Violence in metaphor

Crooked Timber has a statement on Erik Loomis. Before the statement, there is the background.

This past Friday, in the wake of the tremendous grief and outrage millions of people felt over the Newtown mass shooting, Loomis tweeted the following:

I was heartbroken in the first 20 mass murders. Now I want Wayne LaPierre’s head on a stick.

Wayne LaPierre is the head of the National Rifle Association.

It seems obvious to us that when Loomis called for LaPierre’s head on a stick, he had in mind something like this from the Urban Dictionary:

A metaphor describing retaliation or punishment for another’s wrongdoing, or public outrage against an individual or group for the same reason.After the BP Oil Spill; many Americans would like to see Tony Hayward’s head on a stick, myself included.

Well, I’ve become more leery of even metaphorical violent rhetoric over the past year and a half…but still that is pretty clearly a metaphor.

Ever since putting someone’s head on a stick ceased to be a routine form of public punishment—indeed, the last instance of it we can think of is fictional (Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, though it references an actual event from the French Revolution)—calling for someone’s head has been a fairly conventional way to express one’s outrage or criticism. Two months ago, for example, right-wing blogger Glenn Reynolds voiced his anger over the State Department’s lax provision of security in Benghazi by demanding, “Can we see some heads roll?”

Yet that very same Glenn Reynolds is now accusing Loomis of using “eliminationist rhetoric.”

And Loomis is being leaned on, rather heavily. Right-wing pundits have been shouting, and it’s worked.

Loomis has already been questioned by the Rhode Island State Police, who told him that someone had informed the FBI that Loomis had threatened LaPierre’s life. Loomis also has been hauled into a meeting with his dean.  And now the president of the University of Rhode Island, where Loomis teaches, has issued the following statement:

The University of Rhode Island does not condone acts or threats of violence. These remarks do not reflect the views of the institution and Erik Loomis does not speak on behalf of the University. The University is committed to fostering a safe, inclusive and equitable culture that aspires to promote positive change.

CT responds.

We do not expect any better of the orchestrators of this campaign—this is what they have done for many years, and doubtless will be doing for years to come. We do expect better of university administrators. Rather than standing behind a member of their faculty, the administration has sought to distance the university from Loomis.

Even to suggest that Loomis’s tweet constitutes a “threat of violence” is an offense against the English language. We are dismayed that the university president completely fails to acknowledge the importance of academic freedom and of scholars’ freedom independently to express views (even intemperate ones) on topics of public importance.  This statement—unless it is swiftly corrected— should give alarm to scholars at the University of Rhode Island, to scholars who might one day consider associating themselves with this institution, and to academic and professional associations that value academic freedom.

However, this is not merely a question of academic freedom. It also speaks to a broader set of rights to speak freely without the fear of being fired for controversial views that many of us have been flagging for years. Everyone should be clear what is going on. As a blogger at Atrios has pointed out, what the witch hunters want is for Loomis to be fired. Indeed, the calls have already begun (see comment thread here). Though Loomis has a union, his lack of tenure makes him vulnerable.

We insist that the University of Rhode Island take a strong stand for the values of academic freedom and freedom of speech, that it not be intimidated by an artificially whipped-up media frenzy, that it affirm that the protections of the First Amendment require our collective enforcement, and that all employers—particularly, in this kind of case, university employers—have a special obligation to see that freedom of speech become a reality of everyday life.

We urge all of you to contact the following three administrators at the University of Rhode Island:
Dean Winnie Brownell:
Provost Donald DeHays:
President David Dooley:

Be polite, be civil, be firm.

We also call upon all academic and other bloggers to stand in support of Loomis. We invite others who wish to associate themselves with this statement to say so in the comments section to this post, and to republish this statement elsewhere.

Loomis talks about metaphors and violence at Lawyers Guns and Money.

But let’s also be clear–these people KNOW I am not calling for LaPierre’s assassination. They use language far surpassing anything I would ever say all the time. Here is Glenn Reynolds, so outraged by my intemperate language, asking “can we see some heads roll” over the Benghazi attacks. Does Reynolds literally want to see the head of Susan Rice decapitated from her body? Of course not. It’s a metaphor. I wouldn’t have even looked twice at that line because I know exactly what he means, even if I disagree with him. Not to mention that Reynolds has quite literally called for the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists. But I am today’s subject of the right-wing Two Minute Hate. Tomorrow it will be some other poor sap. This is all a game to these extremists, seeking to turn the tragedy of Newtown to focus on the real victims here–American white conservative gun owners. The fact that my intemperate language helped give them a lever to try and turn that narrative is unfortunate and I apologize for it. But of course they would have found any number of other people or situations where they would have done the same thing.

And look, if I used violent metaphors, that’s a bad thing. I will admit that at certain moments such language might become part of my vocabulary. But then I’m a product of the same violent culture that makes real discussion about guns virtually impossible in this country. Scholars such as Richard Slotkin and Richard Maxwell Brown have spent whole careers exploring the theme of violence in American history. Others have noted the massive violent underpinnings of the United States ranging from antebellum mobs to lynchings to violence in the popular media. I probably shouldn’t use that language and certainly will be a lot more conscious going forward of not using it again, particularly since it doesn’t help in the battle against actual violence. Violence is a huge societal problem that influences all of us in various ways. Some may use violent metaphors to express their frustrations. Others join organizations that support assault rifles and semi-automatic weapons being in the hands of anyone without any sort of background check or regulation. I’ll leave it to you to decide who is the bigger problem.

Quite so. As I mentioned, I’ve become more leery of even metaphorical violent rhetoric lately. But I don’t think the Malkins and Reynoldses should be able to get Erik Loomis fired.


  1. Rodney Nelson says

    I’ve sent emails to the dean, provost and president. As an alumnus of URI, perhaps my email might have a bit more weight than some others, especially since I also sent an email to the director of Alumni Affairs, ostensibly in response to an email from him asking for a donation.

  2. Lyanna says

    This whole Loomis debacle is just rank dishonesty, combined with a desire to get even for people getting angry over right-wing rhetoric about “Second Amendment Solutions.” They’re still pissed that Sarah Palin got called out for her crosshairs map when Gabby Giffords was shot. They’re still pissed that people criticized them for their gun fetish, and how it might contribute to people, y’know, getting killed.

    So they leap on anything they can call “violent rhetoric” by the “left.” It’s obviously a metaphor. Unlike right-wing gun culture, it has no connection to actual violence in the real world. But they don’t care. They’ll seize on any excuse, however feeble, to say “Lefties do it too! Hypocrites! Nyah nyah!” And they’ll ignore the conspicuous lack of angry liberals actually putting people’s heads on sticks, because they don’t actually care about real violence–just about shirking responsibility for their gun culture.

    And, as a bonus, about shutting down criticism of their gun culture. Now everyone who wants to passionately criticize the NRA is going to think twice about it, if they hear about this.

  3. bobo says

    Liberals need to contact the FBI anytime a rightwingnut threatens someone.

    The problem is, liberals just let it slide. The rightwingers are pros at taking the moral high ground.

  4. says

    Two months ago, for example, right-wing blogger Glenn Reynolds voiced his anger over the State Department’s lax provision of security in Benghazi by demanding, “Can we see some heads roll?”

    Yet that very same Glenn Reynolds is now accusing Loomis of using “eliminationist rhetoric.”

    Oh, don’t you know? It’s OK If You’re A Republican…

  5. says

    I’m not going to criticize Loomis for backing down on that metaphor in the face of death threats and career threats, but IMO he had no reason to. He didn’t call for LaPierre to be raped (Loomis’ enemies aren’t quite that nice); he didn’t call for the man to be tortured to death. Those would have been beyond the pale, given that both are political realities with which far too many people are okay. The metaphor he used references an act which has not been carried out widely and in a literal manner for centuries. I see no need to bowdlerize English of all such metaphors.

    His post you linked to is really drawing the winners, isn’t it?

    “Maybe if all of you ‘intellectual’ type professors weren’t so communistic in your opinions and attitudes toward the U.S. and its constitution people would not react to you the way they did… Do I think that you are showing how biased you are for not acknowledging the thousands of times a day that guns are used in legitimate self defense? Yes, of course you are because you are a communist.”

    “Man, what a bunch of beta-wussies you all are.”

    “Loomis is why we need the 2nd amendment.”

    Oh. I see that Ann Outhouse linked to him. That explains it.

  6. Suido says

    I’ve been scratching my head over something for the last couple of days, and this post, I think, justifies me saying it. I absolutely agree that Loomis’ statement was metaphorical, and he shouldn’t be targeted for using an idiom.

    However, Ophelia, in conjunction with this post, the focus of your Epidemics of Accusations blogpost seems hypocritical.

    Shermer said there was a witch hunt, and you responded to him as if he meant it literally.

    I agree that he is wrong in calling your blog posts a witch hunt, but I think there was no need to address the literal meaning of the word. Witchhunt is used pretty commonly in politics and the media with a metaphorical meaning. I can understand if that post was a result of frustration at the dishonesty aimed at you by all and sundry, but I think it was a misdirected rebuttal by you.

  7. says

    I don’t think the complaint about Shermer’s ‘witch hunt’ phrase was thinking he literally meant rounding up and burning/drowning/whatever women accused of witchcraft. Rather, it was that it was an excessive statement compared to Benson saying his statement was sexist, along with the irony of using it against women who were the targets of witch hunts.

  8. Stacy says

    Yeah, I agree with John-Henry Beck. Nobody took Shermer’s statement literally, but as metaphor, “witch hunt” still carries some pretty serious connotations. Ophelia’s pointing out that Shermer’s statement was sexist was not a “witch hunt” in any sense, and calling it such was an overreaction.

  9. emily isalwaysright says

    Does anyone else just think of Game of Thrones now when someone uses the “head on a stick” expression?

  10. Martha says

    I do wish the word “inconsistent” would get used more often, reserving hypocritical for egregious cases (e.g. the RC hierarchy). We all have views that may look, and occasionally are, inconsistent. Hypocrisy is a much stronger claim, and I don’t think Suido has reasonable grounds to make it in this case. Especially JHB and Stacy are absolutely right.

  11. Maureen Brian says

    As long as we have people going about claiming that any attempt to reduce the death-toll among six-year-olds is an assault on their liberty it seems ridiculous that Dr Loomis should be punished for being more historically literate (and having a better understanding of metaphor) than either the Rhode Island police or the NRA.

    But there you go – that’s the USA.

  12. Suido says

    Inconsistent, that’s probably a better word. I don’t agree with Martha’s narrower definition of hypocrisy, but that word can be very inflammatory, so I’ll retract it.

    In this post Ophelia is pointing out other’s overly literal readings of metaphorical speech, the exact kind of overly literal reading she engaged in earlier this week. I agree it’s not particularly egregious, but it is definitely inconsistent.

    I refer to this particular bit Ophelia wrote:

    While re-reading that chapter I became quite…annoyed that Shermer had accused me of witch hunting. He compared me to people who put innocent people in prison on the basis of absurd beliefs. (Snip) He said I was a witch hunter.

    No, he didn’t, just like Loomis didn’t actually advocate Vlad Dracul style retribution. The modern, metaphorical meaning of the term witch hunt is “seeking and persecuting any perceived enemy” (straight out of the wikipedia, it’s late and I’m lazy), which seems to be exactly what a lot of people (wrongly) think Ophelia does.

    Because I agree with the main point (Shermer was wrong and shouldn’t have used that term), I didn’t mention my objections to Ophelia’s literal reading on that thread because I didn’t want to sound like a boring tone troll.
    Then this post happened, and the issue is no longer tone.

  13. Brian E says

    Suido mansplained thusly

    No, he didn’t, just like Loomis didn’t actually advocate Vlad Dracul style retribution. The modern, metaphorical meaning of the term witch hunt is “seeking and persecuting any perceived enemy”

    Given a level playing ground when back in the day every witch hunt was accompanied by an equally oppressive warlock hunt, and all things being equal to this day (no glass ceilings, gropings, etc) you might have had a point. Using witch hunt by men against men has the meaning you like. But as we all know, women are shrill, vacuous, man-ruining, sluts or deified, non-sexual, untouchable paragons of fecundity who keep men from having to clean-up their bowel evacuations. Thus when a woman witch-hunts, it’s not just seeking and persecuting any perceived enemy.

  14. shatterface says

    Maybe those calling for him to be fired literally mean driven out of the university by fire.

  15. shatterface says

    By the way, I do think that LaPierre should – quite literally – go take a flying fuck at himself.

  16. Acolyte of Sagan says

    This kind of deliberate misunderstanding of a word or phrase reminds me so much of the controversy stirred up when a chap was dismissed from work for ‘racism’ after using the word ‘niggardly’.
    Everybody knows that nobody in this story was calling for a literal beheading, just as my telling my children that I’d ‘have their guts for garters’ if they misbehaved didn’t mean that I would actually make their intestines into clothing accessories.
    Maybe it’s just my cynical nature, but I don’t suppose it’s possible that this furore over a figure of speech could be a way of deflecting attention away from the fact that there is a very serious issue with gun control over there in the ‘land of the free’ that the gun-nuts would rather just go away?
    Sadly, if my suspicion is correct then the tactic is obviously working.

  17. says

    Suido, the “witch hunt” accusation is part of a larger practice of a powerful majority with a history of oppressing a minority or minorities appropriating the labels of oppression to ward off the slightest criticism. It’s “reverse racism” and “persecution” of Christians, “suppression” of conservatives in universities and “silencing” Rush Limbaugh. Those are all things that require power to achieve, and that just aren’t happening to the whiners because the whiners still have power and platform.

    It is important that this tactic be recognized when it’s seen, and it’s impossible to discuss it without reference to each term’s history. That is not analogous to the situation here.

  18. says

    Suido @ 7 and 13 – you seem to have missed a sentence in the post.

    Well, I’ve become more leery of even metaphorical violent rhetoric over the past year and a half…but still that is pretty clearly a metaphor.

    See it? It’s in there.

    I hope that helps.

  19. Suido says

    Thanks Brian and Stephanie for the explanation for the reason behind the inconsistency.

    Brian – JHB and Stacy denied the inconsistency by saying that Ophelia had not read Shermer’s comment literally. Since that was provably false, I felt justified in reiterating my point with a direct quote. If that’s all it takes to be a mansplainer, fair enough.

    OT: Ophelia, I subscribed to this thread, and the text below the comment box confirms this, but I didn’t receive email updates as I have with other threads I’ve subscribed to. Just wanted to let you know there may be another bug since the format change.

  20. Suido says

    Apologies for the delay, some sort of holiday happened.

    Yes, I saw it, and I did read it in the OP. Did you see my #13 where I retracted my use of the word hypocritical, replacing it with inconsistent?

    Well, I’ve become more leery of even metaphorical violent rhetoric over the past year and a half…but still that is pretty clearly a metaphor.

    I understand you’re leery, I don’t think you’re a hypocrite, but I do think you treated the two situations differently. Hence, inconsistency.

    Stephanie and Brian gave good explanations for why there is an inconsistency. I’m satisfied by that, and I didn’t think your pointing out that quote furthered the conversation, which is why I didn’t answer it in my previous comment.

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