Only a few hours had passed Saturday’s tragic shooting in Tucson when media outlets began asking the question “Is Sarah Palin responsible?” [i]
Last March, the former Alaska governor posted a map on her Facebook page with crosshair targets representing Democratic lawmakers she was “targeting” for defeat after they voted for President Obama’s health care plan. One of them was U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Palin, who touts her caribou-hunting heritage, also tweeted, “Don’t retreat, RELOAD!”
Jesse Kelly, Giffords’s Republican opponent in the 2010 mid-term elections, similarly employed guns in a campaign event. He staged an event in July asking supporters to “get on target” and “remove Gabrielle Giffords from office” — all while shooting “a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly.”
Hyperbole has always had a place in public debate. It has been used in political spheres since civic discourse began. We also use “threatening” and “violent” rhetoric in sports: “We’re going to kill such-and-such a team.”
Jesse Kelly and Sarah Palin used hyperbole as a literary style in their messages just like all politicians do. These literary styles are an appropriate form of communication. The words were never intended to harm anyone or inspire violence. Both Governor Palin and Jesse Kelly represent states which have liberal gun laws. Such advertisement is acceptable in our constituencies. Hyberbolism of the Palin type never intends to trigger or provoke bloodshed. Using overstatements and cultural amplifications, this “violent rhetoric” as some miscall it, has a place in society.
If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.
Most Nearly everyone knows Jesus did not intend anyone to take this recommendation literally. He was using hyperbole to make the point that a man should remove sinful causes from his lifestyle. Obviously Jesus was not teaching physical self-mutilation. Likewise, it is obvious to the Arizona and Alaskan gun culture that Sarah Palin was not suggesting the use of firearms to eliminate political opponents.
There exists a very small minority who for one reason or another interpret hyperbole (“violent rhetoric” as some call it) literally. When Jesus said “…there are eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven…” some people acted on His words and castrated themselves. The otherwise able and respected theologian Origen is reported by the historian Eusebius to have removed his own testicles based on a literal reading of this verse.
The Pharisees and scribes and even Jesus’s own disciples made these errors, too. When Jesus said, “…He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me…” it caused them to “stumble” over the Lord’s statement. A violent argument started in the crowd regarding what He meant. Jesus was not teaching cannibalism. Everyone Most know that.
Figures of speech are used:
- to add color or vividness. “The Lord is my rock” (Psalm 18:2)
- to attract attention. “Watch out for the dogs” (Philemon 3:2)
- to make abstract ideas more concrete. “The Lord is my Shepherd” (Psalm 23:1)
- to make retention easier. “You are like whitewashed tombs” (Matthew 23:27)
Similes, metaphors, metonymy, personification, anthropomorphism, zoomorphism, hyperboles, parables, allegory, irony, symbols, types, and phenomenological language are literary devices found in the Bible. These figures of speech are found in our everyday conversations, too. We are all guilty of word play. They are common to all human language. Some people do not recognize that the Bible is full of these figures of speech; as a result many religious cults err by misinterpreting the Holy Scripture. Likewise critics misinterpret the hyperbolic language used by Palin/Kelly’s literary styles. Interpretation of the bottom line message goes astray when the type of language is misunderstood and consequently treated in an inappropriate way.
Moreover, props, gestures, body movement are mere tools of the advertising trade. It is assumed by Second Amendment advocates that Sarah Palin’s “target” and Jesse Kelly’s “gun” were never intended to mean violent action should be taken against political challengers.
Another mistake made in the interpretation of literary style is a failure to focus on grammatical construction. Poetry has a structure vastly different than a business letter. Rap music is constructed differently than Opera. It is important to know the colloquialisms of the audience. If, for example, the American public had a knowledge of Greek grammar, the Jehovah’s Witnesses would have a much more difficult time selling their interpretation of the first chapter of the Gospel of John by which the Witnesses deny the deity of Christ [ii]. Grammatical structure determines whether words are to be taken as questions, commands, or declarations. Clearly, the constituencies of Governor Palin and Mr. Kelly understood the constructs in a way that no violent action should be taken.
Next, it is important to consider the historical and cultural context out of which messages are written. The cultural backdrop of Governor Palin’s and Mr. Kelly’s messages is the American Frontier. A love for hunting and a reverence for the Second Amendment is embedded into the traditions of those to whom these so-called “violent” messages were intended. This is the land of the Wild West. John Wayne, Barry Goldwater, Charlton Heston, and Ronald Reagan are heroes in these here parts. If you apply the colloquial innuendos that are common in Arizona to a man in, say, Times Square miscommunication will result.
Football has a combative subculture, too. Advertisers exploit it regularly. Its fans love the battle of sport and the language has ingrained itself into our national mores (although there are a few who are repulsed by it). Football fans love rivalry. Courageous exploitation of skill, glorious bumper music, and virile clothing are part of the propaganda machine. Fans have an admiration of sheer brute force. If a man says, “I hope the Patriots murder the Steelers,” no thinking person would believe that a man’s life is in danger. No one calls for an end to the “violent” rhetoric used by football commentators. We do not hear calls for an end to the vicious language because, despite the fact that some hooligans exist, everyone knows that the loud and threatening speech surrounding sport is mere hype. The rhetoric of Southwestern politics sound threatening to some, but Arizonans perceive it as simply hard sell. The rhetoric of Arizona politics is a buildup in the same way rhetoric at the Superbowl pregame show is used as a stunt to gather interest and capture attention.
Observe the confusion when President George W. Bush told those who were threatening to attack U.S. forces to “Bring ’em on!” The troops cheered the President, but the press was horrified; they thought he was inciting violence. To complicate things further, the phrase “bring ’em on” could not be translated in other languages in a way that could accurately convey the intended meaning. This style of communication came to be known as “Cowboy Diplomacy.”
Many of the people asking if Governor Palin’s and Mr. Kelly’s “violent rhetoric” caused the Tucson shooting are trained journalists. It would not surprise me if literary style, especially hyperbole (“violent rhetoric” as some think of it), was discussed in their university textbook.
Backtracking is what “breaking news” media personalities do when they are caught delivering erroneous statements and flawed commentary regarding an event which they know little about. These jump-to-conclusion types want to be the first to report something. They want to get their voice heard before other opinionmakers. “Breaking news” commentators and bloggers are frequently forced to backtrack on their observation and opinion regarding unfolding stories.
But how do you undo the character assassination on Governor Palin and Jesse Kelly? Oh by the way … “assassination” is not meant to be taken literally.
*** UPDATE 01/10/2011 ***
Obama uses hyperbolic rhetoric in June 2008 speech: “…If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun …” http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/06/14/obama-we-bring-a-gun/. Is President Obama responsible for the Tucson killings? Of course not. His constituency knew he was speaking in hyperbolic terms.
[i] Type in search engine: “IS SARAH PALIN RESPONSIBLE FOR THE TUCSON SHOOTINGS?”
[ii] KNOWING SCRIPTURE, R.C. Sproul, page 56