Tue, Jul
29
2008

On Civility and Murder

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Earlier this week, a psychotic madman stormed a Unitarian church in Knoxville, Tennessee, while the congregation within was watching a children’s performance of the musical Annie. Shooting indiscriminately, he wounded six people and killed two — fortunately, no children.

The shooter, Jim Adkisson, did not have a good life. At 58 years old, he had been chronically unemployed, and as he explained in a four-page letter found at his home, blamed “liberals and gays” for taking his jobs. The man had such books in his home as Liberalism is a Mental Health Disorder by Michael “Kids with Autism are Brats” Savage.

It’s quite clear that the man hated liberals with a irrational passion, and decided to go hunting. A number of left-leaning websites have ascribed blame for Adkisson’s actions with the eliminationist rhetoric eminating from segments of the conservative movement. Unfortunately, except for a few honourable exceptions, the response on the right-side of the blogosphere has been silence, even in the face of earlier outrage over lesser actions by a handful of activists on the left. Some have even tried to blame the victims.

I’m not one to believe in blanket responsibility. I’m concerned about the environment, but I have no truck nor trade with those few who have tried (largely unsuccessfully) to bomb Hummer dealerships. Likewise, I know plenty of Conservative party supporters, and they are all honourable people who wouldn’t think of doing anything even remotely like what Adkisson did. Witness also this post by progressive blogger Scott Tribe who maintains a friendship with an old school chum who works for the Conservative party. Despite major ideological differences, it is possible for many of us, left or right, to maintain cordial relationships if we try.

However, it is still too easy to find rhetoric on the right side of the fence that would appear to celebrate the actions of Adkisson:

“We need to execute people like John Walker in order to physically intimidate liberals, by making them realize that they can be killed too.” — Ann Coulter

“I tell people don’t kill all the liberals. Leave enough so we can have two on every campus - living fossils - so we will never forget what these people stood for.” — Rush Limbaugh.

“We’re going to keep building the party until we’re hunting Democrats with dogs.” Senator Phil Gramm

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No, 99% of conservatives don’t think like this, and when the instigators above are confronted with their rhetoric, they’re likely to brush it off as a “joke” (and yet, strangely enough, jokes about the supposed assassination of Prime Minister Stephen Harper is an outrage). And yet these jokes are quite unfunny. They’re fuelled with hatred, and are shockingly impersonal. They’re effect is to directly intimidate those whom these instigators disagree with. If indeed these are jokes, why do people like Coulter and Limbaugh think it’s funny to make them?

How does one get from disagreement over policy to visceral hatred of you and your children? Clearly, there is a scale of rhetoric that we all must be on the lookout for, here. Sure, none of the people reading this have any thought about blowing people we hate away, but more people have tried to take their disputes out of the blogosphere and into the real world. I know of at least a couple of cases where trolls have tried calling up the workplace of people they disagree with and try and get them fired.

What merits that action? Really, if you didn’t go online and choose to visit a site you disagreed with, you wouldn’t even know that this individual existed. And even if you do, what possible disagreement justifies trying to cost a person his or her job for expressing an opinion? Rush Limbaugh and Michelle Malkin have both stood by while their listeners have harassed liberal teachers, parents and government workers at their worksites or in their communities. Since when is expressing one’s own personal opinion a crime that deserves to be met with personal threats or invective?

And while those few trolls who have crossed the line in taking their dispute with a blogger off of the comments section of the blogs and onto the phone line remain a few, how many more bloggers have come into an argument throwing insults rather than counterarguments? I’ve walked through too many sites where Conservatives are fascists and Liberals and New Democrats are communists. I’ve heard too many arguments where left-leaning individuals were “useful idiots” betraying Canada, leftards, or worse. Ann Coulter and Johan Goldberg have gotten into this act as well. Coulter’s Traitors was a best selling book, and Jonah Goldberg still managed to get a book deal on a manuscript entitled Liberal Fascism.

That’s how it starts. Take it to its logical extreme, and you pull out a gun and put a bullet in the head of the person you disagree with. And I think this spectrum of incivility begins with the critical decision not to address a person on their own individual ideas, but to respond to the disagreement by seeing the person you disagree with as somehow inherently inferior for thinking the way you do. Once you stop saying “well, I disagree with you, sir” and start saying “you shouldn’t be allowed to express that opinion, you moron”, you are trying to control the thoughts of those who disagree with you, and I’m sorry, but in this democracy, you don’t get to do that.

One way out of this downward spiral would be to stop getting personal with the generalizations. We are not fascists. We are not leftards, fiberals or communists. And we’re not even assholes just for holding differing opinions. We are ourselves. The only label we have inherent to us is the name on our birth certificate. We are only socialists, conservatives, Conservative Party supporters or environmentalists if we choose to be. We should pick our own labels, and not try to stick the label on the lapel of the people we meet.

In the interest of fairness I have to say that both sides have engaged in heated rhetoric in the past and present. You will find swear words thrown around at Canadian Cynic. You will find accusations of war crimes thrown around against the Bush Administration on staunch liberal sites in the United States. However, I do have to say that in my own experience, this sort of activity largely pales against the eliminationist rhetoric that has been far, far easier to find within the right side of the blogosphere. And the right has Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and Michael Savage all living off of their personalities, all with thousands of viewers paying attention to the hateful rhetoric they spew. The left has Michael Moore and Al Franken, and I don’t believe they’ve ever called for a hunting season on conservatives. The real whackos on the left — the sort of people Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh would be if they were spewing their rhetoric on the left rather than on the right — don’t get mainstream attention. Instead, they are seen as the whackos that they are. Why can’t this sensible standard be applied on the right side of the fence?

We don’t have left wing militias practising war games in the wilderness areas of Michigan, or getting on CBC Newsworld in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing and telling viewers that “most of the conditions of the Communist Manifesto have been implemented in Canada and the United States. Wake up, people!” And while I do not ascribe this as a flaw in conservative thinking in general, it would be nice if more conservative bloggers were to identify the loonies blogging on their fringe, and denouce them properly. It’s past time that these nutjobs be disabused of their notion that they have a comfortable home in the side of the blogosphere that they infect.

This sort of cleansing does have to happen periodically. The NDP cut off its own Waffle movement as well, in order to give it any hope of mainstream acceptability. And those guys weren’t calling for armed revolution. Not at all.


Now, before I sign off, I know that, because I’ve singled out some specific right-wing phenomenon, I’m going to receive comments pointing out cases where those in the left have been intemperate in their political rhetoric. The folks at the Rabble are often cited by those who seek to say “see, see? They do it too!”

Well, you’re going to have to get a bit more specific if you raise this issue with me. Show me the posts where Rabble posters call for the execution of conservatives. Show me the posts where posters celebrate the death of Canadian servicemen serving in Afghanistan. And show me that these posts weren’t criticized by other posters on the board.

And, while you’re at it, let me know how many readers these leftie loudmouths receive, how many newspaper columns they write, how much harder it was to find these individuals than it was for me to find these comments by Coulter and Limbaugh, and the thousands of readers that they themselves preach to. And explain to me why this activity on the left is in any way a match for this activity on the right.

And I will tell you to your face: so what? Do your examples make the activities of Coulter, Limbaugh and the wackos on the right any less egregious? Do they justify the beliefs by any group of people that other groups of people should be hunted down with dogs?

I don’t doubt that the egregious stuff is there on the left. Show it to me, and I will denounce it. But only if you denounce the activity on the right as well. If you pester me with examples of this sort of activity on the left, you’re either telling me that it’s no big deal when the right does it, or there is a problem with the left that is at least as big as that on the right. So, which is it?

Because I see a problem with the violent rhetoric in general and I see a need to speak out more against it. Maybe I’m wrong to see it more on the right than on the left, but the examples on the right are there for all to see. Will you denounce them? Will anybody?


Further Reading


On This Day

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