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 in—all 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.