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Politics and Language

One of the most interesting aspects about politics, for me, is how politicians and the media use language to construct narratives or frame debates. If you follow the news as much as I do, you’re aware of the controversy surrounding the right-wing violent rhetoric and the shooting in Tuscon. Of course, I’m not claiming that the political rhetoric is directly or solely responsible for for the actions of Jared Lee Loughner. My interest and intent is to look at the language that was used by a popular liberal blog and a popular conservative blog in response to the shooting and compare them, as well as look at the rising political polarization in the United States.

(Full disclosure: my personal politics are very liberal. I will not claim that my examination will be completely objective, but I will attempt to be as objective as I possibly can. If you’d like to comment about how I use certain language and expose my own biases, I would welcome such criticism, provided it is substantive.)

Left/Right polarization in the United States has become an acute problem. According to this Gallup poll, President Barack Obama’s approval rating during his first year in office was the most polarized of any modern American president. According to Gallup, President Obama’s average approval rating among the Democratic Party was 88%, and among the Republicans it was 23%. As this shocking chart indicates, the difference between Democratic and Republican approval ratings for the president has, generally, been on the rise. This pattern continues with Obama, who at the time that this article was written had a difference of 65.

Gallup notes:

Thus, the extraordinary level of polarization in Obama’s first year in office is a combination of declining support from Republicans coupled with high and sustained approval from Democrats…if the current level of polarization persists through the end of his term, Obama would exceed Bush as the president with the most polarized approval ratings.

I’m not going to make a claim as to why American politics is becoming more polarized, because I simply don’t know. If I had to hazard a guess I’d say that the increasingly social and economic inequality amongst Americans would play a fairly large role in it, and that rampant gerrymandering is a concern. David Brin, one of my favorite science-fiction authors, has a very lengthy and informative essay on gerrymandering on his website. I recommend reading all three parts.

David Brin writes:

Quietly, without much comment or notice, the practice of gerrymandering has transformed from a dismal-but-bearable tradition of occasional opportunism into a cancer eating at the heart of democracy itself, rendering our votes nearly meaningless in countless constituencies across the land.

I’m was inclined to think that such a statement was hyperbole, but as I read on and looked at some of the facts, I started to think that Brin had a point.

In the second part of his essay, Brin outlines ten ways that gerrymandering can lead to radicalization, which propels polarization. He writes:

Eighth. Gerrymandering also (naturally) eliminates any chance for the mounting of effective campaigns by any third party candidate, since those candidates will have to attract a lot more votes to defeat the incumbent than in a truly competitive district. This may seem a minor point, since third parties are already perceived at hopeless to most Americans. But isn’t this a self-fulfilling situation and yet another explanation for why the big parties have plunged into this practice?

I have to admit that I have also thought of third parties as being lost, hopeless causes in the face of the two large political parties. Every now and then we elect independent representatives, but not nearly enough compared to the number of Republicans and Democrats. I believe that one of the strongest functions of a representative democracy is that it allows for the election of a candidate that a majority of voters feels is the most qualified to hold that position. If gerrymandering can disrupt this process as much as Brin contends, I can’t help but wonder if our representative democracy is healthy or ill. Of course, corruption will exist in any form of human government. Gerrymandering, as Brin contends, isn’t seen by many people as being a serious issue, though it certainly seems to be.

Even President Obama understands that polarization in our politics is dangerous. Though I didn’t get the honor of personally attending Barack Obama’s University of Michigan Commencement Address in 2010 (I could hear it from my apartment, though, as I lived a short distance from the Big House at the time), I did watch it on TV. I remember being somewhat put-off that much of the address was dedicated to politics, but President Obama did highlight some important issues.

According to “The Hill”, President Obama said:

“We’ve got politicians calling each other all sorts of unflattering names.  Pundits and talking heads shout at each other,” Obama said. “The media tends to play up every hint of conflict, because it makes for a sexier story – which means anyone interested in getting coverage feels compelled to make the most outrageous comments.”

He has a point. A lot of the rhetoric–violent, unflattering, and antagonistic–has been coming from some highly influential politicians. The media, of course, does like to exaggerate stories to gin-up controversy and intrigue. Take, for example, “Balloon Boy,” “Beer-gate,” and the ever-infuriating “he-said, she-said,” style of reporting. I have no love of the news-media in general, but one thing that consistently irks me is the constant equivocation.

As for my examination, the conservative blog I have chosen to examine is Michelle Malkin’s. I am no fan of Malkin for several reasons, but she penned an interesting article in which she examines a  “progressive climate of hate.” An article by “Avenging Angel” at “The Daily Kos” will serve as the liberal blog, the title of which is “Republican Rhetoric, Right-Wing Terror.”

From the titles of these two articles, it should be pretty clear what the topics will be about. I was surprised that both of these titles so aptly sum up what I think it wrong with political discourse in the United States. Note, in Malkin’s title, the use of the word hate. Anyone who has any exposure to Malkin should know that she uses such language frequently. Avenging Angel’s title uses the loaded-word “terror” (and I say loaded because of the connotations that this word has after the events of September 11, 2001). It’s not hard to see that this is, essentially, a blame game.

A deeper look at Malkin’s piece provides a lot of insight. Many of the words she uses have violent connotations. For instance, she uses the word “force,” and says, “confront them.” Normally, I wouldn’t say that “confront” would be a violent word, but I think that it’s fairly safe to assume that confrontations in a politically charged, polarized climate could lead to violence. The real treat comes when she says:

And don’t let the media whitewash the sins of the hypocritical Left in their naked attempt to suppress the law-abiding, constitutionally-protected, peaceful, vigorous political speech of the Right.

Where to begin?

  1. Sins: This is a very strong word to use, and conjures Biblical imagery. Who sins? Humans. In this context, however, it implies evil motivations. Who inspires evil motivations? Satan. This line of thought isn’t exactly logical, but it isn’t hard to see how one might reach the conclusion that the “Left” is a sinful, evil group which must be opposed. This language is antagonistic, and I think to a large extent dehumanizing.
  2. Hypocritical: Pretty straightforward. I do think that most politics are inherently hypocritical, though. So calling a politician hypocritical is a lot like calling outer space empty. The emptiness is implied in the word “space.”
  3. Naked attempt: I really love this. It’s especially fun. What is a naked attempt, anyway? In my mind, I see a liberal running through the streets without clothing, attempting to do…something. I know what she’s saying: a naked attempt is an attempt that’s obvious, not covert. The word choice is just humorous for such an accusatory and serious sentence.
  4. Suppress: This is a common buzzword that doesn’t really mean anything anymore in politics. Everyone is always trying to suppress something. A conservative might claim the a liberal wants to suppress free speech by advocating a certain kind of rhetoric or reinstate the Fairness Doctrine, whereas a liberal might claim that a conservative wants to suppress voter turnout through intimidation tactics or by misinformation. All of these are old political truisms for each side, and thus they are meaningless in any real debate.
  5. Law-abiding, constitutionally-protected, peaceful, vigorous political speech: There are four adjectives here to describe political speech. Don’t be fooled, they’re used in conjunction with “of the Right” for a reason: to imply that the political speech of the Left is none of these things. This is, essentially, the crux of her argument, and why there are so many abhorrent examples of extremist left-wing rhetoric in her article. It’s a deliberate generalization and misrepresentation of left-wing dialogue. The political motivations are obvious, but I don’t think that the subtly of the implicit argument that the Right’s speech is lawful, peaceful, and vigorous and the Left’s isn’t is obvious. To be sure, she isn’t only generalizing some examples of extremist rhetoric from the left, but she’s generalizing the rhetoric on the right, completely glossing over the extremists speech.

Malkin describes the article as a “tu quo que” (I think she means tu quoque). Translated from Latin, this means, “you, also,” and is a logical fallacy. I can’t help but think that, from a critical point of view, her article is using the tu quoque logical fallacy to show examples of extremist left-wing rhetoric in an attempt to claim, implicitly, that since liberals do it, conservatives can do it. Now we come back to the issue of polarization. Her article is adversarial, perhaps as a continuation of the so-called “culture wars” because of the pictures and topics that she chooses to show.

As for “Avenging Angel”, she opens her article with a tu quoque fallacy as well (the inconsistency version).  She writes:

“My tears are flowing and I am stunned and angered that Gabby Giffords was savagely gunned down while performing her congressional duties.”  So said Minnesota Republican Representative Michele Bachmann in response to Saturday’s mass killing in Tucson.  But less than a year ago, Bachmann called for resistance to cap and trade legislation, “I want people in Minnesota armed and dangerous on this issue,” adding, “Thomas Jefferson told us, having a revolution every now and then is a good thing.”

The fallacy here is that she is quoting Bachmann’s expression of sympathy while trying to undermine that with a previous quote from Bachmann which seems to refute her later statement. I find it interesting that both of these articles use the tu quoque fallacy, and though they use it in different ways, the effect is somewhat similar. There is a difference which I would like to point out: Michele Bachmann is a democratically elected representative from the State of Minnesota who served in the U.S. House of Representatives. Most, if not all, of the examples that Malkin provides are not from people of such prestigious positions of power and influence.

Avenging Angel writes:

…Timothy McVeigh, the killer of 168 Americans in the worst act of domestic terrorism prior to 9/11 was no jihadist, but an anti-government extremist and militia member.  And his heirs have a growing body count of their own.

This falls under the header of “The Growing Right-Wing Body Count.” I find this repetitive use of “body-count” connected with “right-wing” to be repugnant for a number of reasons. Chief among them is the generalization of the perpetrators of the violence, which is manifest in this idea that the “body-count” belongs to all of the right-wing. Ironically, Avenging Angel uses an old quote by Brian Kilmeade: “Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims.” I get the impression that, because of the generalizations and the specific word choice, a similar quote can be applied: “Not all right-wingers are terrorists, but all terrorists are right-wingers.” This is a sad continuation of the same issues that are apparent in Malkin’s article; a zero-sum blame game.

Avenging Angel’s article is, in my opinion, much more based on an actual pattern of very real and deadly violence, which could have its roots in right-wing rhetoric. It seems, though, that many of these people were mentally unstable in some way (though it seems to me that the mentally unstable are the ones who would be most susceptible to violent rhetoric), and not indicative of the general population. The real shame is that Avenging Angel’s article is generally very well done. The language and word choice, however, undermine the article because they do contribute to the polarization by way of reinforcing certain tropes about political rhetoric and violence (again, “body-count” and “right-wing”).

The fact of the matter is that all sides of politics have extremists. There are liberals and conservatives who do reprehensible things. The difference, however, is that much of the extremist rhetoric on the left is confined to the internet or grass-roots demonstrations. The rhetoric of the right is more widespread because of the media and politicians. Glenn Beck, in my mind, is a perfect example because of the repercussions of his recent expose on Frances Fox Piven.

In the end, I don’t think that the language of the articles and of any politician, or media figure like Glenn Beck, is the cause of political polarization, but a symptom. It is certain, however, that the language and the rhetoric doesn’t help the situation, especially if it is antagonistic, dehumanizing, or centered on this idea of warfare (a la “culture wars”).

I think it’s also important to look at other types of language use. The writer Kay at Balloon-Juice has an excellent article, entitled “A Language Barrier”, which explores how the term “women” in previous legislation about about abortion (the Hyde Amendment and the Stupak Amendment) transformed into “pregnant female” in the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act.” This bill also attempts to redefine rape. I think that the change from “women” to “pregnant female” is a dehumanization tactic, and I think this is achieved by also denying a woman’s right to choose. I think this change implies a belief that a pregnant female is fundamentally different than a woman, and a pregnant female loses the power to make her own decisions about her body because she’s “other.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard a woman who is pregnant called a pregnant female before. Expectant mother and pregnant woman are common, but it seems to me that pregnant female is something which is implied to animals.

The pro-life movement is, in a lot of ways, not about the sanctity of life, but about control. The “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act” was written by men, and it attempts to exert control over what women can and cannot do with their bodies. Part of this effort is to subjugate women and dehumanize them by calling them “pregnant females” and limited the exemptions for abortions in cases of incest or rape. It’s truly sickening.

I think, ultimately, this is just another symptom of political polarization.

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