External Excuses

The internet is full of people blaming Sarah Palin for yesterday’s shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, with most the rhetoric focusing on Palin’s “gunsight” election map. This outrage strikes me as unnecessary politicizing for a number of reasons.

At this point, little is known about the shooter’s motives. The details we know about him point to a disturbed and unbalanced individual. Non-specific arguments about the general violent tone of the current political climate may have some weight,[1] but many of the comments I’ve seen include very specific language: Palin should be held “directly responsible,” the shooter was “taking orders” from the Tea Party, Palin is “guilty of murder.” At best, even as hyperbole, that kind of talk is premature.[2]

If a link is eventually drawn, it would still be difficult to establish it as an extraordinary occurrence. The “bullseye” and “targeting” metaphor is nothing new to election politics, nor is it exclusive to any particular party or ideology. As others have shown, Democrats have used bullseye maps in the same way. The usefulness and propriety of such metaphors is debatable too, but pretending that it’s unprecedented isn’t helpful.

The thing that bothers me most is this “external forces” double standard. A few weeks ago, when that crazy person shot up the school board meeting in Florida, I was glad to see no one blaming the movie V for Vendetta (from which the shooter explicitly drew inspiration). It seemed everyone agreed a movie shouldn’t be blamed for the actions of a disturbed individual.

This was a pleasant exception to the rule. We all know countless stories of crimes being blamed on violent movies, rock music, and video games. Most of the time, it’s those on the political left defending freedom of expression. But this seems not to apply when they have an opportunity to attack a political enemy.[3]

Someone on Twitter rebutted someone else’s Palin-blaming with this:

Blaming Sarah Palin for this shooting is like blaming Marilyn Manson for Columbine.

To which the response was:

Which I seem to remember the right wing had NO problem doing.

OK. Is this person saying the “right wing” was correct in blaming Marilyn Manson for Columbine, and therefore should be OK with him blaming Palin for this shooting? Probably not. What he’s saying is, the right wing was wrong to blame that external source (music) for that tragedy, but I am correct to blame this external source (speech) for this one. So the response is, essentially, “Don’t talk to me about logic or principles. I’m not speaking from a principled position, but rather a political one.”

This happens all the time, on both sides of the political spectrum. We view external events in ways that validate our particular ideologies. We become outraged at whatever disturbs our preconceived notions, and we actively seek out whatever confirms them.

The logically consistent stance is, either (1) external sources should be accountable in some way for how they are interpreted by others. Or (2) they shouldn’t. If it’s reasonable to expect video game players to realize their shoot-’em-up game isn’t real life, then it’s equally reasonable to expect the general public to recognize metaphor in political speech.[4]

My purpose is not to advocate for Sarah Palin or the foolish imagery she uses in her political speech. I am simply appealing for consistency.

I think there is a political lesson to be learned here, but it isn’t, “Your words kill people.” It is this: “People kill people, so don’t say things that will make you look like an asshole when they do.”

  1. For a brief, but thoughtful look at this issue, see here. []
  2. At worst, these types of comments (calling someone a murderer, “blood on their hands,” etc.) are often viewed themselves as incitements to violence. []
  3. Those on the right are equally as happy to overlook the Constitution when it things like building a mosque. []
  4. And there is plenty of historical precedent, as well. []

Comments (17)

  1. Floydy wrote::


    Sunday, January 9, 2011 at 2:41 pm #
  2. james wrote::

    Valuable perspective, Conlan. As much as I loathe the Palin product (it's hard for me to respectably consider her a person), drawing any direct connection at this point is more than a stretch.

    A key difference between Palin's map and those used by others is timing. Obviously, had this happened shortly after the map was posted on the DLC site, this would be a completely different conversation. That being said, this tragedy does offer an opportunity to look closely at our political rhetoric. The combative tone of the Tea Party has troubled me from the start, so I hope that this can be a wake-up call; some people take the call to "take up arms" literally.


    Sunday, January 9, 2011 at 3:27 pm #
  3. Katrina wrote::

    That wasn’t very funny.

    Sunday, January 9, 2011 at 3:36 pm #
  4. Conlan wrote::

    Thanks, James. I also hope this causes people to reevaluate their political rhetoric, violent or not. As it is now, there seems to be no room for honest disagreement. Anyone who disagrees is painted as either pure evil or a completely idiot. That doesn't help anything.

    Sunday, January 9, 2011 at 3:53 pm #
  5. Conlan wrote::

    Just pretend I made a fart noise at the end.

    Sunday, January 9, 2011 at 3:54 pm #
  6. CMOebest wrote::

    Conlan, I think you have a good perspective in this situation. Thanks for speaking up.

    Sunday, January 9, 2011 at 3:58 pm #
  7. Beth Bridges wrote::

    Probably as balanced an opinion as you'll find anywhere. Glad to see this coming out of the valley :-)

    It is nearly impossible for either party to hold themselves to the standards they set for the other side. It is always about politics and everyone is incapable of avoiding bias.

    Whatever we say that we think is clever or justifying our opinion of one political person is probably the kind of thing that we bristle at when other people say similar things about the political people we favor. So there's not much "win" in any of the rhetoric.

    Sunday, January 9, 2011 at 4:01 pm #
  8. edluv wrote::

    something i'd like to throw into the mix is that speech is already regulated, to some extent, in our society. the old yelling fire in a theater example comes to mind. if i yell fire, when there isn't, and this causes a stampede and death, i am culpable. i am not saying this is a direct connection to the case at hand, but rather a more general statement about how we do consider the power of words.

    we have politicians, and i'm not pointing @ any specific examples here, that are using language that can and does incite violence. and for that, they need to rethink what their followers are going to do with these messages. they can say, "well, it's just talk and i never meant anyone to actually do that," but what else did they expect? in the coverage of this shooting the news had several interviews & quotes from members of congress that were receiving frequent death threats over the health care debate. does this just stem from an unbalance psycho out there, or can we link it to what people are hearing at rallies?

    i know that i've prematurely pointed towards the tea party/giffords shooting. and we'll see how the actual defense of the crime actually shakes out. then again, i'm reminded of the movie se7en, where there is a line about if john doe was the devil himself that might live up to our expectations. wait, i'm not sure how that connects. but where i was going was that even if the shooter does say, "yes, i follow sarah palin, saw her map, and took out my representative," the people behind the rhetoric will stay say, "nope, he's an isolated nut job. our statements had nothing to do with what happened."

    Sunday, January 9, 2011 at 6:46 pm #
  9. edluv wrote::

    here's an interesting little read (i think)

    Sunday, January 9, 2011 at 7:00 pm #
  10. Conlan wrote::

    Thanks for the comment, Ed. My reply ballooned into a post of its own. http://thisisconlan.com/2011/01/10/my-excuse/

    Monday, January 10, 2011 at 7:32 pm #
  11. Kiel wrote::

    Conlan = this is pure evil.

    Tuesday, January 11, 2011 at 2:05 am #
  12. Conlan wrote::

    So… This is this is pure evil?I don't get it.

    Tuesday, January 11, 2011 at 2:31 am #
  13. Kiel wrote::

    That's because I'm a complete idiot.

    Tuesday, January 11, 2011 at 2:36 am #
  14. Conlan wrote::


    Tuesday, January 11, 2011 at 2:41 am #
  15. Kiel wrote::

    We should fence. That'd be fun.

    Tuesday, January 11, 2011 at 2:46 am #
  16. Conlan wrote::

    Picket or chain-link?

    Tuesday, January 11, 2011 at 3:24 am #
  17. Kiel wrote::

    stolen goods

    Tuesday, January 11, 2011 at 9:00 am #

Trackbacks/Pingbacks (3)

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  2. My Excuse | This is Conlan on Monday, January 10, 2011 at 7:26 pm

    [...] post started out as a reply to a comment by Ed on my post yesterday, but it quickly evolved beyond a simple response to one [...]

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