Technology Blamed for Violent Rhetoric

In the aftermath of last weekend’s senseless shootings in Arizona, many folks have been quick to blame the tragedy on the violent, incendiary political rhetoric of our times. It’s not hard to find examples of such rhetoric: Giffords’s Republican rival last summer appeared in political ads holding an M-16, and apparently he even invited voters at a campaign event to shoot with him. And then there’s Sarah Palin’s poorly-conceived “target map” and Twitter post.

Whether or not the shootings can legitimately be blamed on such rhetoric, I’ll leave to others to debate. Early indications are that the shooter was a demented, unhinged individual, and perhaps didn’t need violent rhetoric to motivate his actions.

What caught my eye today, though, was John McWhorter’s piece in The New Republic blaming the prevalence of violent political rhetoric on technology:

The actual cause of this new national temper is technology and its intersection with how language is used. Language exists in two forms in modern times: speech and writing. Writing is a latterly invention only some thousands of years old, produced and received more slowly than talk. It encourages reflection, extended argument (something almost impossible to convey amidst the overlapping chaos of conversation), and objectivity. Writing is, in the McLuhanesque sense, cool.

According to this theory, the act of writing inherently carries with it a different stance toward language–methodical, deliberate, rational. It is the linguistic equivalent of the slow food movement. Writing provides a kind of firewall against our passions. What technology has done, for McWhorter, is push our use of language back into oral territory, where things are less refined:

It is no accident that the shrillness of political conversation has increased just as broadband and YouTube have become staples of American life. The internet brings us back to the linguistic culture our species arose inall about speech: live, emotional, unreflective, and punchy. The slogan trumps the argument. Anger, often of hazy provenance but ever cathartic (“I want my country back”) takes fire. All of this is reinforced by the synergy of on line “communities” stoking up passions on a scale that snail mail never could.

As you might have guessed, I have a few problems with McWhorter’s theory here. First is the simplistic distinction between speech and writing that he posits. Not all speech is “emotional, unreflective, and punchy,” nor is all writing reflective, extended, and objective. I wouldn’t even say that these are broad tendencies. Instead, there are genres of writing that do indeed privilege the qualities he outlines–specifically the kind of essayistic writing that academics and authors at The New Republic gravitate toward. But it wouldn’t be hard to find examples of “emotional, unreflective, and punchy” rhetoric in written form. Sarah Palin’s tweet is a prime example.

I suspect, though, that McWhorter would put tweets into the category of “speech” and not “writing.” I notice that he is careful in his essay not to be too specific (other than mentioning Youtube) about exactly what technologies are causing the problem. But I think this brings us into murky waters, where the issue at hand isn’t the distinction between speech and writing, but instead between two different attitudes or stances toward rhetoric, regardless of their physical or mechanical manifestation. She may have said something similar in speeches, but at the end of the day Palin wrote that tweet. Part of her appeal (as far as I can tell) is that she can both speak and write crazy shit that connects with a large audience.

I would argue that technology is not the cause of increased violent rhetoric, but it does make it more visible. More to the point, technology–the web in particular–has created more opportunities for more people to express their political views than ever before. In the kind of Golden Age of Writing that McWhorter seems to imagine, writing was reflective, extended, and objective because the only people who could get published happened to write that way. Web technologies have made it possible for almost anyone to publish pretty much anything they want. So, people with an “emotional, unreflective, and punchy” stance toward language suddenly have an outlet for their rhetoric as well. Technology didn’t create violent rhetoric; it was there all along.

I’m not saying that technology hasn’t contributed in some way to the increase in violent political rhetoric. It’s entirely possible that, by providing increased opportunities for such language use, technology is somehow accelerating its growth. Maybe. But I remain unconvinced by attempts to make technology itself a scapegoat for societal ills. Maybe what’s wrong with our rhetoric isn’t technology, but us.

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10 comments on “Technology Blamed for Violent Rhetoric

  1. Pingback: scrivel

  2. Thanks, Kory. Reading the quotations from McWhorter, it wasn’t technology that came to mind (particularly not “broadband and YouTube”) but fast-paced market capitalism. The slogan trumps the argument. I guess one or another is as good for a quick solution.

    And btw, perhaps the most perfect and calculated use of “crazy shit.” I couldn’t have put that any better.

  3. It seems too easy to cast blame on technology or even the people actually spewing the violent rhetoric that, as you say, have always been there anyway. A few people have commented on the change in dissemination of and access to it, but I think even that doesn’t get to the more important issue–that we don’t yet know how to cognitively process the influx of channels, where the more tempered rhetoric gets drowned out by the more extreme.

    What we might need to do is develop new filters. Unless we’re in some kind of pulpy sci-fi movie with the ability to grow big heads and more brain capacity, I don’t see our evolutionary biology keeping up. And definitely not resort to censorship. But some kind of new social/cultural thing that maybe we haven’t even thought of yet. Or maybe we already have it in that thing called “education.” But, oops, we’re apparently not investing in that.

    • Hmmm, I like your comment about “filters” and “education.” I’m not up on my rhetorical theory as of yet. But I’ll take an optimistic view and pose that part of our education (taking place right here) is in adapting our rhetoric and rhetorical filters to this evolving digital-media habitat. I believe that the fundamentals are still in place: it’s a matter of dialog, dialectic, and discourse–albeit heated up, there’s a lot more of it to go around and a lot more of us to take it on. As for evolution vs. de-evolution? I have to put my money on the former. The greater availability and freedom of communication will motivate and necessitate many people (hopefully a critical mass) to elevate their rhetorical abilities in order to promote their values and achieve their ends.

    • Good points. I wonder, though, how such filters would work. In a sense, we already do filter our own content, through a cobbled-together system of niches and alliances. Much of the discursive content I encounter on a daily basis is self-selected (through RSS feeds) or recommended by acquaintances (on Facebook). I keep the ugliest impulses of the web at arm’s length this way. But plenty of other people get online because they want the ugly. How would filters work for them? How would they ever be convinced to restrict their diet of vitriol and violent words? Would they not believe that any attempt to do so would represent another person’s political agenda? Also, I’m not sure how such a system would be reconciled to net neutrality.

      So, yes, whatever *it* is, it cannot be censorship. What is needed, I think, is a shift in attitude toward discourse. Right now, many use words like a stick with which to draw lines in the sand. Maybe that’s the problem. And maybe it’s the job of educators (and writing instructors, in particular) to help people see the inventive potential of words, that they can create as well as destroy.

  4. There is another peculiar facet to this topic of a supposed technology->rhetoric->violence connection as relates to the Loughner story. I’m speaking of the reports about his beliefs that the government was controlling grammar and thereby controlling thought (somehow) throughout the population. (Ok, maybe he wasn’t that far off–but he left out corporations, advertising, and PR firms). I’m also thinking of his reported question to congressperson Gifford in a previous encounter, something like, “What can government do for us if words have no meaning?”

    So we see this as probably evidence of his paranoid schizophrenia. But I think it is interesting to ponder the similarity, or relationship, that this hardcore screwlooseness has with your more garden variety paranoia that we all have about technology’s creeping takeover of our life-thought-minds. This, of course, is a grand tradition is speculative literature and the ongoing dialog we have about it as a society is important and necessary. There are less fantastic risks than out-and-out mind control: Beyond rhetoric, I’m thinking about issues of privacy, fairness, influence, access, and control.

    • Yes. There are some interesting parallels between mistrust of technology and mistrust of words/rhetoric, and that’s not at all new. See Plato’s Phaedrus, for example. But the terms have shifted–Plato was worried about the effect of words on the soul, we worry more about the effect of technology on our minds.

      And yes, it is peculiar that apparently part of what fueled Loughner’s delusions seems to be a mistrust of words. Some of what he’s supposed to have said sounds like a really bad version of postmodernism.

  5. Really interesting post, Kory. So, is this the same John McWhorter who did the “Losing the Race” series? If so, he’s a conservative apologist whose built his career trying to convince the African American community to adopt conservative republican values. A simplistic summary of his work, I know, but my opinion. Considering this skepticism that I have toward his thinking in the first place, I might also see McWhorter’s argument as an attempt to draw attention away from *conservative* rhetoric and focus the problem on technology. While the Internet provides a platform for those hateful voices (of all different political & religious camps) to bubble up, I agree with your closing sentiment, Kory, that the problem is not language, it’s the users of language. Whether it’s cross-hairs over a congresswoman, a bomb recipe or an anti-islam manifesto, it’s really about hateful attitudes and how easy it is to access those attitudes, which is not, in my mind, to be confused with “emotional, unreflective, or punchy.” Haters might be some of the most thoughtful, skilled and calculating users of the Internet/digital platforms.

    • Yep. I do think it’s the same “McWhorter,” and I think you’re right about the underlying conservative agenda. Technological change is an easy target, though I think it’s rarely the actual (sole) cause of anything.

      • While I agree that technological change is an easy target and it certainly isn’t the sole cause of people’s behavior, I do think it can be a contributing factor. More specifically, I think technology does allow us to collapse physical distances without necessarily becoming emotionally closer to the people we’re communicating with.

        So while it’s easy to communicate instantly with someone in another time zone, we aren’t necessarily as aware of them as a person as we would be if we were talking to them face to face. As you pointed out in class about flame wars (I’m thinking of the Sports Illustrated example), there’s something about the anonymity (in addition to the distancing I’m referring to) that makes it easier for people to behave in ways they wouldn’t otherwise.

        Having said that, the users are still responsible for being aware of their own behavior.

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