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Keep it complicated, stupid

Robin Lakoff, professor emerita of linguistics | January 10, 2011

In the aftermath of the massacre in Arizona, Americans are doing what people always do in these circumstances: asking why it happened, who or what is responsible, where to place the blame. We are hoping, as always, to find a single cause. This is why conspiracy theories are so attractive to so many – they offer the possibility of providing a simple, single explanation for otherwise inexplicable tragedies, and thereby offering a simple, painless way to prevent them from happening again. Simple single explanations are about the human need to control the uncontrollable: the stuff that inevitably happens.

But here as always if  the simple solution is what we are looking for, we will fail. We may find a scapegoat or a putative explanation – but it will prove incorrect or, at best, incomplete.

So the rhetoric of the immediate aftermath consists of attempts to attribute blame in the simplest fashion, to find the single cause, offer the simple solution, and absolve ourselves.

One group argues that the cause is the incivility of our public discourse. There is certainly some truth in that – our current public discourse is uncivil. This theme has been played and replayed tirelessly since the event, in the very media that hype the coarseness. It is certainly the case that not much good comes out of name-calling (traitor, Nazi, anti-American) or outright threats (don’t retreat, reload). No way on earth are these tantrums going to contribute to the solution of our problems as a nation. Like a three-year-old’s tantrum, they make their creators feel powerful – but unlike it, they don’t even get them the Count Chocula.

A second group dismisses any responsibility for the events: they are the acts of a lone lunatic with no particular political affiliation. Or anyway he was no conservative – just a lefty pothead. There is, this explanation goes, no connection between the rhetoric of the right and the act of the shooter.

Other possible explanations are offered: the 24/7 wraparound media reiterating inflammatory messages ad infinitum if not ad nauseam; the ready availability of semiautomatic firearms.

But all these attempts to explain, or explain away, the horrific events fail, precisely because they are simple and single, while the true causes are multiple and complex: all of the above, each potentiating and necessitating the others.

Rhetoric alone never killed anyone, but rhetoric can be the force moving the trigger finger. Crazy people, by definition,  don’t play by society’s rules, including the linguistic ones. Most of us, the officially sane, know that language frequently doesn’t mean exactly what it says. Irony, hyperbole, and metaphor (for starters) make our discourse more interesting, but also more risky. Most of us understand these devices and don’t take them literally. Crazy people, being crazy, may not be able to make such distinctions.

If everyone were sane, bad rhetoric would not be deadly. But not everyone is sane, so any explanation of horrific events must include bad rhetoric, working symbiotically with craziness.

Before wraparound media, bad language may not have been so deadly, even together with craziness. People were not exposed to the same rantings and ravings (by theoretically sane leaders and persons of influence) over and over, slogan after slogan, epithet following epithet. When you hear something once, you can dismiss it as blather. When it comes at you again and again, by the third encounter or so, it has acquired the ring of truth. If everyone is saying that Obama is a (fill in the blank), surely he must be one. And if you can wander around the blogosphere and find countless individuals who seem to see the world just as you do – well, then, surely you must be sane, because surely they are and they agree with you! So the constant iterations across all the media both potentiate the bad rhetoric, and give encouragement to those who need it least.

And finally, there is the easy access to lethal weapons. It is technically true that guns don’t kill people, people kill people (with guns, of course.) But even if the first three factors were in place, without semiautomatic firearms they would not constitute much of a threat.

It is certainly true that assassinations can be accomplished without Glocks (cf. John Wilkes Booth) or even without firearms (think of Brutus and Cassius). But our modern weaponry makes the combination of bad rhetoric, insanity, and omnipresent media truly lethal; each makes its unique contribution.

None of these, by itself, constitutes an explanation. Even if we could somehow fix one or two of them, we could probably not prevent the Arizona horror from being replicated. But maybe if we paused, for a moment, and dialed down the discursive thermostat (the one thing we may be able to control) if only for a moment, we might for that moment become able to hear ourselves think, and we might become able to think thoughts that could start to solve our problems, and thereby – conceivably —  make events like this less likely in the future.