the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Violent Language

Even if Sarah Palin’s website didn’t cause Jared Loughner to go out and shoot Representative Gabrielle Gifford in this weekend’s horrific incident, few of us think Palin’s bulls-eye map was a very civilized way of making a political point.

But she has a right to do it.

As a writer, I lean towards freedom of speech and expression.  I don’t know how many times in my lifetime I have seen movies, books, or rock and rap music blamed for every ill in society.  Sarah Palin didn’t cause the killer to plan an assassination.  I don’t respect her use of gun imagery for political gain, but she has legal right, much in the same way that I believe a cartoonist can draw a cartoon of Mohammed without fear of being murdered.  It only becomes illegal when the person really cries fire — or calls for a jihad — or murder.

We are all vying for attention with our words and ideas, both in the old and new media.   Sadly, most of us have become just like Sarah Palin.   We use controversial metaphors in order to gain attention.  It is what sells.  It is what makes us watch and listen.  No one hears you clearly if you debate in a reasoned manner.  I thought this type of journalism might change with the election of the intellectual Obama, but, instead, he is called a wimp if he isn’t fighting like an angry dog.

But if we are going to honestly talk about violence in language and every day discourse, I say we also look at ourselves.  We live in a violent and unstable society, and there is a legitmate need for many of us to express our anger — at our government, our families, and even ourselves.  But are we getting too comfortable employing violent imagery in our writing to grab attention, much like Sarah Palin?

As a little experiment, I did Twitter searches on common phrases I read all the time online:

“I want to shoot someone.”

“I want to punch someone in the face.”

“I want to stab someone.”

And you’d be surprised at how many statements like this are made every MINUTE.  More surprising are the positive responses these statements get in return, usually a lot of laughter and agreement.   Clearly, we understand the context of the statements.  We assume the nice college kid writing “I wants to shoot the guy in the supermarket for talking loudly on his cellphone” isn’t REALLY going to shoot him.   The contrast of the statement and the reality is what makes the statement amusing.

We all enjoy writing “I want to punch that guy in the nose” every once in a while.  I know I do.  It is cathartic.  But I’m afraid that violent-aggressive language has become more of the norm rather than the exception, especially online.  I’m sure we don’t do it consciously.  It is the trickle down effect of a society obsessed with violence.   We find violence more “real” — and cooler — than sense and sensibility.   Hey, we can talk like inner city rappers  (even from our safe suburban homes!)  I would hate to think that this type of writing becomes as common in our society as it is for unstable twenty year olds to walk around with Glock pistols in their pockets.


  1. Miss Grace

    I certainly know I’m guilty of saying that I want to punch someone in the throat every now and again. Every now and again I DO WANT TO.
    But there is a difference between saying and doing.

  2. Neil

    That’s exactly what Sarah Palin’s supporters said.

    • Katherine

      But look at the audience type & size – my writing that to my fewer-than-100 Twitter followers vs. Palin/Beck/O’Reilly/Dobbs/McConnell/Boehner saying these things to people who a)are looking for reasons foe why they feel the way they do and b)want approval and validation for feeling the way they do… they are much more likely to encourage someone to take action.

      Also, the statement itself is different. It’s not an “Us vs. Them” statement, it’s an “I Want” statement. It’s the difference between me saying, “I want cookies!” and getting a couple of replies like “Cookies are yummy!” and Palin tweeting it and getting a mailbox full of cookies.

      Just saying. :-/

  3. Chris

    I agree. Gratuitous violence, even sex, is out of hand in my opinion. I’m comfortable swearing, ironically, but I don’t use “violent phrases”. Feels funny. Is, “Ef it,” or “He/She’s effed up,” considered violent? If so, then I’m guilty. For the record, I like sex and monkeying around. I just find it annoying when sex is the root of every joke. I don’t know what’s happened to “Two and Half Men”…

  4. Neil

    Chris – I am far far more guilty of going too far with sexual language than violence. I don’t even put them in the same category. Sex is positive. Violence is not. Only in America is violent discourse more acceptable.

    • Whit


  5. Mac

    I am guilty of freely threatening to “punch someone in the nose” on a daily basis. My husband, to mock me, usually chimes in with a “yeah, punch him/her in the kidney/ovary” to get my attention. It’s probably not a good sign that I’ve actually punched someone in the nose before either.

    Point taken. Maybe I’ll try to curb the nose punching in daily speech and see where that gets me.

  6. sweetsalty kate

    Does Sarah Palin have the right to vent, in her living room, that she’d like to shoot Democrats? Sure. But as a woman with such an (inexplicable) audience, she owes it to all of us, and to the discourse itself, to not use that kind of metaphor. Because she knows full well that there are people listening to her – and listening literally – who are driven by motives that make them feel like they’ve got God, patriotism, or the founding fathers on their side, all of which are grey-blind, black-and-white favouring religions of one sort or another.

    Freedom of speech, sure. But when you’re that influential – inexplicably or not – you have a responsibility that’s more important. You’re setting the tone of a country. You’re inciting hundreds and thousands of people with every status update. You’re no different than an islamic leader with similarly frightened, intolerant, mouth-frothing followers – an islamic leader who, employing metaphor, speaks implicitly of jihad, knowing exactly what he’s doing.

  7. Megan

    I’m becoming more sensitive to things like this lately – what we say casually and what we consider fun. I opted out of participating in a Dead Pool because the thought of betting on which celebrity is going to die next just seems like asking for bad Karma to me. I am working on having my thoughts and words reflect my actions more. I do not act violently, so why speak or think violently?

  8. Neil

    Kate — I doubt you will find anyone who will disagree with you. Other than real right-wingers. But I don’t see anything wrong with taking the same standards we want from our public figures and looking at ourselves —

    Maybe I’m wrong. I’m not someone who ran for public office and is influential. I know my own blog is completely filled with politically incorrect material, which might come back to haunt me some day, and some might find offensive.

    I’m just saying that Sarah Palin’s craziness doesn’t come out of nowhere. We seem to enjoy when a woman talks more like a hunter than an academic. We have become used to conveying our displeasure at people and ideas in violent ways.

    When someone cuts me off in the supermarket with their cart, or goes onto the less than ten item line with 20 items, I have two choices if I have my iphone handy. I can write on Twitter:

    “Some impatient idiot just cut me in line at the supermarket. I am pissed as hell!”


    “Some asshole just cut me off in the supermarket. I feel like shooting him in the face!”

    You don’t find it odd that the second choice is equally acceptable nowadays, and probably will get more feedback because it has more of a “punch” — if I may use another violent term?

    Does this say something about language or is there just really a lot of rage in our society?

  9. Chris

    I agree that “sex is positive” [not what this post is about, I understand] and nowhere near the important, destructive issues surrounding violence, rage and desensitized people. Didn’t mean to jump the curb. Just a misplaced comment.

    When young kids play, broad phrases like, “I’m gonna kill you,” and “You’re dead now,” — which are still a bit chilling, even though they’ve been said for years — are now replaced with graphic descriptions of how that’s going to happen. I find it disturbing, and often I’m the only mother who’s eyebrows are raised when the future criminal child says these things.

  10. Burgh Baby

    Damn you for being right. 😉

  11. suburbancorrespondent

    I agree with you on 1st Amendment rights. The question is when does exercise of the 1st Amendment cross the line into sedition? I’m thinking in particular of a few of the campaign ads I saw last October, including one that ended with the line “Get your guns.” Hello? To take out democratically elected officials? WTF? If the ad’s makers had been clever, they would have ended the ad with “Get your ballots.”

  12. TRO

    At the risk if being labeled a “real right-winger,” I have to make two points:

    1) Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, that Sarah Palin or Glen Beck or Keith Olbermann or liberal or conservative politician here> had anything to do with this shooting. The guy is bat-shit crazy and all evidence – notice I say evidence, not assumption – indicates he was anything but a Palin fan or an Olbermann fan or any fan of any political party. (He was a registered Independent by the way and had previous voted Democratic but that means nothing since he was just nuts.)

    He was a bomb just waiting for a moment to explode and frankly if anyone is to blame for his being able to do so it was probably the local Sheriff’s department who knew he was crazy and had dealt with many death-threats from him but evidently did nothing.

    2) The left is just as guilty of violent rhetoric and images as the right. And if you doubt that just do some Googling to find them (images of Palin with guns pointed at her head, Democratic campaign ads with targets on his opponent’s image, Bush with a target on him, President Obama saying “If they bring a knife we bring a gun, etc., etc. etc.) One cannot call for the right to stop using such rhetoric without also calling on the left to do so.

    So, while I echo the call for a more calm and rational discourse in this country, I think the only way is for both sides to do some self-reflection and then follow that old Golden Rule – Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

  13. Kanani

    I think our usage of language has evolved to heavy reliance on sound bites and punch phrases that are heavy on imagery to convey strong feelings about complex issues. It includes not only the fun stuff, but also implied violence. When we take these short cuts to build entire arguments around them pertaining to an issue, we forgo working through the minute details of our experiences that have led to how we feel.
    I think Palin’s “reload” comments with the crosshairs, were emotional punch phrases to quickly sum up their anger. And while most will say there’s a lot of truth in these short cuts, I would say it’s the fat that rises to the surface, but not the deeper and profound ones that help us transform ourselves and also the situation.

  14. Kanani

    Bummer….looks like my comment has been lost.

  15. Kanani

    To an extent, language has relied on catch phrases to quickly explain deep feelings about complex issues. However, what’s changed is the quickness the vernacular is passed around, coupled with graphics and sound …now the world is very noisy with sound bites that explain everything from our feelings about celebrities to politics.

    While we can take these short cuts to express ourselves, what’s lost is the willingness to go through our experiences and understand why we feel the way we do. It’s like jumping from point A to F, without ever really examining or bothering to further articulate B,C,D, and E. Besides, in an age where the 144 character tweet is supposed distill our essence at that point in time, who has time to really go over how they feel and more to the point –specific examples that led up to the emotional outburst?

    Anyway, some will argue that there’s a lot of truth in the emotional-political shortcut sentiments uttered by those both on the left and right. But the ones we’re all thinking of are those originally espoused by the nimrods working for Sarah Palin, who came up with “Don’t retreat, instead reload,” and then paired it up with a graphic of crosshairs. What’s so dumb is their denial that the graphic was depicting crosshairs or visual or verbal associations to shooting. But what’s as tenuous is trying to shift the blame for the whole tragedy to Palin’s camp. Let’s face it. The problem of crude speech is a societal one. Hatred, no matter who it’s espoused by and for whatever reason, is simply that.

  16. Kanani

    Sorry, I reposted that…. it didn’t show up prior to…I suppose it was lost in the blogosphere and circled a bit before landing.

  17. Stay At Home Babe

    Ugh. Now I have to go sit in the corner and rock back and forth while I evaluate my verbage. I totally talk like a thuglife gangsta rapper with my mentions of ass-kicking, throat-punching and stabbiness. Seriously so. I do find the irony hilarious because I’m a huge softy. HUGE. I mean, unless thoroughly provoked. Do I really have to stop?

  18. Tracy


  19. ingrid

    A lot of this is PR gone wild.

    Was it appropriate for Palin (or her PR engine) to use a target symbol for her opposition: probably not. Did she have the right to do so: yes. Was it irresponsible: yes. Did it cause the incident: no, people are responsible for their own behavior. Jared Lee Lougher is responsible for his own behavior. He is clearly unhinged. As far as I know, he nor anyone else has made a clear statement of his motivation. Maybe it was totally unlinked to Palin’s site?

    Did opposing PR take advantage of this? Absolutely. Of course they did. It was there, ripe for the picking… or centered for the targeting.

    We all look to justify our beliefs. It’s not all rational and sometimes, it is not at all rational.

  20. Heather

    YOU, my dear, are exactly right.

    It hurts my heart to hear people talk like that. I know it’s not intentional, but if they speak like that on Twitter or FB, what must they say in their homes—when their kids are listening? (I am probably being dramatic here, but I don’t like people to put themselves or others down…)

  21. pia

    You Neil are not running for president. When a person becomes a public figure in the political arena they have certain responsibilities the rest of us don’t. Mel Gibson can say whatever he wants and I will just think he’s an anti-Semitic jerk I used to enjoy watching in movies. Woody Allen can do what he did with whatever her name is, and I will think that’s gross but…
    Sarah Palin is a true role model to many people. If she runs for president and god forbid wins, people will think it’s OK to have a MAPP like that and much more.
    No I don’t think the assassin was particularly influenced by her. I thought from the beginning he fit the lone gunman profile
    And you know that I treasure the First Amendment. But I think it’s time to redefine how big the fire in the theater is for public figures. I don’t think a word should be changed. If a person wants to run for office and that includes dog catcher they should voluntarily hold themselves up to a higher standard. Sign a pledge perhaps. if they refuse to sign this, run and win, shame on us
    We’re all desensitized to violence. I remember hating the Coen Brothers “Blood Simple,” because of the blood. Not anymore. I used to say “I want to kill him” all the time.
    I don’t have a MAPP with targets of people I want to kill. I’m not running for office. And a couple of years ago I changed “I want to kill him,” to “f–k me,” as it’s really me I’m usually angry at.
    And if this whole things brings Palin down I will be so happy

  22. Nancy [Fear and Parenting in Las Vegas]

    Well said, Neil. We’re actually dissecting this issue in my grad school class this week. While I am about as far from a Sarah Palin fan as you can get, this tragedy was not a result of figures of speech. It was a result of mental illness.

    However, the context of the situation is a clear indicator that polite discourse has fallen by the wayside. In our striving for passionate uniqueness, many are now mired in a pit of crass ugliness.

    We can do better.

    Blaming Sarah Palin for this is akin to blaming JD Salinger for Lennon’s death. A psycho is a psycho.

  23. Danny

    I’ve tried to see your point of view but I just don’t agree. No one is suggesting Sarah Palin and her ilk be arrested for their inflammatory remarks and propaganda but such violence-laden imagery and words should still be condemned and viewed as wrong and potentially dangerous. It’s not about what’s legal, it’s about creating a tone. I don’t “blame” Sarah Palin and her target-baiting allies for Loughner’s actions but I certainly hold them responsible for doing everything in their power to whip up a mass hysteria that plays right into the hands of the unhinged. It’s getting very ugly out there and Palin and others should be widely criticized for their deliberate actions.

  24. Neil

    Danny, Kate — others – I had a feeling I would get disagreements about what i said about Sarah Palin because this is such a heated argument. But the truth is I agree with you. The stuff she said and did was outrageous. But repeating what we all know already seemed obvious. So, instead I decided to look at how our culture tends to appreciate violence, both in action and language. Again, I use the “I want to shoot someone in the head” tweet that I see quite commonly. And this is being written by a mommyblogger with kids. The language itself is teaching that violence is the answer. Now, of course, the response from her is going to be — this is all thought, not action. My answer is — Sarah Palin is saying the same thing. Should we hold a public figure to a higher standard than the average Joe or Jane? Of course. But hey, we all have websites now. Some of use have 1000s of followers. Aren’t we all public figures now?

    • subWOW

      So please don’t tell people to shoot me in the head, ‘k?


  25. Deer Baby

    Interesting. Recently in the UK there was a case of an average guy, Paul Chambers, who was trying to get to the airport through the snow to catch a flight to see his girlfriend. Hearing the airport might be closed, in his exasperation he said, on Twitter, that if the airport didn’t ‘get its shit together’ he was going to ‘blow the airport up sky high’. And he was prosecuted, went to court and lost. It has become known as The Twitter Joke trial and he’s now appealing at the High Court.

    Sometimes I am shocked at the vitriol I see online. When trolls strike, sometimes the comments some people leave are worse than what the original troll said. Things like ‘Do you want me to come round and slap them up’, ‘punch them in the face’ ‘Stab, Stab, Stab’. I would hazard a guess that they don’t talk that way at home in everyday life or in front of their kids.

  26. Danny

    Oy, do you think Sarah Palin’s idiotic use of the term “Blood Libel” this morning was deliberately provocative? Although I can’t stand the Left’s demonization of Palin, she really makes it difficult to defend her in any way. What has she EVER done that has been productive, positive, or helpful to this country?

    P.S. Nope, we’re not public figures. Well, maybe you are–you have so many readers you could start a cult!

  27. Alexandra

    We all use battlefield language sometimes but we don’t all have the audience she does. The fact that she can’t take any responsibility for anything and constantly accuses and deflects is what’s so frustrating, and that she genuinely thinks she’s qualified to be President, especially in light of how she’s spent her time since the election before and after she QUIT being governor. It’s the arrogance and lack of self awareness and responsibility. She isn’t responsible for the murder of these people but she is guilty for adding so much intolerance and hate into the political and cultural climate in this country. She’s encouraged divisiveness and intolerance between Anericans and at every turn it seems she’s disrespectful towards the President and his wife. The Republicans can do far better than offer Sarah Palin.

  28. MDTaz

    The first amendment provides that congress cannot prohibit the freedom of speech; it can’t be against the law to speak your mind in the United States. What’s inferred by many here is that it gives you the right to say whatever you want and however you want, as long as you believe it – even if you don’t believe it – or if it’s important to you, or you just feel like saying it. This is where the rule of law meets the realm of ethics, which I guess is a gray and often subjective area, and probably always has been. Maybe the difference is, say, in the ’60s, ’70s, or the ’80s (and before), there were so many gate-keepers that your average Joe the Plumber exercised his right to an angry opinion over the fence to his neighbor, or at a private dinner party, and that was about it. Maybe a published letter to the editor if it was well-crafted or if he had a few connections. Back then there was a scarcity of opportunities to voice opinions, so you had to say it nicely in order squeeze through the funnel to be heard, whereas now, anyone and everyone can twitter, blog, comment, post on FB – you name it – without an editor. With all of these opinions now vocalized, we’ve become anesthetized to the amped-up quality of our language. I wonder if it was just always as negative as it feels (to me) now – think of the riots and the hate that led to assassinations of the ’60s – but the circles of broadcast were smaller then. I don’t know. (I’ve also wondered what the McCarthy era would have been like if Twitter existed. Would we have been RTing communist accusations or abhorring the witch-hunt — probably both. Was the U.S. as polarized then as it is now, but it just wasn’t evident at the volume as it is today?)

    You make me want to pay closer attention to my language — maybe like dieters keep a food-journal, I could keep a word-log of angry, caustic and unnecessarily snarky utterances. Because you’re right — if the occasional catharsis becomes the norm, that is injected into our society and it’s not helping. There are two pairs of little eyes watching my response to the world. Can I be passionate and articulate without being caustic and aggressive? Or is that what it takes to make your point heard these days?

  29. The Bombshell

    I’m trying to watch out for that sort of language in my own life. I certainly don’t want my kids picking up on it. It’s just a bad habit and a result of being lazy and self-indulgent in my communication.

  30. Lisa

    So, you guys have a problem with the targets on the Democrat map too, right?

  31. Marinka

    My least favorite of the types of tweets you mentioned is “punch in the vagina/baby maker.” Not because I think it will incite misogyny, but because I think it’s an awful image. But I also hate “hugs”, so I’m totally fair.

  32. subWOW

    If a murder were committed because the killer had read a tweet that said “Punch that d-bag’s throat!” (if you have watched enough Law & Order the way I have, you’d know that) Jack would be itching to drag the tweeter into court. He probably wouldn’t win, but he’d believe that the person is at least morally responsible for the death.

    Nobody is saying Sarah Palin is not allowed to say what she said, after all, we still allow KKK rallies and David Duke to speak in public places, but I thought what’s being debated here is whether she’s morally responsible. According to her video, she’s not. And in fact, she’s the victim in all this.

  33. CharlotteKey

    Palin? Meh. She’s a pol. But at least we know facts about her we’ve not be allowed to know about Obama. Still, a pol.
    As Jefferson said, the minute a man decides to run for elected office, a rottenness enters his soul. None of them are worth investing hopes in; however, I do understand many people have money and status invested. But about the other topic–political violence. The “right” really needs to keep its panties out of a twists. They have launched accusations falsely knowing they would not have to account. And I speak a Bush-loather par excellance.
    I just saw it yesterday, but can’t find the site. There has been a study done recently, comparing left-leaning and right-leaning persons. In a nutshell, people who were non-aggressive were generally turned off by even the slightest hard talk. The people who got most worked up by even mildly “violent” jargon were not righties but young, left-leaning men. And looking at the snarling, violent jokes about Palin by any number of “comedians” (the women especially), I don’t think we ever need fear about the Left wimping out. They are, indeed, leading the charge while coating themselves with sheepdip clothing. Be careful. The media has not been on Palin’s side, but the masses have been, and I am starting to think they are marginally less insane since they at least think they are looking out for their own interests.
    As for Obama being intellectual..whatever gave you that idea? His scholarly dissertation? His speechwriting skills? His exptemporaneous, knowledgable grasp of whatever germain subject is thrown his way? His unscripted press conferences?
    Admittedly, I never had any hope so I’m not disappointed, just amazed at the naivete.

  34. muskrat

    What about “I’m gonna kick you in the balls.”? Funny? Harmless? Thought so.

    I don’t really joke around about shooting people, but working in hospitals for 2 war zone deployments make such hyperbole not all that funny.

  35. rim

    I’m precisely addressing this issue among female teenagers:i mean why do female teenagers use a huge amount of violent language in their speech,including vulgar words,curses and even obscene words.Can you please provide some articles or researchs concerning this topic?
    thank you very much.

  36. Eric

    Yes, I hear this especially in the language of the middle school kids I teach. But there are even more subtle and pervasive examples of violence in everyday language that are just woven into our speech:

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