Posted by: Kristen Hicks | April 13, 2010

Political Rhetoric: The Difference between “Murderers” and Raskolnikov

Oftentimes when I hear the way politicians discuss people and the media frames its debates, my mind returns to the very poignant Borges essay “The Pitying Torturer”.  The type of rhetoric that is used in political discussion seems designed to try and reduce people and ideas down to their simplest components, losing sight of the reality that lies in the complications.  Every time someone refers to “homosexuals” or “hispanics” or even “men” or “women” in a way that fails to acknowledge that there are hundreds of thousands of individuals living behind those labels with distinct experiences, characters and views, truth gets lost in the mix.

Obviously, we can’t exactly do away with the plural nouns we use to represent the generalizations of people within our culture, but we should make a greater effort to remain aware that we do have to create a mental myth in order to regard these terms as representative of a reality.

In order to make a similar point, Borges examines the case of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment in relation to the concept of “murderers”:

Consider these two propositions.  One: murderers deserve the death penalty; the other: Rodion Raskolnikov deserves the death penalty.  The fact that the two propositions are not synonymous is inarguable.  Paradoxically, this is not because murderers are concrete  and Raskolnikov is abstract or illusory.  On the contrary, the concept of murderers betokens a mere generalization; Raskolnikov, for anyone who has read his story, is a real being.  In reality there are, strictly speaking, no murderers; there are individuals who the torpor of our languages includes in that indeterminate ensemble.

It’s  a necessary laziness of language that we generalize to make clear the concepts that we couldn’t express otherwise, but it’s a greater laziness of people that allows those generalizations to oversimplify worldviews at the expense of honestly acknowledging complexities.

Update: I just came across this article that speaks to the issue at hand.  How many of the people discussing the abortion issue right now are considering the women, each facing an individual, personal set of circumstances that have led them to the point where they must consider an abortion?  It’s relatively rare for this sort of a personal account of a hot political issue to make its way to the public, particularly as regards an issue as controversial as abortion.

Important update:

Predictably, John Stewart makes the same point far more entertaining than I ever could:


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