Friday, September 09, 2011

Would You Shoot (a Computer Image of a Zombie) Sarah Palin?

Back in January, when Representative Gabrielle Giffords was shot, and six people were murdered, during a rampage by your stereotypical gun-toting, conspiracy-believing, drug-addled, psychologically-imbalanced, maladjusted lunatic, I--like a lot of people--kind of lost it. I got mad, I searched for blame, and I found it, in an advertisement put out by Sarah Palin during the 2010 midterm elections. As part of her campaign to defeat Democratic politicians that had won election in previously Republican districts, and had gone on to support the president in the passage of the Affordable Care Act, Palin used gun sights, and spoke in speeches about the need to "take out" those who were part of what she considered to be an atrocious, presumably socialist, presumably unconstitutional bit of legislation. Over-the-top, violent political rhetoric, combined with armed and impressionable crazies, equals murder. QED.

So I wrote a post making that claim...and was pilloried for it. And rightly so--and not just because as more information emerged about the man who attempted to assassinate Giffords, the more and more obvious it was that there was almost no chance his murderous intentions were inspired by or even connected to Palin's vicious (but, let us be frank, pretty standard) rhetoric. No, I was pilloried because I was taking a tragic, actual event, and quickly, emotionally, and irresponsibly targeting one person as responsible. As I put it in my apology, "in writing what I did, I became part of exactly what I was truly responding to: not the horrible news out of Tuscon (to which there was only one decent reaction, namely one of mourning and sorrow), but more largely the environment within which this shooting happened to occur." Rather than responding carefully to a terrible event, I piled fuel on the rhetoric fire. That was wrong.

I was thinking about all this yesterday, when a local television station called me up, and asked if they could talk to me for a bit about the latest appalling bit of "entertainment" coughed up by an internet economy which naturally sees such rhetoric as a commercial opportunity: a video game where you get to kill as many "Tea Party Zombies" as possible, including such luminaries as Palin and the Koch brothers, before they "teabag" you.

My comments in that news piece were brief and innocuous, I suppose. There were just a tiny segment of a 15-minute conversation, mostly dealing with the difficult balance that any society which respects free speech (which, frankly, I think we respect a little too much) has to strike between actively discouraging speech which is grossly inflammatory, on the one hand, and not going overboard--as I have before and as we all usually will at one point or another--over some whatever new and appalling bit of language or imagery shows up which offends our sense of propriety or decency or security. I told the reporter a joke which I can remember going around on Facebook months ago, one which made my wife livid: its punch line involves President Obama being thrown off an airplane. He laughed. And why shouldn't he? It's just a joke, right? And Charles Koch shouldn't be concerned that some anonymous twerp looking to have some fun--or some liberal with a rather ugly sense of humor, or both--has created a game in which players get to shoot a two-headed zombie-version of him. It's just a game, right?

The best thing I said to the reporter--which, of course, also didn't make it into the piece--was a few thoughts drawing on things which Cass Sunstein and Jay Rosen have both argued at length: that the internet has mostly resulted in our ways of sharing and receiving information being broken apart, atomized, sealed off into separate bubbles. We live, too many of us anyway, in various blog-anchored echo chambers, chatting endlessly on Facebook with our selectively chosen friends. Of course everyone has always created in-groups and out-groups; that's nothing new. But the internet has really ramped it up...and if you combine that with all the stresses and breakdowns our democracy is currently experiencing (an almost wholly dysfunction Senate, major parties that no longer share much of any kind of incentive to actually govern responsibly, etc.), then it's not hard to suspect that there has been an increasing in violent rhetoric in American politics, because it's just so easy for everyone in all their little bubbles to continually egg each other on, say the same jokes ever more loudly and ever more fervently, develop a shorthand of humor and rhetoric that is perhaps completely innocent but nonetheless, in retrospect, perhaps is also thorough dehumanizing, angry, and contemptible. Step out of your bubble, if only for a moment, and ask yourself: would you really proudly display your liberal hunting license or your President Obama urinal target, or whatever else the endless free-flowing invective of the internet encourages folks with sick minds to appeal to, if you weren't just displaying it where only your ideological comrades-in-arms will see it? Would you really enjoy hacking a video image of Sarah Palin to pieces on your home computer, if it was anything for you except a private joke between friends? Perhaps not. Now ask yourself this question--is anything on the internet capable of remaining private for long? Also a negative answer, except in that case I don't think there's any "perhaps" to it.

Some liberals, at least, are trying to get ahead of the usual cycle of blame (which, I confess again, I've been part of before!), and calling for boycotts of the game. Good for them, though I wonder what difference it will make. The genie--a genie of anger and contempt, fed by a technology that simultaneously encourages people to act out within their little boundaries as well as makes certain no boundaries truly last--is out of the bottle, and fear that, absent a profound political change which leads people to accept that our democracy can function, that government can listen, and that the rules and procedures and methods of elections and parties can be taken seriously, there's nothing that will get it back in. I'm as much at fault as anyone, I suppose. But I can at least refuse to play the game. We could all do that much, at least.


Scott--DFW said...

I'm not troubled by the video game, because it's clearly in the realm of black humor. I say that even though I'm pretty confident the press coverage and public outrage would be greater if there were donkeys, rather than elephants, in the crosshairs.

Closer to the Palin rhetoric that you and many others objected to as incitement were the recent Hoffa remarks, which employed martial imagery and shouted encouragement to "take these son-of-a-bitches [sic] out." That kind of rhetoric is inflammatory and lies squarely in the real world political fray. Comments like that have much greater potential for incitement of an isolated, impressionable nut with a gun than a video game does.

But, at the end of the day, intemperate rhetoric is part of politics. I wish it were condemned more even-handedly and less opportunistically, but it shouldn't be outlawed.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Scott, why are you "pretty confident" that the public outrage would be greater (and has there really been a lot of outrage about this? I'd never even heard of it before the reporter called me yesterday afternoon) if the Zombies were Obama-clones or hippies or Nancy Pelosi? I'm not being facetious, I'm genuinely curious. I, and many others, went way overboard in attacking the Tea Party as a source of violence-inducing quasi-terrorists in the wake of the Giffords shooting...which was, of course, an actual shooting. Do you really think that if tomorrow, someone tried to assassinate Charles Koch or Eric Cantor, the media wouldn't make a big deal out of this? I can see why you would think that; the studies which show the liberal-leaning of the majority of MSM people are incontrovertible. But is that the extent of your explanation, or are you aware of studies which support your suspicion?

I ask because I hear lots of claims about "double standards," and when I look into them, what I mostly see are people seeing what, of course, they're ideologically disposed to see, and that includes me as well. For instance, you say that when Hoffa is speaking to a bunch of (presumably angry, presumably rough?) union workers and activists, and says that they need to "take out" their opponents, you see a legitimate case for possible incitement to violence. I don't immediately see that...but yet I did think (admittedly, probably wrongly) that when Palin called on a bunch of (presumably gun-possessing, presumably alientated?) Tea Party activists to "take out" certain Democratic opponents, that was a legitimate case of possibly inciting people to violence. Am I just too completely in the tank to see what's obvious here, or are we both trapped, or at least hampered, by some basic human psychology? I'm prepared to be schooled on this point.

Scott--DFW said...

An Obama/Reid/Pelosi-killing game would fit the narrative of Republicans being hateful, violent, untrustworthy, and dangerous (and racist and sexist and, throw in Barney Frank, just to cover homophobic). It would be cast as an open call to violence against Democrats (or, by more reasonable commentators, reckless and dangerous, given the knowledge that there will always be some impressionable person out there who could be pushed over the edge). The Republican-killing game has gotten little mainstream coverage and what it has drawn has been less provocative than the game's creators had probably hoped.

As for "double standards" on rhetoric, if I were claiming that Hoffa's inflammatory comments were more dangerous or irresponsible than Palin's were, we'd probably be equally trapped/hampered. I didn't say that. I said the comments were of a kind. I did say the Hoffa comments were more problematic than the video game, but because the former was a specific rallying cry and heightening--perhaps even exaggeration--of the real world stakes of a political struggle, while the latter was just an effort at black humor. There's no reason to believe that either Hoffa's comments or the video game were intended to--or are likely to unintentionally--result in harm to persons or property. But if it were to happen, it would more likely to flow from a person's belief that we really are at war with the Tea Party, that they really are trying to destroy the working man, and they really must be taken out--not because he believes that the Koch brothers are undead or has had his inhibitions weakened by acting out cartoonish violence.

My point was that the video game (as simplistic and silly as it is) is, at most, a marginal expression of political discourse--like the urinal target you mentioned or a voodoo doll or a demeaning YouTube video. I think you're right in suggesting that these forms of expression are little more than a form of internal clique signaling. But the vast majority of political discourse from politicians and and their surrogates is exactly that. It's all about shoring up "the base" with red meat and making (more or less disingenuous) plays to move the middle.

In that respect, there's no difference between Hoffa's comments and the video game. Hoffa wasn't doing Republican or independent outreach. He was preaching a sermon to the choir that was no more likely to sway outside opinions than a bumper sticker showing Calvin urinating on a GOP elephant.

John B. said...


Thank you for this post. Some years back, I remember hearing/reading about shoot-em-up videogames passed around among white-supremacist websites and rallies, and feeling dismayed (though, just as you say, similar such materials appealing to the violent and/or brain-dead lowest common denominator have existed long before the Internet Age. This game that you mention is no less dismaying.

You last couple of paragraphs resonated with me as well. I don't know if you've visited my place in the last couple of weeks, but we had a lively discussion over some ideas from Hannah Arendt's prologue in The Human Condition in which she muses how mechanization of work is resulting in "a society of laborers without labor," and then a later post on the apparent aspirations of at least some to be as interconnected as possible (via social media)--all of which leads Arendt (and me) to ask, "To what end? How is all of this making us better (in the "What is the Good?" sense of "better")? There's been no talk of how all this affects our politics; but thanks to you, it will now.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Thanks for the comment John! And yes, I did follow the discussion about Hannah Arendt, though I didn't comment; I should have I suppose. I need to do more of that--what's the point of blogging if you're not responding to shared ideas, after all?