Blood libel and the ethics of metaphor in the rhetorical aftermath of Arizona shooting

A number of commentators have used the term “blood libel” to defend conservatives against accusations that right-wing rhetoric may have inflamed Tucson shooter Jared Loughner’s murderous rampage. The term “blood libel” can be traced to an ancient storytelling tradition used by medieval Christians to demonize Jews, the kind of European anti-Semitism that would pave the way for what we now call the Holocaust.

Perhaps the most famous example of a blood-libelous story endures as one of Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales.” Told by an elegant nun called the Prioress, the story describes the violent and miraculous life of young St. Hugh of Lincoln.

Hugh is a seven-year old Christian boy who learns hymns to the Virgin Mary and sings them on his way to school. The narrow path to the school passes a Jewish ghetto. Tempted by Satan, the Jews are offended by the boy’s song and conspire to murder him.

The details are gruesome and graphic (I’ll translate from the Middle English): “This cursed Jew snatched him and held him tight and cut his throat and cast him in a pit.” This is no ordinary pit: “I say that in a cesspool they threw him where the Jews purge their entrails.” As in the days of Herod and the birth of the Christ Child, an innocent is slaughtered.

In the end, a form of medieval “justice” prevails. The Blessed Mother raises the boy from the dead and restores his beautiful singing voice. The Jews, meanwhile, are rounded up, drawn and quartered by horses, and their remains hung from trees.

Versions of such stories persisted well beyond the Middle Ages. Examples abounded in Nazi propaganda and can still be found anti-Zionist myths taught in corners of the Islamic world.

Jews expressed their outrage by declaring such stories libelous. But they were more than libel; they constituted a blood libel against the Jewish people. Descended from the foul notion that Jews were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus, blood libel stories claimed that the Jews had the blood of children on their hands.

It is in this historical context that our own political and cultural language can be judged.

In a defense of her own political messages, Sarah Palin insisted that her gun imagery – the targeting of opponents, the use of crosshairs, the imagery of reloading weapons – was not designed to provoke violence. The most powerful weapon, she has argued, is not a gun, but the vote. To suggest that her provocative political language would inspire the kind of violence suffered in Tucson was a blood libel. Her own words should not be taken literally. They included acceptable metaphors, the way any politician might declare a “war” against poverty, drug abuse, or breast cancer.

Here are Palin’s words, which came after similar comments in The Wall Street Journal and the work of conservative bloggers:

“Within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn.”

In trying to make sense of the use of “blood libel” in the context of the Arizona killings, I turned to the work of Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye, who examined the “motive for metaphor” in his book “The Educated Imagination.”

“As soon as you use associative language, you begin using figures of speech. If you say this talk is dry and dull, you’re using figures associating it with bread and breadknives. There are two main kinds of association, analogy and identity, two things that are like each other and two things that are each other.” [My emphasis.]

He explains that we can say that love is like a red rose, which is called a simile, a powerful figure in its own right. When the poet takes out the “like” she moves from simile to metaphor, a much stronger gesture.

“In other words,” I wrote in “The Glamour of Grammar,” “The metaphor asserts more power than the simile because the author closes the distance between the two elements of comparison. Being a light to the world is more powerful than being like a light to the world.”

Frye provides a cautionary lesson about metaphorical language: that the differences between the compared elements are as important as the similarities. If I present myself as a “light to the world,” I am asking my audience to see my divine qualities and will not blame them for observing the dissimilarities.

To describe oneself as a victim of blood libel carries with it a certain responsibility for proportionality, that the seriousness of the metaphor must equate in some measure with the experience being described. While the football game between the Steelers and the Ravens has already been compared to a war – and the players to gladiators – we recognize that as traditional and hyperbolic. But I would not call a failed athletic performance an “abortion” or a blowout of one team by another as a “holocaust” or “a virtual Hiroshima.”

As we continue to examine and critique the language of politicians and others in power, let’s hold them accountable, not just for their literal claims, but for their figurative language as well, especially their metaphors.

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  • Anonymous

    Thank you for proving my point.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_G6T2XHVVKLUU4EPGFOH6V5HBPI mk

    Steering the blame away from a murderer and blaming it on “political rhetoric and imagery” is right out of the far-left play book.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_G6T2XHVVKLUU4EPGFOH6V5HBPI mk

    Steering the blame away from a murderer and blaming it on “political rhetoric and imagery” is right out of the far-left play book.

  • http://twitter.com/ALundyGlobal Andrew Lundy

    Fair point, Mr. News. When I wrote my comment, one of the five comments on the site was clearly playing partisan politics. Add two more to that since I posted.

    Not that I want to play a numbers game, but I was dismayed that even this discussion couldn’t escape the taint of partisanship. I may have overreacted, but only slightly ;)

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Good eyes, Cindy. We’ve fixed the typo.

  • http://www.facebook.com/cindyerodriguez Cindy E. Rodríguez

    fix minor typo: “Again” should be “against” at end of ninth graf.

  • Anonymous

    This is out of the Rove’s play book: twist the words of your “opponents” and issue a denial to something greater than the actual accusation. I haven’t read about any news organization or pundit blaming Palin’s crosshairs graphic with causing this killer to shoot people. I have read/heard news stories that say this kind of political rhetoric and imagery contributes to the climate of violence we find ourselves in. There’s a big difference between the two.

  • Anonymous

    This is out of the Rove’s play book: twist the words of your “opponents” and issue a denial to something greater than the actual accusation. I haven’t read about any news organization or pundit blaming Palin’s crosshairs graphic with causing this killer to shoot people. I have read/heard news stories that say this kind of political rhetoric and imagery contributes to the climate of violence we find ourselves in. There’s a big difference between the two.

  • http://www.mrnewsmedia.com Mr. News

    By “left-right”, I assume you mean (U.S.) Liberal v. Conservative political ideologies. I’m just not seeing that in most of the comments so far, until you brought it up. Most people have noted that Palin uses words and phrases that she seems to not understand or have thought through. Only one (1) post has noted specific political positions advocated by Ms. Palin, as a reply to another post, and I agree, it is somewhat off-topic.

    I don’t think it matters what part of the political spectrum you’re on, a majority of voters agree that Palin’s use of language is often inappropriate and divisive. This negates her ability to effectively communicate her messages regarding how we should be governed. Ronald Reagan held many of the same views as Palin does, but was a much better communicator. Words matter.

  • http://twitter.com/meisenheimer_s sonia meisenheimer

    Brilliant analysis. Personally, I don’t find her rhetoric offensive – rather, I find it comical that she didn’t spend the time to understand what she was saying. (Or maybe she did and the joke is on the media who seem to want to talk about every Palin utterance. I find this doubtful, however.) Who says things like this on the national stage if they actually know the weight that it will carry? My only guess can be that she heard it misused in church or in a conversation and applied it to her own circumstance. While her words may carry weight, I find it hard to believe that her engagement with the intracacies of anti-semetic history and language run very deep. I’m sure that she didn’t even for a moment recognize her potential to offend.

  • http://twitter.com/meisenheimer_s sonia meisenheimer

    Brilliant analysis. Personally, I don’t find her rhetoric offensive – rather, I find it comical that she didn’t spend the time to understand what she was saying. (Or maybe she did and the joke is on the media who seem to want to talk about every Palin utterance. I find this doubtful, however.) Who says things like this on the national stage if they actually know the weight that it will carry? My only guess can be that she heard it misused in church or in a conversation and applied it to her own circumstance. While her words may carry weight, I find it hard to believe that her engagement with the intracacies of anti-semetic history and language run very deep. I’m sure that she didn’t even for a moment recognize her potential to offend.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=598996455 Andrew Lundy

    Wow. We went from a discsussion of phrase usage to attacks on Palin and the inevitable left-right back and forth. And this on a site dedicated to good journalism. What a disgrace.

  • Anonymous

    I think Palin is out of line. Giffords is Jewish. Jewish groups are shocked and offended by Palin’s use of the words “blood libel” within the context Palin used it. In addition, Palin’s statement that her use of gun imagery by targeting opponents, the use of the cross-hairs of gun sights, and telling constituents to “reload” were all merely metaphors for voting, strains credibility beyond the breaking point. If Palin wants to evoke voting imagery, then she should use a picture of a ballot, not a gun. Last year when Rep. Giffords objected to Palin putting her in the cross hairs of a gun sight, saying that it was dangerous and threatening, Palin didn’t say it was surveyor marks, she only did that after Giffords was shot. Palin needs to take responsibility and clean up her act instead of trying to hijack obscure, negative imagery associated with Jews after a Jewish member of Congress Palin targeted was shot in the head. And despite Palin’s paranoia, no one is threatening Palin with anything more than a collective rolling of the eyes and grumbling at her perpetually mean and stupid antics.

  • Anonymous

    I think Palin is out of line. Giffords is Jewish. Jewish groups are shocked and offended by her use of the words “blood libel” within the context Palin used it. In addition, Palin’s statement that her use of gun imagery by targeting opponents, the use of the cross-hairs of gun sights, and telling constituents to “reload” were all merely metaphors for voting, strains credibility beyond the breaking point. If she wants to evoke voting imagery, then use a picture of a ballot, not a gun. Last year when Rep. Giffords objected to Palin putting her in the cross hairs of a gun sight and it was dangerous and threatening, Palin didn’t say it was surveyor marks, she only did that after Giffords was shot. Palin needs to take responsibility and clean up her act instead of hijacking obscure, negative imagery associated with Jews after a Jewish member of Congress Palin targeted was shot in the head. And despite Palin’s paranoia, no one is threatening Palin with anything more than a collective rolling of the eyes and grumbling at her perpetually mean and stupid antics.

  • NadePaulKuciGravMcKi

    1.7% of the US population*
    American Holocaust*
    controlled media*
    Blood Libel

  • Anonymous

    The crux of this argument is in the penultimate graf (Roy, you buried the lead, LOL). Proportionality. Words are fraught with meaning, and should be weighed carefully before being uttered. But as the apparent educational level of the media, and the politicians, (and most Americans for that matter) drops lower and lower and lower, many begin to sound more and more like petulant third graders. And, as we accept that rhetorical level as the norm, we sink lower and lower toward the Idiocracy, of which people like Palin will be Queen, or Empress, or Den Mother, or whatever. We are caught in a Descent into the Maelström, similistically or metaphorically, take your pick: those of us not being sucked down by the heinous banality of our body politic are being driven mad by the sight of it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=517053985 Afi Scruggs

    Rep. Giffords was the first Jewish representative from Arizona. To use the term “blood libel” in connection with the events in Tucson points to insensitivity at best. At best. At worst, it’s an overwrought metaphor compares the drubbing Palin is taking to the centuries of genocide experiences by Jews.

    The use of the term, quite frankly, confirms my growing distaste for Palin and her apparent refusal to take responsibility for her rhetoric or to temper it.

  • Anonymous

    Let’s see…
    Try this:
    defund mental health care…
    allow assault weapons to be purchased by nearly anyone…
    feed the fires of discontent with anti-government rhetoric that favors using “shooter” language…
    let’s see what results YOU get.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_G6T2XHVVKLUU4EPGFOH6V5HBPI mk

    How can anyone with a shred of intelligence blame Sarah Palin or any other law-abiding person for the murderous acts of the Arizona shooter? This discussion is beyond absurd. If Palin overstepped her rhetorical bounds by using a phrase such as “blood libel,” perhaps she can be excused in light of the bizarre claims she somehow triggered the cold-blooded murders of nine people and the injuries of many others.

    Here’s a fresh thought: perhaps the shooter is a diabolical killer who should be held entirely responsible for his own heinous actions.