A Bridge Too Far: Sarah Palin’s Crosshairs Metaphor

There has been much debate surrounding the causes of the recent shooting rampage in Tucson, Arizona. Most of the discussion revolves around political rhetoric, often described as being incendiary, vitriolic and toxic, which compares words to fire, acid and poison. Even when we describe the rhetoric itself, the metaphors are venomous. That is, as opposed to being more general, for example harmful or destructive, the descriptions of the rhetoric use figurative language to embellish the harmfulness. Why? Because demonization loves metaphor. Decades ago, George Lakoff, in his groundbreaking essay Metaphor and War, said it best: “Metaphors can kill”.

Fighting words are the harshest and most effective criticisms we can make about others. If we use the right words, the violence is sure to begin. A typical insult refers to bodily waste or waste organs, genitalia, dirt or low creatures. Even the first bad-guy in the Bible was a lowlife. Compare these hateful frameworks to those of love, which typically refer to sweet foods or beautiful things, and we get a generalized notion that positive things that we internalize are rhetorically good, and unwanted or dirty things are rhetorically bad.

Of course, it is all relative. And there are degrees – in some cases, the unwanted are merely expelled, like pagan snakes by an ordinary good-guy like Patrick, while at other times, the unwanted must be eliminated, like pagan warriors by a stonking-good childe like David. Many words, including “eliminate“, and phrases, such as “get rid of“, have undergone a semantic expansion from a literal meaning of  “clear away” to a second metaphorical meaning “kill“. This process is nothing new or unhealthy - lively words will always get muddy feet.

Sarah Palin’s crosshairs metaphor makes rifle targets out of specific opponents, slating them for political removalCrosshairs are a common concept in targeted marketing, which aims to capture some market share or on making the kill. We normally think little about these fully-entrenched concepts. Today, they are all the rage. In order to fully recognize the meaning behind Palin’s crosshairs metaphor, we first need to look objectively at the available images, then compare them to other, similar metaphors. First, here are two versions of the ad.

Map of America with crosshairs over specific places.

The first image clearly shows crosshairs over very specific points across America. We note that districts are not highlighted and the scopes are overlapped, implying that this is not a regional targeting of any kind. Further, the second image confirms that the targets are indeed candidates, rather than territories. This means that the reader can reasonably derive that we are to somehow target – and presumably metaphorically shoot – the listed candidates, and where we can expect to find them.

Soon after the rampage, without explanation, Palin’s webmasters removed the images from the websites. But now The Metaphor Observatory must ask: are these images actually inciting violence?

To best begin, we should mention that most dead metaphors haunt a language virtually undetected. It is part of the normal life of a metaphor, and is part of what naturally builds a language. For example, we don’t think of the figurative implications when opening a window and searching for Tweets. Metaphor helps make new knowledge intuitively familiar to us. Occasionally, marketers will revive a long-dead metaphor by lifting it from dusty text into glossy image. Targeting, as a concept in marketing, is pretty much a dead metaphor, yet the crosshairs metaphor lives a healthy, vibrant life all around us.

Blagojevich walking behind pole with a poster depicting a rat in crosshairs.

Blagojevich in the Crosshairs

Map of America with crosshairs over specific locations, and names corresponding to each crosshair.

Sarah Palin's Crosshairs Metaphor With Candidate Names

 So while we may target an individual without implicitly threatening them, it is a metaphorical death threat to place them in our crosshairs. This is not to say that we should immediately condemn Palin’s use of the crosshairs metaphor as a threat. Before that, we should make a comparison with metaphors from other, similar conceptual frameworks. For that, we need to find some of crosshairs’ peers and put them on the same map.

The crosshairs imply shooting, usually taken as shooting with a rifle. It is specific, in that a projectile is directed through space to a pinpointed location, typically the deemed heart or head of that which is being targeted. In this way, it could be compared to a sword, knife or spear, which also move points or lines through space to a targeted location with the intent to kill.

A more general interpretation of the crosshairs is that they simply imply an aim to kill by any means. Other rhetorical killing devices can then be compared – for example, a bomb or a noose (ticking time bomb, lynching). Then again, one can take the view that the crosshairs are used only to imply that the targeted thing is harmful and should be taken out, not necessarily killed, such as cancer, vermin or bacteria (of course, given the apothecarian framework set by the text, we might expect to see pills rather than crosshairs). But do the crosshairs somehow imply that the target is necessarily a bad thing? Is the target something that must be eliminated? Is it a threat or is it an opportunity?  For marketers, bait, hooks, snares and the kill are all good things, a natural part of seizing opportunity.

In 1962, the Dayton Company opened its first Target Store: “As a marksman’s goal is to hit the center bulls-eye, the new store would do much the same in terms of retail goods, services, commitment to the community, price, value and overall experience”. Early marketing at Target Stores included “Aim straight for Target discount store!”; “Bullseye Clearance Sale”.

Sarah Palin’s crosshairs may have then only been intended to direct us to somehow metaphorically capture these candidates, like capturing market share. Was the intent of the kill merely to capture the candidate’s political will? At the bottom of the second image, we see the happy words “Already retiring at the end of their terms. 17 more to go!”. Not joy for the capture of political will, but clearly the celebration of an easy kill. After all, retirement is the death of one’s career, and the three crosshairs are marked in red.

We may never know the real reason that Jared Lee Loughner went on his killing spree. Even if we can somehow connect his actions to Sarah Palin’s powerful metaphor, it does not explain why he would allow himself to discard his humanity and follow this metaphor’s implied instructions in the first place. Perhaps therein we have our answer. From early reports, it would appear that he was a ticking time bomb, just waiting to be placed.
Image replacing Sarah Palin's crosshairs on map of America with nooses, knives and time-bombs.

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