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Guns Don’t Kill People; Single Moms Do: Some Thoughts on the Second Presidential Debate

October 19, 2012

We live in exciting(ly rhetorical) times. People are still talking about Tuesday’s presidential debate and how “amazing” it was. As far as I’m concerned, any event that can cause diminished grumpiness in George Will is worth looking at twice. And, although I’ve already made my feelings on town hall meetings clear, there was one moment this past Tuesday that really surprised me. After a question about assault weapons, possibly prompted by the movie-theater shooting in Colorado this summer, Obama and Romney brought back to life something I never thought I’d see again: “family values” as a solution to gun violence or, as a Slate blogger eloquently put it, blaming single parents for gun violence.

Here’s what happened. A woman asked the following question of President Obama:

President Obama, during the Democratic National Convention in 2008, you stated you wanted to keep AK-47s out of the hands of criminals. What has your administration done or planned to do to limit the availability of assault weapons?

President Obama gave a typical answer, hitting all the notes one expects a candidate to hit on the issue of gun control. He argued that we need to “enforce the laws we’ve already got,” pointed out his belief in the 2nd Amendment and suggested “working with faith groups and law enforcement.”

Romney, on the other hand, made a surprising choice in the midst of his comments. He chose to lay part of the blame for gun violence in the lap of “single parents” (which, ten or twenty years ago, would have surely been “single mothers”):

But let me mention another thing. And that is parents. We need moms and dads, helping to raise kids. Wherever possible the — the benefit of having two parents in the home, and that’s not always possible. A lot of great single moms, single dads. But gosh to tell our kids that before they have babies, they ought to think about getting married to someone, that’s a great idea.

Because if there’s a two parent family, the prospect of living in poverty goes down dramatically. The opportunities that the child will — will be able to achieve increase dramatically. So we can make changes in the way our culture works to help bring people away from violence and give them opportunity, and bring them in the American system.

There’s a lot to talk about in this quote. Romney is talking about family values, and he’s doing it much like George H.W. Bush and Dan Quayle did during the 1992 presidential election. I’m used to hearing “family values” talk as code for “hey, aren’t gay people scary?” But, despite Romney’s careful mention of moms and dads—and not two dads or two moms!—his use of a family values theme carries a different meaning, and a wonderful, early-1990s flavor. Dana Cloud (no relation to this author) explains it best in her article “The Rhetoric of <Family Values>: Scapegoating, Utopia, and the Privatization of Social Responsibility.” She writes that, during the 1992 presidential election, “family values” was a useful way of explaining the 1992 Los Angeles riots:

…[the vocabulary of “family values”] suggests that these problems are not structural features of capitalist society but rather are the product of personal family failures.

In other words, when politicians use family values to explain gun violence, they may be trying to divert attention away from societal or structural causes of violence and place the blame solely on individuals. So, in other words, these incidents become attributable to personal failings and not to, say, inadequate mental health services, inner-city poverty, ineffective drug policies, or some other systemic cause. This isn’t to say that individuals aren’t responsible for their actions, but rather that it is often easier to simply blame bad people or single moms and ignore the role that systematic inequality may have had.

I point this out not to show how clever rhetoricians are because we notice this sort of thing. Rather, I think this is worth bringing up because I’m not sure that people fully see the implications of the connection Romney is trying to make between single parents and gun violence. It’s a strange, indirect argument and I’m fairly certain I would have missed it if not for the work of Michael McGee and Dana Cloud.

Romney’s family values comment is the kind of talking point that begs for a double take (if not an outright spit take). I like to imagine people in their livings rooms asking, wait, what do single parents have to do with assault weapon bans again?! But maybe this already happens. How about you, what was your experience with this debate? Did the single parents comment jump right out at you? If so, what did you make of it? Or, was there something else that drew your attention right away?

If you want to know more:

  • You can find a complete transcript of the debate here.
  • Note that I have labeled Romney’s answer as family values talk even though he did not use the exact phrase “family values.” Family values is often understood as a powerful political frame—i.e. a ready-made way of talking about a public problem that implies a specific set of problems (in this case, gun violence), diagnoses (it’s because of single parents!) and solutions (encourage your children to get married before they have kids!). For more on political uses of frames and framing, see the work of George Lakoff and Frank Fischer.
  • I wasn’t totally sure if the question about gun violence was prompted by the 2012 shootings in Aurora, Colorado, a crime for which James Eagan Holmes is the sole suspect. I don’t know if I imagined it or if others assumed a connection. But, in any case, it’s worth noting that Holmes has a mom and a dad and, as far as I can tell, they are still married.
  • Dana Cloud argues that “family values” is an ideograph. You can find her article in the Western Journal of Communication. Michael McGee defines ideographs as “a high-order abstraction representing collective commitment to a particular but equivocal and ill-defined normative goal.” McGee argues that ideographs “signify and ‘contain’ a unique ideological commitment; further, they presumptuously suggest that each member of a community will see as a gestalt every complex nuance in them… Ideographs are one-term sums of an orientation, the species of ‘God’ or “Ultimate’ term that will be used to symbolize the line of argument the meanest sort of individual would pursue, if that individual had the dialectical skills of philosophers…” (pp. 428-429). These quotes are taken from McGee’s seminal article “The ‘Ideograph’: A Link Between Rhetoric and Ideology” originally published in the Quarterly Journal of Speech. One thing to consider: ideographic analysis typically takes one of two directions: it looks at how ideographs work with one another at a given time (synchronic analysis) or how an ideograph can change in meaning over time (diachronic analysis). This incident begs, I think, for a diachronic analysis, though it puzzles me to see a past meaning of an ideograph brought back in this way, separate from the meaning that I see it as having now (i.e. a code-word for anti-gay sentiment).
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