January 19, 2011

Idioms and Metaphors

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The Daily Show clip demonstrates just how silly language issues can get.

But I think it’s particularly important now to draw a distinction between legitimate American idioms and metaphors based on firearms versus violent rhetoric.

The -killing suffix is an entirely legitimate American idiom. We can certainly argue about the merits of “job-killing” in the context of healthcare legislation, i.e. whether or not that is as accurate description. To suggest that -killing in this context is doing the same kind of cultural damage as “second amendment remedies” is just nutty.

Before we can begin any real examination of violent rhetoric in American society (particularly our politics), I think we must bracket out legitimate idiomatic and metaphorical expressions based on firearms. American English is full of these expressions — many, I would argue, used everyday by people who don’t even realize the expression is based on firearms. Example: lock, stock, and barrel.

I would put “reload” in that same category of standard American expressions because it is an idiom meaning roughly to “re-energize.” Sarah Palin’s use of it in the context of “don’t retreat” still doesn’t rise to the level of violent rhetoric because we use “retreat” — a military idiom — to mean roughly “backing down,” “giving up” or “going to a safe place to reconsider.”

I am not suggesting that standard idioms and metaphors cannot be employed as violent rhetoric. What I am suggesting is that their use is so ingrained that we must be careful not to label as violence standard forms of speech used in appropriate ways.

I think before this entire conversation about civility and violent rhetoric can move forward, we must do a better job of defining what we actually mean by violent rhetoric.

Just as nutty as suggestions that standard expressions are evidence of  violent rhetoric are suggestions that a “climate of discourse” had nothing to do with the Tucson shooting. To be sure: We do not know — and may never know — to what extent the (low) quality of our political discourse played in this catastrophe. It doesn’t actually matter because that climate — that context — always plays some role in suggesting the range of acceptable behavior. The climate helps make such things possible (as do many other things) to some extent (we should try to figure out to what extent).

This is also why we cannot and should not place specific blame on individuals for “causing” the Tucson shooting. What many people in politics and the media are guilty of is degrading the climate of discourse that then places violence somewhere at the edges of acceptable behavior.

Example: Sharron Angle’s “second amendment remedies.” This can mean only one thing: shooting people. The second amendment is about two things: 1) the right of citizens to keep and bear arms and 2) the right of the people/states to form militias. The purpose was to make sure that we the people had at our disposal the means to protect ourselves, including protecting ourselves from actual government tyranny. Sharron Angle most certainly did engage in violent rhetoric outside the bounds of standard America idioms and metaphors. She most certainly is guilty of degrading our civic discourse, in my opinion.

It is possible, I suppose, to argue that she is reacting to actual tyranny and, therefore, is well within political bounds and, therefore, rhetorical bounds. I wonder, however, what that would look like if, say, the election results had gone a different way.

Who would be the first to “pull the trigger”? — and I do not mean, idiomatically, “getting things started.”

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3 Responses

  1. I think it makes it extremely clear that the media and the politicians in Washington D.C. don’t have any interest whatsoever in informing the public of anything resembling the truth. They want non stop distractions from the real issues to run 24/7 on these pathetic cable news shows so that the citizens don’t pay attention to all of the horrors that our government is foisting upon us.

  2. acline 

    Jeremy… In the case of the press, I think it might be more accurate to say that actually informing the public, instead of distracting them, is very difficult work that puts journalists (who feel like political insiders) on the outside. Much of political “reporting” is easy to produce by these steps:

    1. Ask side A a question.
    2. Get side B’s response.
    3. Write it up.

    That’s stenography, not reporting.

    On TV it’s even easier. Just put two talking heads in opposition.

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