Posts Tagged children

The violence of rhetoric in our toxic culture – Rodney W. Kennedy*

Words have wings and fly where they please. Words provide unconscious but sometimes deadly after-effects the speaker can’t control.

Most recently, Congress has censured Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., for his depiction of violent acts against other members of Congress and the president of the United States in one of his tweets. Gosar defended his depiction of violence by insisting it was not, in fact, violent, but that those who censured him were the ones inciting violence. And after being censured, he tweeted the objectionable material again.

Even if he genuinely believes his intention was not to incite violence, once the video became public and became a piece of “media,” he no longer was in charge of whether viewers saw the tweet as violent. He doesn’t have the ability to judge how his video will be received by others.

“Words have wings and fly where they please.”

Communication is not a matter of saying or depicting something and then, after the fact, claiming you didn’t say or do what others are saying about your communication. His violent depiction became another ceaseless drop of toxic water into the once clear stream of American democracy.

The violence of rhetoric has become a major component in our toxic political and religious culture — especially since the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.

The primary argument is that as the cultural war intensifies, culture weaponizes language with increasingly violent rhetoric that encourages, facilitates and, yes, even causes acts of physical violence.

Consider a basic model of communication. A speaker utters a message. The message enters the atmosphere, where it encounters noise or interference. This noise now operates at maximum decibels. The message undergoes all kinds of pressure. The message then arrives at the listener or viewer. The listener provides feedback, and that feedback becomes the meaning of the message.

This means the speaker can’t control the message. This happens with violent rhetoric which is then denied by people like Gosar.

We see this in other ways from all kinds of other people and media sources.

Television producers often have defended their violence-soaked programming by insisting they are mere mirrors of cultural reality. They are not inciting viewers to violence. This is the same argument now coming from Facebook. It is the same argument that former President Donald Trump consistently used when he was accused of violent rhetoric.

There is scientific evidence to refute these attempts of avoiding accountability. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry reports, “There have been hundreds of studies of the impact of violence on children.” These studies have concluded that children:

  • Become “immune” or numb to the horror of violence.
  • Begin to accept violence as a way to solve problems.
  • Imitate the violence they observe on television.
  • Identify with certain characters, victims or victimizers.

The producers of the violence depicted on television insist that the images are innocent, that violence in real life is not a result of their images and messages. Yet we know that a single violent video can increase aggressiveness in children. The impact of violence may show up immediately or it may manifest itself years later.

This argument mirrors the current debate about the nature of political rhetoric.

Agents of communication, therefore, have an ethical responsibility to ensure that messages do not suggest violence. This suggests that critics of Rep. Gosar’s tweet have a rhetorical responsibility to investigate his character, his meta-messages and whether or not he is supporting violence.

“What is at stake here is the idea that rhetoric (including tweets and video content) can itself be violent.”

What is at stake here is the idea that rhetoric (including tweets and video content) can itself be violent. Defenders such as former President Trump go to great lengths to deny that their rhetoric has any association with violence. Both Trump and Gosar insist they have offered harmless metaphors intended to communicate strong opposition to their political opponents.

Yet to consider rhetoric as a species of violence, as a kind of force, is to complicate the defense of those claiming rhetoric has no impact on people, no generative power, no force to be reckoned with by others. Rhetoric, in this case, turns out to be “mere rhetoric.”

There is a way to speak strongly without employing or inciting violence. Just because rhetoric is strong doesn’t mean it has to be wrong. Violent rhetoric is unethical rhetoric, and its users are unethical rhetoricians, dangerous demagogues, politicians willing to say and do anything to gain power.

In a long passage worth summarizing, Megan Foley discusses rhetoric and violence. She contrasts the first part of our nature (orexis) — which means hunger, yearning or conation — with the second part of our nature (logos) — which means speech, or more precisely, the capacity to speak.

Centuries ago, Aristotle connected orexis — hunger, yearning, grasping — to logos — speech. Orexis is a hungry, headlong rush of impulse. This at least implies violence, and this violence is connected to rhetoric.

Again, whether or not Gosar intended the violence depicted in his tweet is not the issue. Rather, our concern is with the content of the tweet, the actual images displayed and distributed to an audience. In a sense, Gosar’s intention doesn’t matter.

Note that in the Kyle Rittenhouse trial, the notion of “fearing for one’s life” can be mistaken and still be a justification for self-defense. There is no way to determine motive under these auspices.

“Once Rittenhouse was out on the streets of Kenosha, carrying his rifle, and got into a confrontation with the men he shot, a legal question did come up: the doctrine of self-defense,” according to David A. Graham, writing for The Atlantic Nov. 19. “Self-defense laws are being stretched to their limits by the number of people carrying guns in the United States today. Going to a protest armed may be a stupid and provocative thing to do, but it is not (necessarily) an illegal one, and the legal parsing of self-defense does not take prior wisdom into account, but begins at the moment of conflict. Americans cannot rely on the justice system to do what the political system will not.”

“Today, our rhetoric is on trial, and our political system is on trial, and we are much closer to a guilty verdict.”

Today, our rhetoric is on trial, and our political system is on trial, and we are much closer to a guilty verdict because our rhetoric and our political system are underwriting the pretensions of violence.

While there is no way to determine whether or not Rep. Gosar intended his tweets as acts of violence, the tweets themselves were acts of violence. Once Gosar hit the send button, the interpretation of his message was beyond his control.

I am arguing that rhetoric is not merely capable of producing violence, but that there are times when rhetoric is violence. We can run, but we cannot hide from the implications that rhetoric has become as violent as our most watched television dramas of violence, mayhem and murder.

What can be done to mitigate violent rhetoric? Phillip Gelb suggests one avenue. He argues that we praise, promote and educate for alternatives to violence, alternatives to killing, alternatives to rioting, alternatives to war.

I have provided one exhibit of refuting violent rhetoric by naming it, refusing to accept the flimsy excuses for it, and criticizing it.

There lies at hand an abundance of materials for teaching an alternative to violent rhetoric. As a Christian preacher and rhetorical scholar, I recommend a turn to the compassionate, non-violent teaching of Jesus along with a revival of Socratic questioning of ourselves, our commitments, our slide into an increasing violent stratosphere, and our dogged insistence on demonizing all who disagree.

When rhetoric appears at its most forceful, it seems unethical. When rhetoric is strong, it is not wrong unless its motivation is violence. When rhetoric is filled with empathy and geared toward support, encouragement and helpfulness, it will mitigate a violent culture.

Rodney Kennedy

*Rodney W. Kennedy currently serves as interim pastor of Emmanuel Freiden Federated Church in Schenectady, N.Y., and as preaching instructor Palmer Theological Seminary. He is the author of nine books, including the newly released The Immaculate Mistake, about how evangelical Christians gave birth to Donald Trump.


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Gratitude Two: Family

Both of my children, Suzanne and Michael, were here this past weekend. As the banter bounced back and forth it took me back to years ago when their mother worried that if something happened to the two of us, those two would never speak to each other again. If only she knew how wrong she was and she was never wrong.

Christmas 2015 - Raven, Christopher, Carol, Suzanne, Joel, Mitch, Michael, Colin, Nancy, Christina

Christmas 2015 – Raven, Christopher, Carol, Suzanne, Joel, Mitch, Michael, Colin, Nancy, Christina

I know that when the two of them are together my life hangs in the balance. How many mothers can one guy have? On the other hand, how blessed can one father be? Their mother raised them well. They could not have had a better example. She was the light of our world. Still, the teenager in them manages to show itself.

Suzanne cooked and froze dinners for me. Michael changed light bulbs, moved furniture, etc. His own two children, now adults, engaged in the same behaviors as my two did as teenagers. Not to be outdone was Maggie, Nancy and Michael’s dog, who made herself right at home.

Suzanne’s son, Christopher, and wife Raven were here to make the circle complete almost. He was on his way back to Seattle where he is a submariner.

This house was filled with joy and laughter. For a little while we were able to forget the COVID pandemic and how it has devastated our world. We are family.

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Something to Celebrate

Whatever your traditions for the Christmas season may be, they are probably on hold for this year. There will be no midnight Christmas Eve service for me. My sister and brother-in-law probably will not be able to come and my daughter will remain in Tennessee. I cannot say that I am filled with my usual Christmas spirit. I am grateful for my family and friends. My children have really been a constant help this year. I have so much for which to be thankful.

I think that we can best celebrate Christmas and the year ahead by being the best of ourselves we can be and by making life brighter for others. A woman in Virginia celebrated her 53rd. birthday by doing 53 acts of kindness. She has the right idea. What are those things we can do to make life a little better for someone else? These need not be expensive things. I can’t leave a $!,000 tip for a server, but I can leave a little more than usual. I can call someone who lives alone or has no nearby relatives. I can be more thoughtful toward those I meet as I go about my daily or weekly routines. I can listen more and talk less. We may have voted differently in the recent election, but we can be more respectful of one another.

If we all are a little more thoughtful and a little less abrasive, we can turn the tide on incivility. That will be something to celebrate.

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Children and the Internet: Parental Ethics – Robert Marsden Knight*


DRMONTYThis past Christmas my twin 6th grader step-grand-daughters got new i-phones. They weren’t the first among their friends to be entrusted with such a precarious resource. So they were especially excited, given the waiting involved, to have joined their peers in further engaging the ubiquitous computerized culture of these days.

The girls’ mom and dad are hardly “helicopter parents.”  They enjoy their children with a fair and firm hand, providing sufficient family structure, emotional warmth, clear parental boundaries and notable generosity.

I wasn’t, however, expecting a “code of ethics” to be included along with the new i-phones, reminding the girls that responsibility is meant always to be partner with privilege. Their dad said that he got the “contract” from a friend, another father, who got it from a local intermediate school guidance counselor. The girls were required to read and sign the “contract.”

I was so impressed with this particular parental intervention, I couldn’t imagine it not being something thoughtful and helpful to share with other parents of children relative to the age of my step-grand-daughters. Given that children’s access to the morally ambiguous internet in our time is surely a concern to any responsible parent or other supportive, engaged adult.

Cell Phone Agreement

I, ____________________, acknowledge the following:

First, modern technology allows me to electronically communicate with others;

Second, electronic communications can be monitored and recorded by anyone at any time;

Third, nothing can truly be erased in cyberspace;

Fourth, my parents are doing their best to raise me with good character, morals, and values;

Fifth, since my parents have provided me the use of a cell phone, I am to use it responsibly and respectfully;

I,____________________, do hereby agree to the following;

  1. I understand that the cell phone is the property of my parents and I am being allowed to use it with my parents’ permission and any mis-use of it will immediately result in loss of the privilege of using it.
  2. I understand that every text message I receive, or send, may be read by my parents, teachers, and law enforcement officers. If asked, I agree to give my phone to adults in charge without any question or hesitation.
  3. I’ll not send text or generate anything in cyberspace containing profanity of sexually suggestive messages. If crude/inappropriate pictures or messages are sent to me, I’ll let my parents know so we can discuss and take action, if necessary.
  4. I agree text messages/calls received or sent by me can be monitored by my parents. I’ll also not use my phone to communicate with strangers or people I have not met in person and know.
  5. I’ll not read/sent text messages or make/receive calls during the hours that I am at school, or doing any kind of job (homework, chores, babysitting, etc.)
  6. If my grades at school fall or my performance in other activities is affected by the use of the phone, I will agree to further restrictions of its use until the problem is resolved.
  7. I’ll not read/send texts or make/receive calls during a meal with others.
  8. While visiting with or riding in a car with adults, I’ll turn my cell phone off and put it away unless its use is necessary and polite.
  9. I’ll not read/send texts or make/receive calls after _______ on weeknights/school nights. On weekends, holidays and summer breaks, I’ll not do either, as referenced above, after an agree upon time as set by my parents.
  10. My phone will go to sleep each night, just as I do, in a place other than where I sleep.
  11. I’ll not read/send texts or make/receive calls while I am running, riding a bicycle, scooter, skateboard or (in the future) driving any vehicle.
  12. I’ll not use my phone to gossip, spread rumors, defame or tear down another person or people.
  13. I’ll pay for a new phone with my own money if my phone is lost, damaged or destroyed.
  14. I’ll not create any secret or second accounts on any apps including Facebook, twitter, Instagram, snapchat, periscope, or any other applications that allow communications with others by word or pictures.
  15. My parents shall have all passwords for any apps on my phone and will have access to it at any time.

By signing below, I agree to abide by the rules of this contract and further agree that a cell phone is a privilege and not a right and its use can be taken away if any of these rules are broken.

Agreed to and accepted this _____ day of _________, 2015

*Robert Marsden Knight is a pastoral counselor in Charleston, South Carolina.


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