and just how does criticism of Palin incite hatred and violence?

We swore off Palin, if I remember correctly, or at least I have a vague memory of one of us suggesting that we could end up fetishizing her, if we weren’t careful. And, judging  by recent posts, it does seem that one post about her leads to another.  Still, there are times when one has to consider what is going on. It seems now that she thinks that criticizing the violence in speech like hers is going to end up in more bloodshed. As she says, “But, especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn.” (See link to video below.)

Now, I have to say that it was a slightly heady sensation to think of philosophers reading our blog and then going out to storm some streets. I mean, WOW! But not only are we not journalists or pundits, that’s far less likely to happen than getting feminist work published in top journals. And it isn’t very likely that those listening to Rachel Maddow, for example, are suddenly going to grab guns and go shoot something up.

Another interpretation is that when she imagines reacting to the words of blame in the media, she thinks of violence; despite her overt condemnation of illegal violence, it remains her idea of how to settle scores. Another possibility: Palin knows full well the power of her words and the results of her rhetoric; what she is issuing here is a threat. After all, there has been a huge rise in threats against members of congress and the President; it seems safe to say at least of threats against Obama that they are not principally from the left.

And then there’s her use of  “blood libel” to characterize the criticism of her use of violent images.  Really! It’s too close to her claiming that she’s having her own private holocaust.  In fact, “blood libel” refers usually to false claims that the Jews kill Christian children to use their blood to make matzos. 

So here’s a link to the video.  I certainly didn’t waste time watching the whole thing; I think the reference to blood libel is shortly after 3:15, but there are comments about the media starting at 1:35 or so.

17 thoughts on “and just how does criticism of Palin incite hatred and violence?

  1. Let me just point out that she says at one point, that no one but the directly acting individuals are to blame when atrocities occur, and that there is no collective fault. But then she says the media is inciting hatred and violence. I thought she just told us inciting violence is impossible! I can’t handle it.

  2. The political discussion over the past few days has been tone-deaf to how language operates in context. It’s maddening that people are trotting out example after example of metaphor, looking at the words in isolation, and then condemning (or justifying) them. “Blood libel” has a recent history of use in political discourse that is wider than its original historical extension:

    This does not settle the question of whether it is appropriate, of course (all of those examples might be misuse). However, the proper questions aren’t being asked at all. Does the phrase, in context, inappropriately apply the image of anti-Semitism to Palin? Has the term effectively lost its original historical extension, normally? If so, was it “re-activated” in this context? Etc. Is it inappropriate because of anti-Semitism or because of the fact that it is hyperbolic in an unseemly way?

    Surveying the examples on the National Review link, it seems like the uses vary in terms of whether the speakers are intending to draw an explicit comparison between an historical phenomenon involving Jews and a new target of persecution. Just as with the cross-hairs (which may very well have been taken from a surveyor’s target clip art), the question is how the concept is applied in a specific context. Commentators on the right and the left, so far, seem to consistently miss this point.

  3. One thing I might point out, Malcolm, is that most of those uses (minus the Al Gore example) involve using the term ‘blood libel’ to pick out cases of libel against a group rather than an individual. Palin’s remark shows, at the very least, extraordinary hubris. She seems to think she is just as important as vast social groups.

    But I do think you make the important point that the term ‘blood libel’ has been abused repeatedly by various people and organizations. At the very least, Palin can be charged with picking up on and extending these abuses.

  4. Good point, Matt. I think also, that the ones that seemed most appropriate extensions (to me, at least) of the original phrase (if an extension is appropriate) are those aimed at ethnic or religious groups who have been subject to violent persecution – gays, blacks, Muslims. Maybe that is because they seem to rely on the original extension in order to make the rhetorical point, whereas the others come closer to just “false accusation” rather than “false accusation of an ethic/racial/religious group perpetuating violence used to perpetuate violence on that group.”

  5. You’re all giving Palin a much more intellectual analysis than I would. Here is how I translate her reply: “I’m rubber and you’re glue. Whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you.”

    She’s trying to deflect the criticism away from herself and yet again cast herself as the victim.

  6. I really don’t quite get this discussion, and I’m not sure what’s meant by “how language operates in context.” I think there probably is a good point being made here, but I’m not sure what it is.

    These extended uses of journalists, which appear to be metaphors, haven’t yet killed the metaphor. In this way, it contrasts with “crusade” which does seem to be a dead metaphor. If Palin said there was a crusade against her, then I think it would be wrong to say she was implying she was like the Arab victims of the Christians crusaders. However, until a metaphor dies, I think it is risky to assume that relatively few extended uses completely sever the term from its historical meaning.

    So her usage may be borrowed from occurrences of others’ uses, or it maybe that some writer on her staff heard the term years ago and liked it in this context because it associates the pundits with blood, never mind how. Whatever. Her words still have some meaning and that meaning is connected to its original usage for the time being at least.

    I’m not sure what the connection actually entitles one to say about her meaning. For this reason, I’m not sure about Matt’s claim. I’m not sure she is actually equating herself to whole groups of people. I also don’t know if my remark about her comments being “too close” to such a claim means I’ve said something different. I think “too close” is pretty vague, though.

  7. jj, my point was a pretty general one, based on observations about the back-and-forth going on in the media. For example, as a way to counter the argument that right-wing rhetoric is particularly violent, some commentators trotted out examples of someone using bulls-eyes to mark politicians on a map and using the phrase “dead to me” about a politician who voted in a way they didn’t like. They ignored the fact that both of those are generally 1) dead metaphors which don’t refer to the literal concept of a “bull’s eye” to make the metaphorical point and 2) that they were used in contexts that did not re-enliven that metaphor (since metaphors, I think, can be resuscitated). They also ignored the surrounding context of Palin’s remarks which (I think) made the violent undertones of her metaphor more salient.

    Second, as to the question of when a metaphor is dead, I think that’s actually a difficult one. If most people don’t know what “blood libel” referred to originally, and it is in frequent use in a metaphorical way that doesn’t require that knowledge, is it dead? I agree that “blood libel” is not as dead a metaphor as others, but can deadness come in degrees? What is the difference between “crusade” and “blood libel” as active or dead metaphors? After all, there are plenty of people who have objected to the use of “crusade” in the context of our fighting in the Middle East. Is that because the metaphor is not as dead as we think or (like I mentioned above) because the context has resurrected it?

    And yes, as to Palin herself, I don’t want to overanalyze her speech. I think she’s proven herself to be a less than competent speaker of English. But I do think that the larger question of what metaphors are violent, offensive, etc. is an important one and my comments were meant to indicate some frustration with the coverage so far.

  8. Malcolm, I don’t see the evidence that the use of “blood libel” in an extended sense as frequent. I am not keen on the idea that the careless use of language by a few journalists changes how we should interpret everyone else.

    Similarly, I’m not happy with the idea of interpretation changing because some people used words without knowing what they mean.

    So I think it is ok to see a speaker of a language as using words legitimately understood in terms of the meaning generally showing up in dictionaries, encyclopedias, etc. Since assertions are generally understood as asserted [intended], it might not be right to say she said that P. Hence, my qualms about Matt’s statement and my own.

    All of that is compatible with just about anything being her immediate context and actually being in her mind.

  9. Opps! That should be “Since assertions are generally understood as intentional.”. I suspect a lot of what you are saying about metaphors is good. I do think a metaphorical phrase can be used literally. Eg, i describe a decapitated chicken as running around with its head cut off. I wonder if something like this wasn’t going on with your case of crusade. Rather as though we might today describe a false story about Jews and nefarious activity with Christian babies as blood libel. The emotional impact is v different, though. But the idea of Bush wanting to lead a moern crusade is arguably like a literal use.

  10. Yes, I agree it isn’t as frequent, as far as I can tell through Googling and some of my own research. And I don’t think that generalized misuse changes the meaning of the word, no. My point is just to ask how “blood libel”, which has a very literal reference to accusations against Jews, has seemingly attained a metaphorical meaning, and when the shift might occur to a metaphor like “crusade” where that historical context is more or less detached.

    While some of the examples might be ‘careless’, I do see evidence of some intentionally enriching the extension to be metaphorical.

    Basically, my point is not to defend Palin, but to try to isolate what it is that we might justifiably be upset about. And I am not convinced that a restriction against applying the term to anything other than literal blood libel against Jewish people is the best reason. The reason I thought this related to other word-use in the news is that I saw a parallel – the claim that any tokening of “target” or etc. in a metaphorical context equally invokes a call to physical violence. In both cases, I think that the immediate context of the word governs the metaphorical meaning we get by enriching the lexical meaning. Without paying attention to how the word/phrase is impacted by the context, we have something like a tokening of “target” –> “physical violence” and “blood libel” –> “historical reference to Jews”, when it is possible that in some cases, the properties associated with the lexical entry “target” which are made salient are not those having to do with violence (and similarly with “blood libel” and “Jews”).

    My view of metaphor is at present very indebted to relevance theorists, so I think it may not be so commonly accepted. And we may be agreeing more than not, especially, if I am expressing myself poorly.

  11. I think the particular context may be important to how we view the meaning of metaphors and such (situationally and culturally). As I’m reading references here to “crusade” as a word with an evolved meaning, I’m remembering several of my Arab friends describing their negative feelings towards Bush using that term in reference to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

  12. Malcom,

    I would like to point out one danger with your questions relating to when a metaphor is dead. You wrote:

    Second, as to the question of when a metaphor is dead, I think that’s actually a difficult one. If most people don’t know what “blood libel” referred to originally, and it is in frequent use in a metaphorical way that doesn’t require that knowledge, is it dead? I agree that “blood libel” is not as dead a metaphor as others, but can deadness come in degrees?

    I think that relying on what “most people” do or do not know about the words they use is a dangerous measure of whether a metaphor is dead, especially when we are describing the metaphorical use of words that are offensive or describe past attrocities committed against particular groups.

    The reason I think it is dangerous is that in most North American schools there is very little teaching of the history of non-white, non-Christian groups. This means that knowledge of this history is usually very uneven where members of those groups know much more about their own history than do non-members. Further, many white Christian people grow up in neighbourhoods where there are few members of non-white, non-Christian groups, and so there is a lot of de facto segregation that limits the ability to pick up this history in ways outside of formal educational institutions.

    Because there is little way for white-Christians to find out about non-white non-Christian cultures we might expect that they might be ignorant about such words, whereas members of the groups would be aware of the history of the words. (This is not an indictment of whites or Christians in particular, Blacks might be similarly ignorant of Asian-history, although Blacks would be much less likely to be ignorant of white-Christian history since this is what is taught at school).

    Such a situation might mean that “most people” are ignorant of the history of the word and so for them it is “harmless” or dead, whereas for the groups targeted by the word it remains very much alive and painful.

    I think that it is not only the degree of knowledge about the word’s origin that matters, but also where (among which social groups) that knowledge resides.

  13. I want to edit what I said. I wrote:

    Because there is little way for white-Christians to find out about non-white non-Christian cultures we might expect that they might be ignorant about such words, whereas members of the groups would be aware of the history of the words.

    I should have written: “Because their privilege means they are not required to find out about…” Obviously, there are many ways to find out this history.

  14. Bakka, your excellent comment reminds me of a related problem to do with slurs. Recently the term “tr**ny” has been used in the media in a neutral manner to mean “transgender” – but for trans women in particular, this term has a long history of violence and degradation, having to do with failing at performing femininity, etc. And I would not want to claim that since many or most cisgender people do not know the word’s history, they are free to use it casually.

    I do think it’s still legitimate to ask the question, though, about when a term with such a history can become a broadly acceptable and neutral, term. This seems to happened with other words. And perhaps the right answer is “never”, since there are going to be some people who are aware of the word’s history and find it inappropriate, regardless of how much time has passed. (Words like “being gypped”, or calling something “lame” come to mind.) Personally I do try to avoid words with that kind of tinge, but I’m still considering the philosophical justification for this. I want to be appropriately sensitive to the damage words can do (because of their being coupled with a history of persecution) but also sensitive to the fact that words change extension over time.

  15. I was over Sarah Palin when she said she could see Russia from her back yard and that “we keep an eye on them.” She is an ignorant pedestrian on the political highway. That said, even an ignorant pedestrian may be dangerous, particularly when there is a segment of society that worships all things down home and mom and apple pie. I wonder though. I wonder how John Mccain truly feels about her now?

  16. Harold,
    from what I’ve heard what sarah actualy said (or for that matter just about any of the politicians who have ever said a gaffe) was not nearly as bad as the quote. I’ve heard it was somthing more like “you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska” the funny thing was that that was a defense of her foreign policy credentials (a pathetic defense), not that it was factually wrong.

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