We are all far too accustomed to the crude tone and tenor of public discourse. Many media experts will tell you that there is an emphasis on sound bites and clickbait — the more odd and ostentatious the better. That's nothing new.
In that context, one may be almost tempted to dismiss Fox News host Jesse Watters and his comments offered up at the expense of Dr. Anthony Fauci as one of the latest examples of such crudeness in our culture war.
"Now you're going for the kill shot. The kill shot with an ambush, deadly, because he doesn't see it coming," he told a crowd at a recent Turning Point USA conference.
This isn't a question of whether Watters has the constitutional right to use such words or whether Fox News should fire him.
"This is when you say: 'Dr. Fauci, you funded risky research at a sloppy Chinese lab. The same lab that sprung this pandemic on the world. You know why people don't trust you, don't you?' Boom, he is dead! He is dead! He's done!"
In suggesting to viewers that they confront Fauci in public, Watters used a decidedly militaristic metaphor for these antics, offering such practices as a kind of terminal blow to this important public figure.
When trying to make sense of his language, one can argue that the "kill shot" invoked isn't meant as a literal ending of Fauci's life. It is, ostensibly, about destroying his reputation or his public standing as a medical expert in the time of our unending pandemic.
But just because Watters and Fox News can defend his comments by arguing that others are misinterpreting or misreading his words as literal instead of metaphorical doesn't mean that such "kill shot" talk is innocent or harmless.
It stands as yet another example of TV and opinion personalities' playing with violent figures of speech in ways that are supposed to shield them from criticism while purposefully and cynically trafficking in terminology meant to reinforce dangerous levels of societal distrust, anger and weaponized hatred. In that sense, it should strike us as woefully irresponsible.
This isn't a question of whether Watters has the constitutional right to use such words or whether Fox News should fire him (as Fauci has suggested). We all might have the constitutionally protected right to say such things, but it would be nice if more of us would demonstrate the common sense and commitment to common decency that would dissuade us from stooping to such dark symbolic depths.
Moreover, in the context of over 800,000 Covid-related deaths in the U.S. alone (and over 5 million around the world), it is at the least insensitive and callous to deploy metaphors of mortality against the person leading the charge to help keep Americans alive.
At the same time, this kind of rhetoric builds upon reckless attempts by some pundits to dance as close to the line of advocating violence as possible while leaving themselves plausible deniability in terms of their intentions. Then they gaslight everyone else for being so "stupid" and "sensitive" for taking such metaphors literally.
In a statement about the incident, Fox News said that "based on watching the full clip and reading the entire transcript, it's more than clear that Jesse Watters was using a metaphor for asking hard-hitting questions to Dr. Fauci about gain-of-function research and his words have been twisted completely out of context."
But the issue isn't about people misconstruing the distinction between direct and indirect discourse in contemporary politics. Many of us get the difference between literal death threats and deployments of death-related tropes and terms to make an ideological or rhetorical point.
The concern is that the threshold keeps moving. Such hyperbole continues to have the intended effect only if we keep ratcheting up our rhetoric and increasing the graphic imagery to elicit reactions. And it seems that Watters and others who continue to play this game think that any threat it might pose to our collective social fabric is merely the equivalent of collateral damage in such cultural warfare.
It is the holiday season, and that has often meant a moment for us to assess our most cherished goals, take stock of our ethical commitments and promise ourselves that we'll try to do and be better in the new year. Sadly, we are in a political culture that is decidedly hostile to such ideas. They are dismissed as naive and self-defeating. Instead, we welcome a stance that rejects self-reflection, treats apologies as weakness, says collegiality is selling out, considers truth more luxury than necessity and values beating the other side (at everything, at every moment) as the only worthy goal there is.
Regardless of the fallout from the Watters controversy, heading into 2022, both a midterm election and our third year dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic guarantee that we will hear this type of rhetoric again. The difference, one can only hope, is that more people begin to recognize that the comments the Fox News host spewed end up only increasing antagonisms, privileging opinions over facts and making our society more polarized, fractured and unsafe.