How rhetoric gets extreme: a case study

Last night after I posted the thing about Sarah Palin and Nikki Haley, I did what I usually do, which is post the headline and link on Twitter. But as I also usually do, I said a little more in the headline than I do here, as a way of drawing readers in and letting them know more about what the post is about. So instead of just “Sarah Palin coming to SC to back Nikki Haley,” I Tweeted:

Sarah Palin coming to back Nikki Haley — as if we really needed to start IMPORTING crazy here in SC… http://bradwarthen.com/?p=5456

Then, an interesting thing happened. Frequently I see my Tweets retweeted by others, and sometimes by a couple of people. This time, five different people (they were PaigeCoop, blogitch, tylermjones, JaneFredArch and sccounsel) retweeted that little come-on.

This sort of viral response, quite naturally, causes the more reptilian parts of my brain to go, “How can I get this kind of response again?” Because that many reTweets means that many more people I would not ordinarily reach are attracted to the blog, which means I get to report even bigger numbers (last month, 132,000 page views) next time I try to sell an ad — not to mention, of course, gaining a richer and more diverse conversation here on the blog, of course, which is what we’re all about here, of course. Ahem.

So it is is that I was rewarded for saying “as if we really needed to start importing crazy here in SC.” Which means my natural response is to describe MORE posts in similar terms, so as to get this same reward.

But the thing is, I wasn’t totally happy with that wording. Basically, I wanted to say that we have enough problems here in SC without bringing in a person who is a flashpoint for all sorts of conflicting emotions out in the national political buzz machine. And we have enough of our own demons here in our beloved state. There’s also the problem that we have every bit of our share of the anti-intellectualism that runs through American politics, a strain of which Mrs. Palin has rightly or wrongly become the symbol. We’ve got enough of it not to need to import the latest, flashiest, most Reality TV-esque version of it. Anyway, I’m not at all sure that “crazy” captured all that, although all that and more was what I was seeking to suggest.

But it certainly grabbed people. I was instantly rewarded for it. Which is maybe not a good thing. I have a certain knack for lurid language, which I generally try to keep in check, but not always successfully. People could often tell when I wrote an editorial at the paper (which I didn’t do all that often in recent years) because of that knack. Here is a sample of it, according to people who point these things out to me.

I really don’t need encouraging on this score.

And it occurs to me that this is the dynamic that has produced the particularly nasty morass of political rhetoric in which people think they are being hip and relevant and pithy when they call people “wingnuts” or otherwise engage in insult and calumny in the course of expressing themselves politically.

All those other blogs out there that serve hyperpartisan causes, that draw and feed anger, that thrive on treating those with whom their readers disagree with contempt bordering on dehumanization… the blogs to which I have always wanted this one to be a civil alternative … probably started down the road that they’re on by getting rewarded for getting a little punchier and a little more extreme with each post. Stimulus and response.

So… how do I grow the blog and resist that trap? Perpetual vigilance, I suppose — on my part and yours.

6 thoughts on “How rhetoric gets extreme: a case study

  1. Brad

    In fact, Sarah Palin herself is sort of an illustration of this phenomenon.

    Started out, she was just this nice-looking woman of no particular distinction who had been mayor of her small town before becoming governor of her sparsely-populated frontier state.

    Then, she was caught up in this maelstrom of attention in which certain people mocked her, and others fell at her feet and adored her if she said certain things to them. So she learned to say those things with great conviction.

    The same dynamic at work.

    Reply
  2. KP

    So how DO you identify people with extremist views, in a way that people can understand, if you don’t call them crazy wingnuts?

    Hyperpartisan doesn’t do it, because they’re not really even partisan — they eat their own. You could call them people who appeal to our worst instincts, who would let the world fall down around them before they sacrificed their ideological beliefs, but it’s not very catchy, and “crazy” works just as well. I like your original litmus test: are you a DeMint Republican, or a Graham Republican?

    My mother-in-law received a mail piece yesterday from South Carolinians for Responsible Government quoting EVERY Republican candidate for Governor as a supporter of private school choice. She thought it all sounded really good, until we started talking about it, and then she thought it was a terrible idea.

    When normal Republicans like Henry McMaster and Gresham Barrett have been co-opted by the extremists, the party is bankrupt.

    They ARE wingnuts, and we ARE importing crazy, as if we needed it.

    Reply
  3. Ralph Hightower

    Sarah Palin would fit right in with South Carolina. But as you say, we have our own eccentrics; Glen McConnel, is one of those.

    Let Sarah Palin be a member of the cast for the reboot of “Northern Exposure”.

    Reply
  4. Doug Ross

    Ah, yes, the voices of reason in the American political system are named Pelosi and Reid. Two deep thinkers with America’s interests always first in their hearts.

    It’s the system that is broken – on both sides. Anyone who claims its all the Republicans fault or all the Democrats fault should look in the mirror and realize it’s YOUR fault.

    Reply

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