Violent language keeps company with violent behavior. The former does not usually cause the latter directly, but in due time violence can follow. To be clear by way of an example, the rhetoric of Sarah Palin did not incite the January 2011 shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others, six of whom died. Palin, the Republican vice-presidential candidate in 2008, had an advertisement that put some Congressional districts (not individual candidates) in a mock crosshairs during the 2010 midterm campaign, including Giffords’ Arizona district. But those who said the shooting was a direct consequence of Palin’s violence-tinged electioneering (using slogans like “Don’t Retreat, Reload” and “Take Up Arms”) were jumping to a simplistic conclusion or, in her odd phrase, engaging in “blood libel.” Not to say that no relationship exists between violent metaphors or hateful rhetoric and physical attacks.
Violent language originates in and plays upon resentment. Though the hateful speaker appears tough and rugged, she or he is insecure. For example, Palin (now like President Donald Trump) has no public identity apart from the reaction of those who believe she is over the top. Her insecurity (like Trump’s) requires so-called enemies to fill her inner void by reacting to outrageous statements.
“The resentment felt today is the product of widespread feelings of powerlessness, writes Jeremy Engels in his important The Politics of Resentment: A Genealogy (Penn State Press, 2015). Those anger feelings are legitimate but become problematic when expressed with no context and directed at mistaken adversaries. Resentment is ineffective. Its expression soon enough turns back to the frustrated person, whose self-image becomes and inadequate victim. Resentment is all around these days because some of our “politicians and our sensationalized media seem intent on training citizens to be frightened, frustrated, apathetic, acquiescent and ultimately [more] resentful,” says Engels, who details the Palin-Giffords example. The politics of resentment is nefarious because it plays upon an honest desire for powerful reform but employs life-destroying strategies. Of course, some local, national and international figures play on resentment. Listen to them carefully: Their alternative to the status quo is always vague. They usually offer no lasting reform policy or improved organization and thus their promises only result in more alienation.
The opposite of resentment is gratitude. Anyone who desires effective social reform must believe that the world and its environs is a gift. Maybe that belief is not explicitly stated upon awakening each morning. Maybe the word thanks is not used. But a person who is capable of improving his or her business or church or neighborhood or political party is a grateful person. Such a person knows that she or he is not self-made. He or she realizes that one’s interests have to be negotiated among the rights and wishes of others and that the beautiful gift of freedom implies care for one’s family, for society and to a degree for the world.
Let’s not get soft here. Politics is hardball. Business can be quite competitive. Civic groups can strike fierce poses. Specific interests must often be strongly asserted. Issues get sharply framed. Meetings get contentious. In democratic public life there are adversaries, opponents and perennial rivals. In a democracy, however, there are no enemies. Social change advocates and politicians who use that word betray the gift of our country. At a minimum they exhibit self-righteousness. Worse, they open a door to violence. In war there are enemies. In regular public life the word enemy, and other violent phrases, are not to be used.
Droel’s booklet, Public Friendship, is available from National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $5)