March 9, 2008
Monsters, by Ben Voth
Noted genocide expert Samantha Power resigned from her campaign post as an advisor for the presidential campaign of Barack Obama. Power resigned over the controversy created when she described democratic campaign rival Hillary Clinton as a "Monster." The unfortunate excess of candor points to a larger problem of civility in public debate and its potential connection to the problems of global violence. Ironically and sadly, Power's words undermine the important task to which she has been so consistently and effectively dedicated -- the prevention of genocide.
The urgent need for civility in American political debate is in many ways a function of how Americans find themselves as a relatively transparent model demonstrating how political contests should be for the world. In demonstrating our vigorous differences we hope to illustrate to the world the great possibilities arising from such debate. Power's use of the term "monster" poses unique problems for her and the world in the context of this American presidential campaign. Despite all the hyperbole of American political elections-- to which Power is only a minute contributor-- none of the American political candidates or the current President are "monsters." The reckless work of the tongue which Power desperately sought to retract found its way into public dialogue, and culminated in a request for her resignation. Arguably, we could be ambivalent about global attitudes regarding our political dialogue. But the fact that Power's comments arose in an interview from the European press, suggests we are dangerously naieve to suppose there is neither value or utility in recognizing the global reach of our discussions.
The misapplication of the term raises greater problems for the larger yet significantly connected problem of genocide. Who are the "monsters" in our moral universe? Is Kim Jong Il a 'monster' for presiding over the starvation of more than 2 million North Korea citizens-- reducing them to the desperate task of clawing bark off trees to feed themselves? Was Milosevic a 'monster' for implementing the slaughter of thousands of muslim men on soccer fields at Srebrenica? Is Bashir of Sudan a 'monster' for unleashing the crucifixion of Christians and animists in southern Sudan and now the rape and annihilation of the western communities of Darfur? Was Saddam Hussein a "monster" for dropping chemical weapons on Kurdish villages, as so eloquently and desperately described in chapter eight of Samantha Power's Pulitzer prize winning book?
If these men, responsible for the deaths of millions of innocents are indeed "monsters," we are substantially less capable in denouncing them today with the trivial use of this term applied to an American presidential candidate named Hillary Clinton. We hurt the cause of speaking truth to power when we slander one another in American political debates ideally designed to illustrate the virtue of civility as an alternative to the ultimate discursive violence-- death. As one of our nation's most articulate spokespersons for the desperate case of global genocide, professor Power has taken an unfortunate misstep that can provide a productive lesson for us all: The civility of American political debate is one of the most important global messages we send on the matters of human difference. Death is not the answer, and the road away from this violence is guided by the disciplined precision of language. This world may indeed be haunted by monsters, and our capacity to name them is a vital first step in the necessary confrontation with them. Hopefully, we can take from this small unfortunate episode of American Presidential politics, a vital lesson in how political rhetoric shapes our most compelling options in confronting the terrible human reality of genocide.
Ben Voth is associate professor of Communication at Miami University.