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Blog Buzz: The role of rhetoric

The shooting in Tucson, AZ, of, among others, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, prompted a debate among conservative and liberal bloggers over whether heated, often-violent rhetoric should be discouraged from political discourse or left alone for the sake of free speech.

Jack Shafer from the left-leaning Slate wrote over the weekend that any restrictions on language, inflammatory or not, would contradict the democratic principle of freedom of speech, and the ability to express one's views verbally, rather than through violence or other actions.

Our spirited political discourse, complete with name-calling, vilification—and, yes, violent imagery—is a good thing. Better that angry people unload their fury in public than let it fester and turn septic in private. The wicked direction the American debate often takes is not a sign of danger but of freedom. And I'll punch out the lights of anybody who tries to take it away from me.

Conservative blogger Ed Morrissey at Hot Air also wrote of what he saw as a slippery slope if any type of political discourse, violent or otherwise, is discouraged.

Already we have at least one member of Congress proposing to outlaw the use of crosshair symbols in political advertisements, a bill that should run afoul of the new House rule to cite constitutional authority for any new legislation. It also would create the ironic situation where the government could create a prior restraint on political speech by banning the use of crosshairs or bullseyes when the plain meaning isn’t violence, but where their use on actual shooting targets would still be allowed. What’s next, the banning of dart boards?

But Steve Benen, the liberal blogger at the Washington Monthly, who has been critical of overheated rhetoric in politics, said that he doesn't advocate legal limits on speech, just simply the cooling of particularly inflammatory speech.

I'd like to see conservatives turn down the temperature on some of their more extreme rhetoric, but it's never occurred to me to call for legal restrictions on anyone's speech...

...Perhaps the single most outrageous form of political speech I can think of in recent history was Sharron Angle's talk of 'Second-Amendment remedies.' All kinds of people said Angle's comments were disgusting, but did anyone suggest for a moment she shouldn't have been allowed to say it? Shafer fears a slippery slope -- first we urge people to show restraint, and the next thing you know, the First Amendment is under attack. These fears seem wholly unnecessary -- the point is about unenforced societal expectations and basic political norms. Nothing more.

Daily Kos' Barbara Morrill maintained that Jared Lee Loughner's shooting spree was affected, to some degree, by Republicans' use of violent rhetoric, despite proof that Loughner was influenced by any organized political group or ideology.

Since the election of Barack Obama, the right, both elected Republicans and their minions in the media, have pounded the non-stop drumbeat that Obama/Democrats/liberals want to destroy the country, they want to kill your grandmother, they're shredding the Constitution, they're terrorist sympathizers, they're going to take away your guns, that they're enemies of humanity, that the government is the enemy ...

And that, as much as the obvious examples of violent rhetoric, can appeal to the extremist, the mentally unstable, or the 'lone nut,' to act. And last Saturday, one of them did.

Mistermix at Balloon Juice responded to a New York Times op-ed by the conservative columnist Ross Douthat in which Douthat wrote:

If overheated rhetoric and martial imagery really led inexorably to murder, then both parties would belong in the dock. (It took conservative bloggers about five minutes to come up with Democratic campaign materials that employed targets and crosshairs against Republican politicians.) When our politicians and media loudmouths act like fools and zealots, they should be held responsible for being fools and zealots. They shouldn’t be held responsible for the darkness that always waits to swallow up the unstable and the lost.

Mistermix's response:

The final fallacy in these two paragraphs is the straw man that people are holding Republicans responsible for the actions of the killer in Tucson. No, they aren’t. We’re saying that the whole climate of the past couple of years stinks, and that it’s time to tone it down.