Friday, February 5, 2010

The Rhetorical Violence of Beck et al.

There's a short but illuminating article at Media Matters for America on the prevalence of violent imagery and metaphor by those appearing on Fox. You can find it here:

The problem with the comments cited in the article are not that they are passionate or political.  It's not even that some of them are downright hateful.  It's that they play with the imagery of violence.  "Figures of speech" are not mere ornaments or funny little doo-dads we add to our speech; they are ways we frame our understanding of the world.  Cognitive linguistics suggests that metaphors in fact structure the actual neural pathways in our brain. 

That is, words mean things.  Not in the sense that they have timeless, unchanging definitions.  They don't.  But they have consequences.  They have implications.  They do things to us when we speak and hear them.

Should such rhetoric be censored?  Of course not.  But they should be censured--condemned as unworthy of consideration by thoughtful people and out of bounds of civil talk. 

The worst of this rogue's gallery in my opinion is Beck, who traffics in the language of violence constantly.  (To wit: his recent talk about people being "slaughtered," and his disingenuous claims that he never said what he's on tape as saying).  As others have pointed out, other talking heads that traffic in crude approximations of political thought and rhetoric, such as Limbaugh, O'Reilly, Coulter, et al come across as vulgar performance artists.  Like pidgeons in a Skinner box, they've found that if they peck away at a particular target, they get rewarded, and they act accordingly.  There's nothing in what they say that suggests that they actually think through their positions or even believe them on any level below the surface.  Perhaps they do--having faked it for so long, perhaps they actually believe what they say.  But their prattle is so utterly empty of any real content, so predictable, that it's difficult to discern any actual cognition behind the verbal effluvium gushing from them.

Beck seems in a league of his own.  He is either the ultimate performance artist, or is so disturbed that he actually believes a fair bit of what he says.  In either case, it's unfortunate that there are people out there who actually seem to take him seriously--who think he's somehow a bonafide political thinker.

And given his over-the-top rants that make the plots of Dan Brown novels seem plausible by comparison, it's tempting to just enjoy the ridiculousness of the show and poke fun at him.  Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have both done hysterical deconstructive takedowns of Becky's utter dopiness. 

But what keeps me from just laughing off the idiocy of Beck in particular is the omnipresence of violence in his shtick. Sincere or not, disturbed or opportunistic, hateful or merely greedy, Beck engages in the sort of rhetorical rough trade that engages listeners in perverse, sadomasochistic fantasies of politics as bloodsport, war, and genocide.

And listening to such filth on a daily basis can't fail to shape attitudes.  Does the average Beck fan actually entertain ideas of killing those with whom he/she disagrees politically?  Nope.   But the continual use of imagery of killing and being killed erodes the ability to perceive and empathize with the other, which is the minimal starting point for having an actual dialog that could lead to transcending conflicts. 

Beck might deserve our scorn, our pity, or perhaps both.  But what someone who so gleefully traffics in the rhetoric of violence does not deserve is our passive acceptance of his corrosive influence on the way we think about and talk with one another.


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