Holleman: One Nation, Divisible Under Rhetoric

Yesterday I was shopping for furniture wax, but the only one I found sounded too dangerous: not only was it combustible, but the fumes could lead to permanent brain damage. Then I got home and learned about the Arizona shooting.

It gave me pause. Especially as a writer. It reminded me that the tool of my trade, language, is also highly combustible and can cause brain damage. No doubt the man who opened fire on Representative Giffords already had problems, but it’s important to take a very hard look at how language fed his derangement and fueled such an act.

Increasingly, language is used as a weapon to incite violence and hatred and division. Last week I went to a medical clinic near where I live. At one end of the waiting room was a stand with political pamphlets and a sign saying that the clinic existed because of God and our founding fathers, but the views expressed were those of the owners. The owners, however, are two of the three clinic doctors.

At the receptionist counter was a diagram of our new health care system, showing a maze that no one in their right minds could follow.

“Is this a joke?” I asked the receptionist.

“No, I’m afraid it’s not,”she replied, her face still as stone.

Later, this receptionist engaged in derisive banter with another patient about “Obamacare” loud enough for everyone in the waiting room to hear.

Regardless of whether I agree with the political and religious views of the clinic owners, I was more than a little uneasy about having their views imposed upon me as a patient. It made the clinic extremely hostile; such hostile environments are sprouting up all over, and it’s language that’s used to create them.

Yes, we all want to uphold our rights to free speech. But at least six people, including a nine-year-old girl, lost their lives in the Arizona shooting, so it only makes sense that we take a step back and listen to Pima County Sherrif Clarence Dupnik, who suggested that those exercising their right to free speech consider the effects:

“’When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government. The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous,’ said Sheriff Dupnik. ‘And unfortunately, Arizona I think has become sort of the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry.’”

We writers must be constantly vigilant to the connotations of the words we use. It’s become more difficult, I think, because even objective reporting seems to have fallen by the wayside. A newscaster on a local TV station reported the latest “setback” to Shell’s offshore oil drilling in the Arctic, emphasizing the holdup “again” with such fervor we knew exactly what his opinion was. With the demise of objective reporting, our baseline shifts and it’s more difficult to recognize the emotional effects of the words we use. What was once considered inflammatory has become everyday language. We may think we’re becoming numb and therefore unaffected, but that’s only surface armor.

There used to be a children’s ditty: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Our attitudes towards playground bullying and verbal abuse have since changed, but now we have new ways to hurt with words: the great anonymity of the internet.

A few years ago, the Anchorage Daily News reported a house fire in which a man lost his wife and children. On the newspaper’s website, one anonymous reader suggested the man was to blame because he alone escaped from the house. I remain astonished and saddened that someone who didn’t even know this man would publicly pass judgement on him, and be allowed to do so anonymously. I only hope that he, and the family, never read those comments.

Many have noted that rhetoric in our country has reached epic levels of division, derision, and vitriol. Last week I met a young man studying rhetoric in college. We talked about the book Don’t Think of an Elephant , which explores how effective one political party has been in controlling the language of key issues. He told me about a paper he’d just finished on how Sarah Palin’s rhetoric has changed political discourse in this country, especially her use of shooting imagery. Representative Giffords was one of 20 Palin put in her “crosshairs” in the recent election.

There’s simply no doubt: the power we wield as writers is real. We need to take care that we express ourselves without causing—to use military rhetoric for unintended killings—collateral damage.

Marybeth Holleman is author of The Heart of the Sound: An Alaskan Paradise Found and Nearly Lost, and co-editor with Anne Coray of Crosscurrents North: Alaskans on the Environment. She’ll be discussing the topic of environmental writing and activism with author Nancy Lord and moderator Charles Wohlforth at a 49 Alaska Writing Center CROSSCURRENTS event at Out North Theater on Jan. 25 at 7 pm.

2 thoughts on “Holleman: One Nation, Divisible Under Rhetoric”

  1. I am with you one hundred percent. There is a flaring irrationality at large that is so one-minded it almost seems to have a source in the beyond… some bad beyond (The joke about drinking the Kool Aid says this in a more humorous way). I wrote to a sympathetic friend, today, complaining, "These opinions raised as Godly are not Biblical, not Christian doctrine, not even close." Then, I started quoting snippets of scripture in a way that I haven't done for years… things like "Judge not…" Like "Let he among you who has not sinned cast the first stone." "Love your enemy as yourself." In this reach to scripture, I wanted to lift up the deep ethics/compassion of the Christian message (God is love)… to expose this other, this twisted remnant proported to be Christian. It is a kind of madness. It is weirdly driving me toward the Word to protect all that's really Holy from this horror. I bite my tongue to stop from lashing out with "How can you be so stupid." Humanity on the skids again.

  2. Agreed. Words can wound; bullets kill, and U.S. residents have more legal access to guns than any other nation in the world, with Yemen second to the U.S. in a list of the most armed countries. Our 2nd amendment is a disaster. We've got a trigger-happy culture that dumbs down to the inflamatory rhetoric of right wing talk show hosts. That's plenty to worry about. When folks disparage "Obamacare" out loud at health clinics, that's pitiful. When health care reform is linked to rhetoric about "reloading" a gun, that might be argued as free speech, but coupled with our country's gun fetish, the remedy is going to require a lot more than the NRA's recipe of prayer.

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