Friday, January 14, 2011

Palin, Crosshairs, and Semiotics

CAN ONE DRAW A line between Sarah Palin's Crosshairs map and the shooting of twenty people in Tucson? Can political discourse be a catalyst to murder?

Much has been made of Ms. Palin's map, the fact that she called out Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords' district in Arizona, and Ms. Palin's tendency to invoke gun-based metaphors. Pundits have argued that these are pieces in a puzzle that may have motivated a young man to engage in an act of violence that has stunned the nation and even further polarized an already divided electorate.

Many smart people are asking many smart questions about this horrific incident. But, one thing no one is asking is to what degree do symbolic acts--like icons and metaphors--actually affect us?

One way of answering this unanswerable question is to turn to semiotics.

Semiotics is the study of signs--both the actual signs themselves and what signs communicate. In the terminology of semiotics, the sign itself is called the "signifier," and the message it conveys is called "the signified." For example, in the United States, we have come to associate a red octagon with "stop." The red octagon is the signifier and coming to a halt is the signified. Though it may sound overly dramatic, almost everything is a sign, and every sign has at least one signifier. A white picket fence carries a strong signifier, as does a Porsche, as does a swastika, as does an American flag. In the case of, say, a cross or the Confederate flag, there are a whole host of complex signifiers. One signifier can, depending on who you are or what you believe, carry opposite meanings. As our culture becomes more and more visually defined, semiotics plays an increasingly important role since more and more messages are delivered visually.

This is precisely where semiotics enters the "crosshairs" conversation.

It's also where semiotics enters the conversation about violence in America, the conversation about political extremism, and more pointedly, the conversation about culpability in regard to the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords. Readers who may have arrived at this story only recently may not know that Ms. Palin's political action committee (PAC) has "targeted" Ms. Giffords' Arizona district for conservative activism. To visually denote this, a "crosshairs"--two lines that intersect in the middle to denote aim or the focus of sight--was placed over three congressional districts in Arizona and around the country.

Some critics of the former Alaska governor have made a direct link between the signifier (crosshair) and what is, perhaps, its main signified (shooting). That is, the crosshairs planted the seed to shoot the representative of the district targeted by the bullseye.

Supporters of Ms. Palin defend her use of the crosshairs icon because for them it is not a violent signifier; merely a symbol of "focus." Opponents, and even some supporters, like The View's Elizabeth Hasselbeck, on the other hand, have leveled harsh criticism at Palin for use of a signifier that connotes hunting, shooting, killing. Hasselbeck herself noted the map "looks like an al Qaeda Christmas card."

When we don't know how to interpret a signifier, we often look to past signifers to help us. So, someone uncertain about the signified (or message) Ms. Palin intends, might look to other visual cues to see if there is a consistent message.

It's possible that certain people see what they choose to see, but others may only see what's in front of them. One might, then, draw a line from these images to the crosshairs to advocating violence. Most would not. But some might.

Ms. Palin's aid, Rebecca Mansour, defended the image, and the semiotic associations one might make by redefining them: "We never ever, ever intended it to be gun sights. It was simply cross-hairs like you'd see on maps."

Semiotics also applies to language--especially metaphors. Metaphors use a visual image to make a point. So, when Ms. Palin augments visual cues with linguistic ones, like her now trademark "Don't Retreat! Reload!," hunting and shooting-based interpretations get harder and harder to avoid. Repetition of visual codes tell you how visual codes should be interpreted.

Or, put in the language of semiotics, what emerges is a consistent "signified."

So, what does this mean for political discourse in the U.S.?

Anyone who watched the speeches of Sarah Palin and Barack Obama today witnessed a powerful moment in American public discourse. Palin's video, posted on her Facebook page, and President Obama's, delivered at the memorial service for the victims of the shooting in Tucson, both attempted to address the countries wounds--which still seem to be hemmorhaging--as a result of the shocking events on Saturday and the politicization those events engendered.

Political speeches are the height of linguistic symbolic action. They reveal an incredible amount about the speaker. In the case of these speeches, that holds true. One draws a line in the sand, the other advocates unity. One is riddled with anger, one makes a plea for civility. One is a challenge; one is a call for compassion.

These, too, are consistent signifiers.

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