Unabomber News History

Copyright 1995 The Kansas City Star Co.


May 10, 1995 Wednesday METROPOLITAN EDITION


LENGTH: 1334 words

HEADLINE: Sticks and stones; Media's 'loud and angry voices' prompt debate over possible power of rhetoric



Sticks and stones may break my bones but names can never hurt me.

So goes a childhood saying. But is it so?

In the wake of the April 19 Oklahoma City bombing, the debate over "names" and the power of rhetoric is raging.

On April 25, as President Clinton offered words of solace to a grieving nation, he also denounced those whom he called the "purveyors of hatred," the "loud and angry voices" of division, and individuals who use the airwaves "to keep some people as paranoid as possible and the rest of us all torn up and upset with each other. "

Clinton never pinpointed the targets of his comments. But many have come to view them as attacks mostly on conservative radio talk-show personalities such as Rush Limbaugh, G. Gordon Liddy, Oliver North and radical populist Chuck Harder, all fierce critics of the Clinton presidency and the federal government.

That some of their words on these and other topics are inflammatory is hardly in debate.

Limbaugh calls feminists "femi-nazis. " Liddy recently advised his listeners to shoot at the heads of federal agents, should agents ever raid their homes. Harder suggests there is a conspiracy to turn America into a feudal state and working people into serfs.

Provocative? Certainly.

But do such words actually affect society's mood, as Clinton implies? Is this negative rhetoric so powerful as to create negative behavior?

Or are these "loud and angry voices" simply exercising the First Amendment as the Founding Fathers truly intended? Are they any different from Patrick Henry, who inflamed the colonies when he said, "Give me liberty or give me death! "?

Indeed, their voices may be critical, conservative, even extreme. But many argue that, historically, they are no more divisive and no more angry than the voices from the left that in the 1960s challenged the status quo, helped to end the war in Vietnam and forever changed the nature of the country.

That, at least, is the debate.

Robert Rowland, a professor of communications and rhetorical criticism at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, believes that President Clinton "is exactly on target. "

"People on talk radio may not be saying, 'Go out and throw bombs,' " he said. "But there is a tendency for human beings to take the seeds of an idea and run with it. "

Aristotle, he said, believed that within every acorn was the essence of the oak. So when radio personalities suggest American culture and American policies are not what they ought to be, some listeners are apt to take those notions even further.

To certain individuals, Rowland said, "liberals that advocate mild gun control become people who want to destroy the Constitution and run your lives. "

Feminists become strident women bent on denying the laws of nature. Affirmative action becomes a federal policy aimed at robbing white males of their jobs.

Many commentators, of course, argue that they are not responsible for the warped interpretation of their words. But David Frank, a University of Oregon professor who is an expert on the role of rhetoric during the Holocaust, believes that argument is false.

"The assumption," he said, "is that what I say and what I do may not be related, that telling a broad audience what to think and how to think has no relation to what they do.

"There is no direct causal relationship between what someone says and what happens in society. But words provide the fertilization and form the ground on which people use to make judgments.

"The rhetoric and the language that people use affect the way people perceive the world and the way they act in the world. "

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, agrees to an extent. But she does not think inflammatory radio rhetoric played much, if any, role in the recent bombing.

"I don't think that talk radio has any direct effect on people's behavior," she said.

Extremists are extremists. Nuts are nuts. Jamieson said she doubts members of potentially dangerous groups are getting their ideas by "sitting around and listening to talk radio. "

"People," she said, "tend to listen to media that reflect what they already believe. "

But that, George Kennedy says, is precisely the problem.

Kennedy, an expert in speech and communications at the University of North Carolina, contends that negative rhetoric becomes truly dangerous when it is constant, intense, and unchallenged; when "angry voices" become the only voices some individuals choose to hear.

"I'm not a big fan of Clinton, but I thought there was an element of truth in what he said," Kennedy said. "That the shrillness of it all could be dangerous. "

Still, the First Amendment guarantees all manner of discourse.

William S. Golem of Overland Park, an electrical engineer who enjoys conservative talk radio commentators such as Rush Limbaugh, asserts that rhetoric is not to blame.

Golem believes that conservative commentary is being tied unfairly to the actions of extremists by a president trying to score political points against his critics.

Citizens, he said, should have the right to protest, even intensely, without having their words held responsible for extremists who may use them to justify violence. Furthermore, he says, inflammatory rhetoric swings left and right.

"Liberals have seen this as an opportunity to shut down debate and shut up people who disagree with them," Golem said. "But if you want to talk about anger and hate out there, just look at the rhetoric being used by the left attacking the Contract With America, Newt Gingrich, the Republicans. "

Newspapers, Golem said, "have run letter after letter comparing Republicans to Nazis and the Holocaust. That insane rhetoric is just pure hate. "

Moreover, he said, if one is going to tie the Oklahoma City bombing to right-wing rhetoric, the whole 1960s should be blamed for causing the Black Panthers and the Weathermen Underground bombings, and all abortion protesters should be held accountable for slayings by abortion providers.

More recently he cites the case of the so-called Unabomber, the radical environmentalist who has killed three people and sent myriad letter bombs to those he has opposed over the last 17 years.

"You have to ask," said Golem referring to the bomber's last victim, "was all this anti-big business, radical environmental rhetoric of the Sierra Club responsible for driving this guy to blow up the timber company executive? "

Finally, Golem said, he is less concerned about inflammatory rhetoric than he is about the chilling effect Clinton's and others' comments could have on free speech.

"What exactly are they suggesting? " he asked. "That you're not allowed to criticize the government? "

Of course not, experts say. No one doubts the importance of pointed, even intense criticism. And most experts agree that bombastic, incendiary rhetoric is as common on the left as it is on the right.

Which is why even strong advocates of free speech say that perhaps it is time to dilute the vitriol and get back to reasonable discussion.

"What we need," said Frank, "is to recast the way we talk and argue. We need to move away from the demonization of those who disagree with us and have the kind of discourse that is designed to solve problems instead of waging war. "

Or as Woody Cozad, a lawyer and conservative Kansas City radio commentator, said, paraphrasing New York political columnist Nat Hentoff:

"The remedy to stupid speech is intelligent speech in response. "@ART CREDIT:SUE SPADE; BRIAN CRITES/The Star

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