Eliminationist rhetoric and the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords: There were plenty of precursors
This is video of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords on MSNBC on March 25, 2010, after her offices were vandalized, talking about the need for civility in our democratic discourse.
There will be a lot of hand-wringing in the coming days over the shooting of Rep. Giffords this morning at a constituent event -- some of it, almost certainly, from the folks at Fox, who will wonder aloud how this kind of thing could happen.
It can happen, in fact, because conservatives so thoughtlessly and readily use violent eliminationist rhetoric when talking about "liberals" (to wit: anyone who is not a conservative). They will adamantly deny it, of course, but the cold reality is that this kind of talk creates permission for angry and violent people to act it out.David Safier at Blogs for Arizona noted at the time:
There's nothing wrong with having a gun-themed event, if that's what you want to do. Count me out, but if you want to meet at a shooting range instead of a bowling alley or a baseball stadium, that's your right and your privilege.
There's also nothing wrong with having a "Help remove Gabrielle Giffords" event. That's what the R candidates in CD-8 are trying to do.
But to put it all together, starting with "Get on Target," moving to "remove Gabrielle Giffords," then finishing with "Shoot a fully automatic M16" . . .
That goes way beyond cute and clever and moves into a frightening linkage between shooting guns and removing Giffords.
Giffords, as she explained in the video above, was also target in March by vandals.
And Logan warned that it was just a matter of time before we saw this kind of violence last spring, when a gun was found after a Gifford event.
We don't yet know why the shooter -- identified as a 22-year-old man named Jared Laughner -- shot Giffords and a number of other people; we'll learn more as the day progresses. But it's impossible to survey the events so far and not come to the preliminary conclusion that this was yet another awful act inspired by right-wing hate rhetoric.
I warned against precisely this kind of outcome in my book, The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right. Events like this one, explained then, reflect
a particular trend that has manifested itself with increasing intensity in the past decade: the positing of elimination as the solution to political disagreement. Rather than engaging in a dialogue over political and cultural issues, one side simply dehumanizes its opponents and suggests, and at times demands, their excision. This tendency is almost singularly peculiar to the American Right and manifests itself in many venues: on radio talk shows and in political speeches, in bestselling books and babbling blogs. Most of all, we can feel it on the ground: in our everyday lives, in our encounters, big and small, with each other.
When the conservative movement's True Believers are fed a steady diet of extraordinary warnings intended to induce a paranoiac, panicked fear -- They're Destroying America! They Want to End Your Liberty! Health Care Reform is the End of America! -- and simultaneously fed a diet of suggestions that the solution is simply to do away with them (see Sean Hannity's recent bit of eliminationist "humor"), then what other outcome should you expect?
People are acting out in an eliminationist manner because they have been inundated with, and have naturally internalized, a broad range of eliminationist ideas and talking points. Such speech is being bandied about in every cultural bandwidth—from talk radio, to the local press and in letters to the editor, to blogs and national mainstream media.
I've also explained the dynamic at work here:
The critical components that distinguish irresponsible free speech from responsible are interworking pieces: whether it is intended to harm by scapegoating or demonizing, and whether or not it is provably false. In the Goldmark case, the things the Duck Club told Rice not only demonized the Goldmarks, but they were also things that were simply not true -- though the tellers wished ardently that they were, they were purely concoctions of their fevered imaginations.
This is true of so much far-right wingnuttery -- the "Birther" conspiracy theories, the FEMA-camp claims, the "constitutionalist" theories about taxation and the Federal Reserve, to list just a few examples -- and yet people believe them anyway.
This rhetoric also acts as a kind of wedge between the people who absorb it and the real world. There is always a kind of cognitive dissonance that arises from believing things that are provably untrue, and people who begin to fanatically cling to beliefs that do not comport with reality find themselves increasingly willing to buy into other similarly unhinged beliefs. For those who are already unhinged, the effects are particularly toxic.
All of these theories, you'll observe, serve the explicit purpose of supporting a scapegoating narrative. And a number of them have been featured in some shape, form, or fashion, in the mainstream public discourse because they have been presented seriously for discussion by various right-wing talking heads, most notably Glenn Beck and Lou Dobbs.
But pointing out their ethical and moral culpability inevitably means that they immediately blame it on the "crazy" people, and who can take responsibility for "crazy" people?
Back when Sarah Palin was targeting Democrats by urging her followers to "lock and load" and placing targets on a map for specific Democrats -- one of them being Giffords -- she denied that there was anything wrong with that.
Today, that graphic (which Danny Schecter has preserved) has been taken down.
A little for that, dontcha think?
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