Framing us as “the enemy”

Update: How could I have neglected to include the violent rhetoric of Manassas blogger Greg Letiecq in my sample? Incredibly, Letiecq made this statement shortly after the murders in Knoxville. Thank you, Bruce Roemmelt.

You can ultimately herd leftists no more easily than you can herd cats, unless of course deadly force is on the menu of coercive methodologies that can be employed.

While I take issue with the completely partisan framing of this piece by Richmond Democrat (there are many, many Republicans who do not participate in the sort of violent rhetoric cited here, and do not at all appreciate their party being soiled by it; there are also many sites at which self-identified Democrats exhibit uncivil and polarizing language which we have condemned), he is absolutely right that the demonizing language employed by certain elements of the hard right is fully intended to marginalize those with whom they disagree as ENEMIES – enemies of the state, of the family, of God, of civilization itself – and that the consequences are sadly predictable. And yes, those responsible Republicans need to quickly condemn this violent rhetoric to avoid being complicit in its result. Or, as Leonard Pitts, Jr. asks, “is accountability yet another lost conservative value?”

RD is relying heavily on a March 2008 analysis by Jeffrey Feldman of Frameshop, in which he identifies the emerging Republican election strategy (utilizing pundits like O’Reilly, Savage and Coulter):

Through this effort, the right has framed our entire system of politics through a logic of violence, the result of which is that Democrats and Liberals are not just seen as political opponents to Republicans, but as a collective mortal threat to the continuing existence of America.

The language is the language of warfare, specifically drawn from the “war on terror.” Within this very deliberate framing, an opponent of the so-called “conservative” agenda such as an anti-war protester becomes a “domestic insurgent” in an action alert entitled “Fighting the Insurgency at Home”; the intended reader is urged to join his comrades in “securing the area,” and bring signs reading “stop treason.” Is it any wonder that Jim David Adkisson thought he was fighting a war in which he had to kill “liberals” after consuming a steady diet of this garbage?

The “warfare” metaphor is, of course, very familiar to the GLBT community. “Culture war” has been the framing strategy of the anti-gay right for a long time, repeating ad nauseam some version of the claim that uppity “homosexual activists” pose a threat to the continued existence of civilization. In this frame, it is inconceivable that we would experience the same human desire for family, intimacy and security as everyone else; our pursuit of marriage equality can only be explained as “the enemies of our souls…trying to sweep away the very moral foundation of our country,” in this chilling “call to arms” from the Tennessee Eagle Forum.

As their losses in courts and legislatures mount, the rhetoric of anti-gay activists becomes ever more laced with violence and war metaphors. An increasingly deranged science fiction author calls for overthrowing the government “by any means necessary” to “defend [his notion of] marriage”; in a recent strategy call with fundamentalist ministers, leaders of the anti-gay industry describe the three 2008 state constitutional amendments to prohibit marriage equality as “warfare against Satan,” Loudoun’s Chuck Colson names California’s Prop 8, the main focus of the call, “the Armageddon of the culture war,” and the pastor of Cornerstone megachurch howls “we must be consumed with a holy anger…this is the time to fight!” And of course, Loudoun’s “professional bigot” Eugene Delgaudio has raised slanderous hate speech against GLBT people to such an overwrought comic art form that many fail to take him seriously, believing one of his 2005 “fundraising letters” to be an April Fool’s joke (read the letter here).

The purpose of hate crimes and terrorism is to control behavior through fear. Hate crimes perpetrated against GLBT people send the message “how dare you be visible; how dare you speak.” There is a natural tension between the need to directly confront the violent rhetoric that functions as a constant threat, and the other response identified by Feldman as “one of a refusal to be intimidated by threats and a desire to show that one is not going to be silenced by right-wingers no matter how extreme they sound.”

The logic is a reasonable one: “If we alter our behavior, the terrorists win.” However, an adamant refusal to be intimidated and silenced does not require us to pretend that such threats are no big deal. Frankly, acknowledging the danger we are threatened with, and affirming our commitment to equality and justice for all in the face of that danger is a much stronger position to take than is pretending there’s nothing to be afraid of. That is exactly what one of our local Unitarian Universalist congregations has done in this excellent letter to the editor, in part:

Given the threat from such people, it would be tempting to reduce our advocacy on controversial issues, adopt more hostile attitudes toward those whose views differ from our own, or even to restrict access to our church for the sake of physical security. We will, of course, do none of these things.

As was the case when Unitarian Universalists faced threats during the civil rights movement, we will view this attack as a reminder of how much the world needs our continued commitment to equality. Drawing on the Christian tradition, one of many religious sources from which we derive wisdom and inspiration, we will continue to love our neighbors as ourselves and to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

Feldman speaks of “a fundamental collapse in the civic body.”

When political debate is taken over by violent language and logic, the effect it has on the public sphere is poisonous and debilitating. Conversation itself shuts down, opening up the door for the return of a pre-modern form of politics antithetical to the free and open exchange of ideas through words.

…if we the civic body is undermined–in particular if the kind of conversation running the civic body changes from a free and open exchange of ideas and information to one marked by violent rhetoric, violent ideas, and violent behavior.

When the dominant conversation in the civic body shifts from pragmatism to violence, the state of American democracy shifts, too. Rather than turning to civic space to communicate ideas, learn information, and work collectively to solve problems, a civic body marked by violent rhetoric becomes an arena driven by the need to vent frustration, enforce opinion, and eliminate rivals.

It’s hard to argue otherwise. We see evidence of the collapse in the civic body all around us in the state of political discourse. Attempts to engage in reasoned debate on some blogs quickly attract name-calling and abusive language aimed at shutting people up; even veiled – and not so veiled – threats. The danger is that such thinking – and by logical extension, behavior – becomes normalized. It is incumbent upon all of us to never allow that to happen. The stakes are very high.

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10 Responses to Framing us as “the enemy”

  1. Jonathan says:

    Chuck Colson actually lives in Florida. His Prison Fellowship Ministries is headquartered in Loudoun.

  2. David says:

    And what would Colson be without a lavish, tax-exempt organization headquartered in Loudoun County? He would have no microphone through which to poison our public discourse.

  3. James Young says:

    As opposed to what? Framing Republicans as “greedy”? Defining anyone to the right of Karl Marx as “far Right”? Dismissing those who define marriage as it has been defined throughout all of human history as “bigots” (excuse me, “professional bigots”)? Attacking devout Christians as “extremists”?

    Your complaint is not the use of the rhetoric; your real concern is that Conservatives are finally responding in kind to the vile and arrogant attacks launched against them for decades, and which you have used EVEN IN THIS POST.

    You on the far Left have understood for years that controlling the terms of the debate is an important part of winning the debate (e.g., substituting “marriage equality” for “marriage redefinition”). You are to be congratulated for that insight.

    But spare us your pretensions to outrage when your own tactics are turned back against you.

  4. David says:

    I can think of no more effective “tactic” for silencing those with whom you disagree than killing them, can you?

    Certainly you don’t mean to make that comparison.

    Thanks for visiting, James.

  5. David says:

    Here’s a plausible reason that someone might perceive violent rhetoric as a partisan problem: People who post stupid things like this on their Facebook page.

    Justin Schaffer, son of (Republican) Colorado Senate candidate Bob Schaffer, just had the contents of his Facebook page exposed to the world, courtesy of TPMMuckraker.

    One “bumper sticker” shows an image of Jesus holding an M-16 in front of a Confederate flag, with the words “What Would Republican Jesus Do?” Another features a bevy of different kinds of guns with the words, “Celebrate Diversity” underneath.

    Another poster reads “Slavery gets shit done.” (Must see to appreciate. Honest.)

    Great parenting there, guys. Great transmission of “family values.”

  6. NotNotJayHughes says:

    Ok…so we don’t like hate speech. But the question is how do you get rid of it? Do we want to make “hate speech” illegal? Do we really want politicians deciding which speech is “love speech” and which is “hate speech”. Do you really want to live in that kind of world? I sure as hell don’t.

    When people cross the line and turn their hatred into an attack I’ll take my chances with law enforcement and my 2nd Amendment rights to stay safe.

  7. David says:

    There’s a world of difference between hate speech and hate crimes. No, I certainly don’t want to live in a world where a nanny state decides what is and isn’t acceptable speech. We do not have a constitutional right not to be offended, and the appropriate response to hateful speech is more speech, not censorship. I think we are in complete agreement there.

    Where we are at this point with specifically anti-gay and anti-transgender hate speech is that rapidly shifting public opinion is causing the speakers to feel the effects of social opprobrium. This is a new experience for them, and they don’t like it. They subjectively experience it as “censorship,” but it’s actually just the realization that their views are becoming marginalized and socially unacceptable. They may respond by lashing out – sometimes with even more extreme, violent rhetoric (like young Justin), and sometimes by crossing the line to hate crime.

    The best answer I can give is that our criminal justice system needs to recognize the qualitatively different nature of hate crime/terrorism (it does, but those who newly perceive themselves to be threatened with “censorship” are resistant to the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity among those attributes for which victims are targeted); and the situation of media monopoly in which some people are exposed to no diversity of viewpoint needs to be addressed somehow. None of us benefits from only hearing opinions we agree with over and over, and that is increasingly becoming the trend on both sides. As Feldman so powerfully argues, it is destroying our civic body.

    Neither of these things requires unconstitutional infringement on speech – which I would vehemently oppose.

  8. NotNotJayHughes says:

    David:

    Yes, we’re in total agreement WRT free speech and “freedom” from offense.

    But I suspect where we are probably going to disagree is the issue of deterring hate crimes. So I have to ask what’s your take on how we go about deterring hate crimes? I don’t want to assume and/or assign to you an approach with which you may disagree. So that’s why I ask.

    Thanks

    Jay

  9. Jonathan says:

    This is purely circumstantial but it is evidence that affinity to the violent rhetoric of groups like the American Family Association may lead to violent actions.

    If you follow the link, you’ll see that:

    1. Ivins and his wife – who served as president of a local anti-abortion group – were strongly committed to the AFA
    2. Donations were made to AFA in the name of Mr. and Mrs. Bruce Ivins 11 times between 1993 and 1997. Another donation by the couple was recorded one month after an article about the Greendale incident appeared in the AFA Journal. The Ivins subscribed to the Journal until March 2005.

    What do folks think would have happened if Ivins had supported “Earth First” or some other left-leaning group that promotes violence? The AFA ties don’t seem to be getting much media attention. If those ties are dangerous, is it prudent to evaluate ties to right-wing groups when granting security clearances?

  10. David says:

    NNJH,

    You know there’s no short answer to this question, right?

    To actually deter hate crimes requires a change in people’s hearts, which is not something that can be legislated – I suspect that we probably are in agreement on that, too. My position is close to what MLK Jr. said: ‘Laws cannot change people’s hearts; but they can restrain the heartless.’

    I doubt that “hate crimes laws” actually have a direct deterrent effect. They are part of a larger picture in which we are essentially saying that this is a distinct kind of crime – in fact a form of terrorism – that has a particular impact on the civic body, and as such merits distinct consideration. What hate crimes law primarily does is effect the collection of information. Reasonable people can disagree on whether these laws are in general the correct approach; see for example Rick Sincere’s libertarian argument here. With regard to the question of deterrence, I think it’s much more instructive to look at the objections of those who only oppose the extension of such laws to bias based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression.

    Changing hearts involves what anti-gay activists call the “normalization” of GLBT people (the actual language they would use is “homosexual behavior,” which is their way of claiming that there’s really no such thing as sexual orientation). It’s important to understand exactly what they mean by this: All the ways and places in which the existence of GLBT people and our family relationships are visible, demonstrating that we’re just like everybody else.

    It’s hard for people to maintain negative stereotypes about gay people when they are interacting every day with perfectly nice gay people at work, at their kids’ school, etc.; you get the idea. This is the thing that hardcore anti-gay activists, by their own admission, want to prevent, so they welcome anything that would make it harder for gay people to just live our normal lives.

    And here’s the connection to hate crime: The function of any kind of terrorism is that it causes people to modify their behavior. The threat of violence directly counters “normalization.” I understand that this puts the anti-gay folks in an awkward and unsavory position. They would like very much for us to feel inclined to stay in the closet, but at the same time they don’t want to be seen as endorsing the violence or threat of violence or bullying that produces that effect. The thing that seems to upset them the most is any effort to make sure that children grow up knowing that there are a lot of different kinds of people in the world, and all are entitled to safety, respect and dignity. That, I think, is the ultimate answer to your question.

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