Rhetoric and Ranting

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By Kathleen Bergin

Rhetoric and Ranting. That’s February’s “theme of the month” here at SALTLAW.  What’s the “theme of the month,” you ask.  It’s a new feature that gives bloggers and readers alike an opportunity to exchange ideas on a specific issue that progressive law profs care about.  Consider it a one-stop-shop for insightful commentary, critique, and reflection on the chosen theme.  But you won’t miss out on the other good stuff, since we’ll still be blogging about human rights, tenure threats, and junk journalism.

So why Rhetoric and Ranting?

Lawyers and law profs know a thing or two about rhetoric, and the art of crafting words and writing to infuence other people’s thinking.  But can language actually influence someone’s behavior?  We’ve been debating this question for years, and though experts see a link between violent language and negative thoughts and feelings, that doesn’t necessarily mean we can blame Ozzy Ozbourne, Marilyn Manson, and Eminem for spikes in violence.  Does it?

Or can we blame certain lawmakers, or their constituents?  Last month’s shooting in Tucson, which left six people dead and critically injured Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, forces us to reconsider the possibility that our poisoned public discourse might have created an environment that pushes people like Jared Lochner over the edge.

Immediately following the shooting, groups like the Anti-Defamation League said that it is “critical to determine” if Loughner “was influenced by extremist literature, propaganda or hate speech.”  Others appealed to lawmakers, urging them to engage in more civilized debate.  In an e-mail to union members,  AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka wrote that the event “serves as a terrible reminder to all of our political and civic leaders about the need to end the use of appeals to violence in our political rhetoric.  We must find ways to passionately debate and even disagree with each other without using words that can give unstable individuals an incitement to engage in violent acts.”  And President Obama earned high marks for a speech that offered these words:

“At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized – at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do – it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.”

It’s too soon to tell whether politicians will stick with promises to tone things down (Sarah Palin has at lest taken down the “target map”).  But a good place to debate the question of whether they should is this month at SALTLAW.