Politicians’ rhetoric

2011-01-12 00:00

I CAN remember that in some police or legal TV show that I watched as a child, a lawyer defended his client who had been overheard saying to his wife: "I could kill you." The lawyer's argument was that anyone in their right mind wouldn't really consider this to be an actual threat against her life, but rather a figurative expression of frustration or irritation.

Much the same can be said for political metaphor. Normal, sane people understand that when you say you're "on target" or you have someone "in your sights", you're not actually talking about shooting them, but rather applying a figure of speech that represents your intentions.

Unfortunately, there is a good proportion of the population of the world that is neither sane nor normal. In the same way that un- stable­ people are influenced by violence­ in movies, cartoons or video games, they can also be influenced by symbolic rhetoric delivered by politicians.

This is why politicians have to be so careful of the words that they release into the public space. They have to consider that they're not speaking to an aggregate audience. Instead, there are their sharply intelligent and insightful followers who understand language and metaphor and intention, and then at the other end of the scale, there are the uneducated, unstable, short-fused loonies, who might just act on what they are instructed, however obliquely, to do.

I'm not saying that last weekend's shooting of United States Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was a direct result of Sarah Palin's "Don't retreat, instead reload" campaign — there is no evidence to support this — but even Palin's spin team had the uncharacteristic good sense to remove the graphic that she had posted on Facebook with various Democrat leaders in crosshairs.

The fact that Palin's people have even tried to deny that they were even crosshairs, despite widespread publicity to the contrary, shows that on top of potentially inciting violence, they're also a bunch of hypocritical liars. If those crosshairs are a surveyor's symbol then I'm Angela Merkel.

The fallout from the attempted assassination in Arizona is going to be vast, and brand Palin is going to suffer a blow as she resorts to blustering chicanery to deflect a new wave of criticism of her fishin', huntin', gunslinging' ways. Whether any of her followers, who are already a fan of this kind of behaviour, will be influenced by the negative press remains to be seen.

The lessons learnt from Palin's pickle apply as aptly in South Africa, where politicians demand the right to sing struggle songs that incite violence against other racial or political groups. Again, I say that while there are plenty of sane people who understand metaphor (although I'm not even sure that there is much that's figurative in "Kill the Boer"), there are still plenty of people with little education or sanity rattling around upstairs, who might take this all too literally.

Reality has a funny sense of humour, and when you call for the killing of a Boer, a Boer tends to rock up murdered, and when you put a member of the U.S. congress in crosshairs (sorry, "surveyor's symbols"), there's a good chance that someone's going to take a shot at her.

Politicians, rather than risk association­ with violent acts against other human beings, try to keep a civil tongue in your heads and resort to cleverer metaphors than those that rely on death sports.

— News 24.com

• Georgina Guedes is a freelance writer.

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