There’s a certain irony in the juxtaposition of the Martin Luther King holiday, and the discussions about the use of violent rhetoric, now often described euphemistically as a problem of “tone” or “civility.” We celebrate MLK, at least nominally, because he used language to reinforce the idea that political change– even revolutionary change– could be achieved non-violently. I don’t think anyone questions the effectiveness of his rhetoric. Words led to action.
Yet after a decade of violent imagery in evangelical right wing politics, too few seem able to recognize the emerging dangers that have arisen from a rhetoric that constantly draws on violent tropes. Not too long ago members of the Tea Party carried weapons to political rallies as symbols of seriousness. “We came unarmed. This time.” In the Arizona legislature, representatives want to allow students and teachers to bring concealed guns to school.
The idea of a simple cause and effect relationship between a violent assassination and this political rhetoric is a red herring. Even sane human beings are full of contradictory, even irrational motivations. The evangelical right, though, is not simply using violent imagery and language; it is openly calling for the expanded use of guns in the public realm, encouraging its followers to take up arms, to display them as warnings, and to use them if necessary. It’s not just words.