our political discourse and realize that the vast majority of people want to find reasonable solutions to shared problems.
    I am saddened, but not wholly surprised, by what the political climate has resulted in. While I agree that the shooter is likely disturbed, the frame of debate in Arizona (and the US as a whole) has allowed this travesty to occur.

  2. #2 Rokkaku
    January 10, 2011

    @1 Remove violent rhetoric from the discoure… with Cat Stevens on the stage? Look, Stewart’s rally was bogus, get over it.

    @Kevin, great post.

  3. #3 Art
    January 10, 2011

    Military, eliminationist, gun related metaphors are not, in and of themselves, a problem. The trigger is how you characterize the opposition. Asserting that your opponents are crazy, misguided, or simply wrong, is pretty safe. We don’t show disgust for, or routinely kill, people for being crazy, misguided, or wrong.

    The whole thing changes when you assert that the opposition is traitorous, evil, terrorists, and a existential threat to the nation and its people. Those are characteristics which trigger disgust and are associated with lethal force.

    It is the pairing of the emotional content, disgust and hate, with violent imagery and indirect references to assassination, guns, targeting, that ends up getting people hurt.

    Humans have inherent psychological barriers to killing other human beings. Reclassify a set of people as sub-human, evil, malignant and it gets a lot easier to contemplate eliminating them.

  4. #4 steve
    January 10, 2011

    I never saw the rally, but now that I’ve seen an ad hominem attack against it, I fully support it.

  5. #5 Mike Olson
    January 12, 2011

    Wishy-washy, middle ground, too soft. Really? Look, using metaphors of sports or war both imply an opposition to something. Admittedly, I’m really tired of the whole “war” bit. A war on drugs, A war on terrorism, a war on…whatever. If it isn’t a country it isn’t a war. But, really, the fact is most liberals are really tired of having labels thrown at them that are execessively nasty. So, this event, with a democratic senator as the target allowed for a great deal of emotional venting by dems at repubs. Stewart was right in the first place. A rally to restore sanity…and honest intellectual debate is needed. Becoming emotional, using polarizing language doesn’t help anyone. Taking an us vs. them philosophy is the beginning of creating a “less than attitude.” I’m logical but “they” aren’t. Soon, they don’t love their kids, they aren’t quite human or they are inherently dangerous and violent…I understand…I put the spurs to cons on a few websites this weekend…just trolling to get their goat. I was using the very logic they’ve used to castigate any muslim or liberal for the last ten years. They didn’t like it…but I knew it was wrong.

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