This past week in Madison, WI, local public employee unions protested at the capitol after Governor Walker’s proposed budget plan that requires public workers to pay more for their health insurance and pensions, cutting their pay by around 7 percent. As a student here in Madison, I have been actively engaged in the rallies going on both inside and outside of the capitol building. It has truly been an exciting yet concerning week.
Wrapped up in my excitement during the first few days of the protest, I failed to see the hateful rhetoric that people were both saying out loud and had written on their signs and posters. I had easily been too consumed with what was going on and got lost in the crowd (both physically and mentally) and missed the actual problem and incendiary violence that was going on. However, on Friday when I walked up to the capitol again, my eyes and ears were consumed with the provocative signs and speech that filled the air.
Many protestors were describing Scott Walker as analogous to President Mubarak who just resigned in Egypt. Signs everywhere compared him to a “Mini-Mubarak” as if Walker’s actions are really comparable to the tyrannical nature of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Similar signs also compared Governor Walker to the dictator Adolf Hitler.
In large parts, these protestors have sensationalized the problem too much and therefore are failing to get their point across. What may look like a peaceful demonstration has actually turned into one that may incite violence. In their efforts to have their voices heard, these protestors have actually diverted the attention away from what they are fighting for.
But then again, some reporting journalists are doing the same thing. And if these reporters, who are supposed to be unbiased, are reporting these protests using the same rhetoric, then this becomes a never ending cycle. In these cases, it would be best if the reporters’ own voices took a backseat and did not reflect or cause the hateful discourse of these protests.
Many people have become disgusted with the rhetoric in this country, from both left and right, but it is important to understand what these protestors are actually doing. When I was at the capitol I spoke to some of the people who were holding signs of Governor Walker as Adolf Hitler, and was surprised to hear what they had to say. For some of these protestors, as a way to get their voice heard and point across, they are deliberately resorting to certain images and words that they know will get more attention and provoke certain people to respond. In that regard, they have definitely succeeded. But what excuse could the reporters use? How far is too far with these hateful forms of rhetoric? Where should the line be drawn?
It is important not to get too caught up in our hateful speech so as not to offend anyone and digress too much from the real problem at hand. However, it is also important to factor in that these protestors may not be taking their own signs too literally and it may just be their way of directing the media’s attention towards them. For some, it is as if they are using their sign as a springboard to get their actual voice and thoughts heard. But no one will ever know this from just looking at pictures and videos of these signs.
I do think we need a new tone in this country and that starts with changing our political discourse and disabling news reporters from using hateful rhetoric. It is also important to determine the extent to which our hateful and violent speech creates an atmosphere where people will act in hateful and violent ways.