A Murdered Gay Activist, Sarah Palin, and the Rhetoric of Abhorrence
What do the murder of Ugandan gay activist David Kato and the attempted assassination of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in an Arizona have in common? Both crimes were grisly. Both crimes may or may not have been politically motivated. Both crimes were blamed, in one sense or another, on the rhetoric of someone other than those who committed them. But other than that, they don’t have much in common. Or do they? No, not really, and that’s sort of my point.
You probably already know the story behind Jared Loughner’s attempt to kill Rep. Giffords outside an Arizona Safeway and her remarkable survival and ongoing recovery. However, you might have missed the story of David Kato, a teacher and LGBT rights activist in Uganda, who was identified in 2010 as a homosexual by Rolling Stone (not that Rolling Stone, a different Rolling Stone published in Uganda) under a banner that read “Hang Them.” Kato was murdered on January 26 by an unidentified male, who beat Kato to death with a hammer.
Here’s where the apparent similarity comes in. Reactions to Kato’s murder have argued that his death was probably a consequence of Rolling Stone’s inflammatory article. You’ll recall that the attempted murder of Giffords’ was also linked to inflammatory rhetoric, most notably the “crosshair map” (which included a crosshair over Giffords’ district) posted by Sarah Palin before the 2010 elections. Both Palin and Giles Muhame, the editor of Rolling Stone, defended their rhetoric, but their responses show a stark difference, a difference with real significance for our understanding of rhetoric and its consequences.
Palin responded with her signature indignation, scolding those irresponsible enough to suggest a connection between her rhetoric and the attempted murder of Giffords:
But, especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence that they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible. There are those who claim political rhetoric is to blame for the despicable act of this deranged, apparently apolitical criminal and they claim political debate has somehow gotten more heated, just recently. But when was it less heated, back in those calm days when political figures literally settled their differences with dueling pistols?
Muhame, on the other hand, maintained his desire to see gay people hanged so long as that hanging is preceded by a trial:
When we called for hanging of gay people, we meant … after they have gone through the legal process… …I did not call for them to be killed in cold blood like he was.
Before I too am accused of “blood libel” for comparing Palin to Muhame, I should point out that when Palin says she abhors violence against our elected officials, I believe her. Muhame, by contrast, seems to be splitting hairs, tepidly asserting a difference between execution of homosexuals by the state, and execution of homosexuals by unknown assailants carrying a hammer.
No matter how inflammatory Palin’s crosshair map might have been, things could be a great deal worse. We can feel safe in the knowledge that what I like to call the “abhorrence factor” in U.S. politics remains alive and well: our public officials not only abhor violence, they feel obligated to remind us that they abhor it.
On the other hand, both situations are a reminder of the sometimes terrible effects rhetoric can have. Even if Palin herself abhors violence, her crosshair map is still a violent, polarizing piece of rhetoric.
Drawing a connection between Palin’s rhetoric and the attempted assassination of Rep. Giffords is problematic. True, but that kind of thing is always tricky business because the consequences of our rhetorical choices are not always direct or clear—in fact, they’re usually neither. But, as Kato’s murder demonstrates, those consequences are still real.
If you want to know more:
- When rhetoricians talk about rhetoric having “real” consequences they often use the phrase “instrumental effect.” For a nice introduction to the debate over instrumental effect, see Shawn Parry-Giles and Michael Hogan’s volume, The Handbook of Rhetoric and Public Address.
- Check here for a truly disturbing interview with the editor of the Rolling Stone newspaper, published before the murder of Kato.
- President Obama released a statement condemning the murder of Kato. Notice that his statement assumes a direct connection between the Kato’s identity as an LGBT activist and his murder.
- Kato’s funeral was, sadly, as controversial as his activism. Check here for coverage of the “scuffles” that broke out at his memorial.
- I was unable to determine whether Muhame’s comment was a translation or was originally made in English. I also couldn’t locate the part of Muhame’s quote that was elided (i.e. removed and replaced with an ellipsis) by CNN.com.