I’ve been thinking about the rally on January 6th—the one before violence, the part where there were speakers and listeners, not trespassers and looters. I believe it’s clear, now, that some portion of the crowd at the rally on January 6th had come with the intent to violently overthrow the duly-elected government of our country. And it’s likely that some portion of the crowd had come to put political pressure on the duly-elected government of our country. I have no idea what the proportion was, and I don’t think anybody else does, either.
And the people who spoke, too: some of them presumably were aware that there were plans in place to assassinate the Vice-President and the Speaker, and some of them presumably were not. Some of them might have been briefed on security concerns, but evidently the people who decide what to brief people on were not really concerned, so people might not have been briefed at all, or might have been briefed in a way that downplayed the actual risk. Some people who spoke may have expected the crowd to chant and then disperse; some people presumably knew that was unlikely.
And the thing is… our political rhetoric is full of things that sound, in the context of a plan to murder legislators, like they are inciting violence. People talk loosely about fighting and resistance and even revolution. Tim Kaine, in his 2016 VP acceptance speech referred to “battles I've been fighting my whole life” and lauded “tough people” and hoped to “battle back against the dark forces of division.” He described Hillary Clinton as “battle-tested, rock-solid, up for anything, never backing down.” He used the word fight seven times, talking about himself, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. He used the word battle five times, including saying that Hillary Clinton “battled Congressional Republicans”. I don’t mean to criticize Senator Kaine, who I don’t think has been particularly pugnacious; I chose his speech to typify mainstream political rhetoric because I think he’s pretty clearly plumb spang in the mainstream.
So when I see, f’r’ex, the Daily Show clip of Heroes of the Insurrection, it’s very difficult for me to assess whether the particular phrases in question are incitements to the violence that was being planned or not. If the speakers were encouraging the conspirators (meaning, here, those people who were planning the violent assault on the Capitol) to “take back our rights” and “take a stand” and “keep fighting”, that’s very different, it seems to me, than encouraging the ralliers (meaning those people who were planning to attend a rally and pressure their representatives politically). Which speakers were knowingly speaking to which audiences is not obvious to me, and may never be certain. Some of the language was absolutely intemperate anyway, of course, but some of it was in keeping with the mainstream of our political rhetoric, if only the audience was in that context, too.
Is the rhetoric of violence, in the context of ordinary politics, dangerous? I don’t think so. But is it ideal? Is there a better way?
I am writing this on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a day when we as a nation talk about, and perhaps attempt to live up to, the principles of the man. We can argue about what precisely those principles were—we probably should argue about that, because it’s important. But one of them, clearly, was the principle of non-violence. The rejection of violence as a tool for good, or a weapon against evil. And it occurs to me that he largely rejects the rhetoric of violence, too—I’m sure I can find lots of exceptions, but I’ve read a lot of sermons where he manages to avoid talking about fights and battles in talking about the movement. When he says that they will overcome, he often says explicitly that the goal is not to vanquish their oppressors but to love them and live in community with them. That the great struggle is not the struggle against others but the struggle for righteousness.
I don’t think it’s likely that we’ll get rid of our taste for the rhetoric of violence. I don’t even notice it, most of the time, even when I’m using it myself. I am hoping, though, that I can commit myself to noticing it, and that perhaps I can even persuade other people to notice it, and to then think about alternatives. Things do change, you know. And it’s certainly not the most unlikely thing that Martin Luther King, Jr. achieved.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,