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Opposites that Aren't - The LAMP

Opposites that Aren’t

By January 19, 2011 News No Comments

Like many people, I‘ve been thinking a lot lately about the shootings that took place on January 8th in my home state of Arizona. These past few days, as I gain a bit of distance, I am surprised to find myself thinking on the media responses to the shooting and, strangely enough, the SATs.

Those of who endured the standardized exam prior to 2005 will recall the analogies section and the much dreaded formulation: A is to B as this is to that. This part of the test is gone now (and who could miss it?), but listening to the news recently, I wonder if our ability to analyze the relationship between two ideas went with it.

As an example, a question posted to CNN’s website asks viewers to weigh in on whether the shooter was “evil or mentally ill” (the poll no longer appears here, but the related story does). I can understand why a person might be tempted to choose one of those two options as a means to get a handle on what happened in Arizona. It makes, however, for what I think is a tellingly confounding SAT question. Evil is, after all, to mentally ill as sunlight is to tax preparation. They aren’t antonyms; they aren’t synonyms. Grouping explanations into such categories may well make being in the world seem easier, but these kinds of convoluted binaries do nothing to move us in the direction of understanding.

Here are a couple of either/or propositions that seem to be surfacing in the wake of the Arizona shooting which I find especially troubling:

Quiet is to Safe as…

There has been a great deal of discussion about violent rhetoric in politics and the media and, while the conversation in general is encouraging, it is possible to take it too far. For example, Representative Robert Brady (D- Penn) has stated that he “will introduce legislation making it a federal crime for a person to use language or symbols that could be perceived as threatening or inciting violence against a Member of Congress or federal official.” It is worth mentioning that it is already illegal in most states to threaten the life of another person. Redundant as it may seem, however, the lack of definition around the idea of language and symbols in Brady’s bill does not portend well. I admit, the bill sounds like a decent idea in its present context but two, three, ten years from now, what will it mean to have a law on the books with a rather vague mission of eliminating anything that “could be perceived as threatening?” The reason Congressman Brady’s proposal feels like a false solution is because it assumes a causal relationship between censorship and protection that no self respecting college-board test-writer, or historian for that matter, could possibly abide.

While some responses to the Congressman’s bill or Sheriff Dupnik’s comments to the same effect have been quite considerate, by and large the backlash from those parties most accused of heated rhetoric has been anything but.

…Reckless is to Right

Of course, part of the response involves denial, but I am going to go ahead and dismiss the claim that the crosshairs on the map for ‘reloading’ were in fact meant as surveyor marks, on the grounds that it is too absurd to really talk about. No, more upsetting than such obvious back pedaling has been the implication that the media which are most obnoxious are also most in the service of the first amendment.

In her puzzling video address, Sarah Palin implies that her own rhetoric belongs to the “cherished tradition” of “vigorous and spirited debate” whereas those who criticized her gun-laden vocabulary and imagery in the wake of the shootings were not merely “reprehensible,” but guilty of “blood libel,” a phrase also employed by radio personality Michael Savage and columnist Glenn ReynoldsRush Limbaugh also continues to employ his favorite brand of defense and false logic–namely, that his words must be extra true because so many people dislike them. In this context, these individuals stand for free speech, and any attempts to rein them in stand against it.

Politicians and pundits often tie ideas together in ways that cannot hold. What worries me is that this particular mix might lead us to believe that we are faced with a choice between siding with censorship or siding with hostility. It’s a fair bet that rhetoric taking violence as its central metaphor probably has little else to stand on. In a perfect world, it would fade away, without the need of legislation, on the merits of its own irrelevance. This probably won’t happen – not in a major way—but we can hope that some of the very worst noise might subside. Perhaps, in the future, more of us will make the decision to reject hateful, vitriolic political maneuvering and media punditry, not because it’s been made to go silent, but simply because we know it’s gross and more than a bit stupid.

What we cannot expect, however, is to get the right answers from the wrong questions. Was Loughner a tea party supporter or did he hate George Bush? Is it that we have too few resources for people with mental illness or was it the heated language of the media and political figures that allowed this tragedy to occur?  I don’t have answers to these questions, but I am wholly certain that the word “or” does not belong within them. These notions are not necessarily opposites and, as such, the truth or the existence of one has no bearing whatsoever on the validity of another. Choosing between them isn’t just speculative; it’s senseless. These formulations, fueled by fast pace theorizing and a desire to disprove are of course intended to be polarizing, but what’s worse is that they are fundamentally unanswerable.

The SAT ultimately did away with the analogies portion of the exam precisely because antonyms are so slippery, and relationships are so multi-faceted. Still, the part of the brain that confirms or denies these types of comparisons may well be a muscle we need to get out and exercise with a bit more rigor. For my part, I submit that meaningful reflection is to choosing between false dichotomies as moving forward is to falling back.

–Sarah Brown