The Power of Symbols – Sarah Palin’s Pac-site

If anyone wants to dispute the power of graphic glyphs, symbols and marks, just check out Sarah Palin’s Pac-site with the map of the U.S. and the cross-hair (or bullseye) sights used to pinpoint Democrat Congress persons targeted for defeat.

From the Huffington Post:

“Palin’s Facebook page now carries a map featuring 20 gun sights, one for each of the Democrats targeted this year by her political action committee SarahPAC. Three of the gun sights, those where incumbent Democrats have already announced their retirement, are colored red.”

This is not to imply that in the wake of the shooting and critical wounding of Rep Gabrielle Giffords in Tuscon, Arizona, yesterday, that Palin’s symbols were responsible. But it does imply that the visual and verbal language of polarization has severe consequences.

39 thoughts on “The Power of Symbols – Sarah Palin’s Pac-site

  1. Michael Dooley

    I feel I must also respond to Jeremy, even though I’ve pretty much already said my piece way back up there in comment #8.
    The “American Conservative Values” site the you cite, Jeremy, deceptively distorted the graphics, and thereby created what I would consider a “visual lie.” They cropped the bottom of Palin’s map, which served to “cut off” the full story. Take a look at the complete SarahPac map. And now, Jeremy, I want you to tell me that a map of crosshairs with names of real, live people directly underneath them like asterisked footnotes, is qualitatively just the same as a map of U.S. states – states! not people – that used targets – targets, which have a hell of a lot more connotations than crosshairs.
    Also, tell me that the text on the bullseye map, “it’s time to take a stand,” is qualitatively just as clear and unambiguous as the other map’s text, “Targets for Democratic gains in 2004.”
    You talk of “facts” and “talking points.” But the truth is that practically every conservative site that posts these maps of yours also crops off the names of Giffords and the rest. These are the real talking points, Jeremy, and they’re simply not telling the full, straightforward story.

  2. Michael Dooley

    Re. McLearen, “Wondering why, then the bulls eyes weren’t pointed out before the tragedy in Arizona?” But objections were voiced at the time, and with great concern. It was part of the general outcry from Democrats and the left about potential consequences of the general rhetoric of fear, loathing, and incitement coming from the right. Giffords even mentioned the Palin map herself, in an MSNBC interview which was frequently rebroadcast after her shooting. I’m seriously surprised you missed it both times, McLearen. I also mentioned these early criticisms in another comment I posted here earlier, up above, and how Palin had ignored those complaints for two years, up until after someone had died.

  3. McLearen

    Wondering why, then the bulls eyes weren’t pointed out before the tragedy in Arizona? If they are so negatively subliminal? Probably b/c in the context of the page and what it is trying to convey is not something we would see as wrong or would necessarily provoke violence or  “subliminal messaging”. Why? because if we went around and looked at every single symbol in the world and on the internet and analyzed what it was “really saying” we would be crazy… like the man that committed this act… crazy. Like any one that commits violence in this way. There will always be crazy people in this world that can look at a pony and may think that anyone that owns horses should be harmed. So to make this connection between the cross hairs and someone committing a violent act is ridiculous. I do though understand that we still need to be thoughtful and responsible for the way we speak to one another, what types of images we use as designers and also as political figures, b/c we can “set the tone” for normal, pleasant every day folk that really just want to get a long. And we can influence the way one might think about a certain subject or shed light on a subject. This is a gift, but also something we need to be aware of. Would I have used cross hairs on my website? No. But not because I think somewhere out there someone will accuse me of subliminal messages. Right or left people use words and comments about each other negatively everyday, don’t be a fool and call it more one side or the other…. its called politics…play one off each other, we all have different background which shape our views… Its up to you to be informed and make your own decisions.

  4. Steven Heller Post author

    Jeremy, thanks for providing this link.
    NO! It is not alright for any party, person or thing to espouse the use of weapons as a tool, metaphor or symbol of political expiediency.

  5. Brian E. Smith

    I’d like to share with everyone the most recent cover of the Seattle Stranger:
    I’d have to agree that whether the shooter saw the map is irrelevant. We cannot blame the map for giving him the idea to do what he did. But we can point to this as an unfortunate example of how aggressive political discourse creates a volatile mood. And Palin’s rhetoric has historically used aggressive language and visuals as a way to get her points across. It is a failure to realize that what you say, and in this case, how you say it, carries significant consequences. People are paying attention, including those who are crazy. Or, to be nice, those who are less sane. Because when politics goes crazy-when politicians go crazy-the crazies go crazier.
    It is fairly clear to me this is an irresponsible use of symbols and what kind of mood they evoke. We cannot have an intelligent conversation about politics if the mood is always colored in an aggressive and violent context. Palin has been VERY successful in rallying together the fringes and insinuating a coup d’etat was necessary. Her rhetoric changed from hateful to violent long ago. It is this environment that we can put blame on—one that letitamizes the agressive act of violence.

  6. Brooke Heppinstall

    Whoa, Nickname 72. . ..there are plenty of liberal/progressives with guns.  The difference is they don’t flaunt them in public.  They’re a tool to be used safely.  Sure, people target shoot, but, that only hones a killing skill.  Guns are for mortally wounding or killing.  You don’t go hunting in order to mortally wound your dinner.  Some liberals carry concealed for protection, but, I’d bet most of us have them because we live in rural areas with bears, etc. or need them for hunting, and sadly, sometimes to put the old hound to sleep.
    What has changed is the idea that it is acceptable to bring firearms to political rallies and parades.  Yes, I don’t know any liberal/progressives who would take theirs to one of these events.  But, we’ve all seen them in videos of Tea Party rallies last year and our state nutball Joe Miller’s parade with armed brownshirts went viral on Youtube.  Our ex-governor loves to use macho metaphors to sound tough, hence, the gun imagery and metaphors.  Palin’s got a degree in sports journalism, so, we should all urge her to return to her collegial roots and get a job with ESPN.
    Firearms displays at political rallies and similar events have one purpose- to display threat. It’s a deliberate finger waved at anyone who ‘isn’t on my side’. 
    To target something is neutral depending on context.  Palin put the icons in a threat context when she used the accompanying words ‘don’t retreat…..reload’.  If she’d left out the gun verbiage then the effect would have been neutralized.

  7. Tyler Darden

    Mr. Heller,
    What poor timing for your post and a very thin argument in defense of your visual example. Someday you’ll understand that we conservatives do not look to Palin for leadership but enjoy seeing how much fun she has angering the left.

  8. Robert Talarczyk

    To Whom it may Concern..  
    Graphic Professionals and Advertisers alike all over the country may want to take a look at what they all have contributed to graphically create THESE DAYS.  If you think making a living in the New Normal is tough, just continue to put politics and greed (Democrats, Republicans, Independents or whatever) ahead of your country…then see how tough it will be to make a living. It is leading us to the brink of anarchy.  People in our profession need to take greater responsibility for the long-term consequences of their professional actions. We do not need more laws and oversite. There used to be an invisible line that you would never cross… it was called respect…which was something that was taught when you were growing-up. Today, their is no line of respect by many co-called professionals in media and the creators within it. Turn on the radio and TV hate programming  to see from station to station…  violence, disrespect, no morality along with  irresponsible sponsors with negative advertising displaying fear, anger and mayhem… all in one great package. Is that what these people are trying to achieve graphically?  Do you really want to play a part in this scenario?  About six major conglomerates now control and approve just about all our media. We need not fear outside terrorists, they are born and raised right here in the good old USA. They are mostly demons with anger issues. Take some personal responsibility in what you are doing so a 9 year old female patriot, a Navy astronauts’ wife, an honest judge, campaign staffers and senior citizens will not be assassinated because of their political interests and beliefs! I do not know about you, but this is not the professional road I want to travel. I am at the point where I want to shut-off my TV and turn off my radio. Life is a series of choices and we are all playing a part in these events.

    Bob Talarczyk,
    CEO, Creative Director
    Dark Horse Design, 
    Santa Fe, NM, USA

  9. Nickname72

    No let’s stop with pretending that both sides are the same. That is how we get a Democrat with a bullet hole in her head. When a liberal shows up with a gun to a rightwing political rally or ANY rally, please call me. 

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  11. Steven Heller Post author

    Whether the “madman” saw the map or not, is not the point. The point is that images have subliminal impact. If we had evidence he did or did not see the map, it still would not mitigate the fact that context prevails.
    Why did Palin’s people take the map down after the tragedy? Because they could see it had negative implications. Why did they use the cross-hairs in the first place? Because it had negative implications.
    Let’s stop with the “grasping for something/anything to prove a political point” excuse and accept that visual rhetoric – left or right – has impact on all our maleable minds.

  12. CaseyM

    I doubt the man that is responsible for the shooting in Tucson saw this map with target/registration marks or InDesign crosshairs. We are assuming he did and this symbol used may have played a part in his involvement, not a chance. Grasping for something/anything to prove a political point using this map a possible motive is entry level rhetoric. I would assume his psychological state of being misinformed on many levels was not the fault of a political party. He was a madman.

  13. RobertD

    The history of symbols can be fascinating.
    In researching an upcoming lecture on visual identities that utilize the symbol of a cross I learned about the Celtic cross.
    Note: The Celtic cross symbol, which closely resembles the cross-hair symbol, has been adopted by some white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups. 

  14. Steven Heller Post author

    There are consequences when using the language of violence. The abortion clinic murders and bombings are cases in point. Of course, they are not relelvant to this particular crime at this time, but if you are asking why we should be fearful, there is a lot of very violent rhetoric being spouted.

    You are, however, right:

    The exact role of politics in Mr. Loughner’s life — or whether he had a specific political perspective at all — is harder to pin down. Investigators will have to wrestle with the difficult question of whether Mr. Loughner’s parroting the views of extremist groups was somehow more a cause of the shootings or simply a symptom of a troubled life.- NY Times.

    Then again:

    Some people who study right-wing militia groups and those who align themselves with the so-called Patriot movement said Mr. Loughner’s comments on subjects like the American currency and the Constitution, which he posted online in various video clips, were strikingly similar in language and tone to the voices of the Internet’s more paranoid, extremist corners.- NY Times.

    I am not trying to “build any political capital with this very tragic event.” I am stating a position based on overt and subtle rhetoric. There is no vitriol in my comment, only a critical observation. If we cannot make these observations now, when?

  15. refurd

    Steven, what consequences are you referring to? As of yet, there has been ABSOLUTELY NO correlation drawn between the shooter and a target symbol on Palin’s PAC site, much less anything Right Wing. I am by no means a fan of Palin, just an individual seeking intellectual honesty.
    Commentors, should you at least let the families of these poor victims bury their loved ones before you try to build any political capital with this very tragic event? By your very suggestions, you are contributing to the political vitriol that you claim to speak out against.

  16. Skypager

    I must have missed the fact that we were only debating media responsibility and not, as you said: “talking about a specific audience, one that is particularly receptive to violent imagery.”
    And yes, as creative pros, we do need to generalize. But we need to generalize based on research and facts, not preconceived notions and prejustices.
    Well, anyway, I agree that the right-wing media is very irresponsible and has a lot of people fooled. But really, intelligent people can see through the misinformation. Unfortunately, I feel that many people are becoming blinded stupid by fear. Yes, the same fear that is mongered by the media. And honestly, this whole issue with blindly and unjustly blaming Palin’s graphics for an assasination attempt is just as irresponsible and fear/hate mongering as anything else.
    It’s been nice debating with you, Nickname72, but I must move on as there is work to be done.

  17. Nickname72

    I’m not condemning all rightwingers. I’m condemning rightwing media which uses this kind of language and imagery constantly. I’m not debating that point. 
    My main point is that if the rightwing doesn’t take responsibility for this kind of incitement, it will happen again. It is too lucrative for FOX and the talk radio demagogues to abandon the technique. 
    If I am targeting an audience, you’re actually suggesting that I DON’T generalize? LOL. Come on. You have to group people at some point in order to form a strategy. This is done over and over in the corporate world. It’s called demographics. 

  18. Enewa Emaikwu_3A

    Also, she is in a high position, and doing anything she wants is not helpful to anyone. it reflects badly on not only her, but all Republicans. 

  19. Skypager

    The slander is in relation to suggesting that Palin’s graphics influenced the gunman; therefore implying that Palin is responsible for the act – which there is no evidence of. I don’t believe that it was Mr. Heller’s intention to slander Palin (and he certainly wasn’t the originator of that idea) but rather make a point about symbols. However, just like symbols on a map – we have to be responsible and careful about the words we use in a blog.
    As far as the audience: I think you are seriously misjudging and generalizing the audience Palin is trying to reach. There are defineatly right-wing nut jobs out there; just like there are left-wing nut jobs. To assume that all conservative republicans are nut jobs and violent is very short-sighted and borderline predjudice. As a creative professional, I do hope you spend the time to learn about your audiences more thoroughly rather than slapping preconceived and generalized labels on them.
    Can you really pin a label on millions of people due the the actions of a few? Remember, it’s the exreme personalities that get the media attention – not the reasonable and rational ones.
    You would probably agree with me that just because a few Muslims are terrorists doesn’t mean that all Muslims are terrorist. So, if that’s the case, how can you condem all right-wing Republicans due to the actions of a few?

  20. Enewa Emaikwu_3A

    i think that many people will start to distrust her because of what happened in Arizona. The symbol of “targeting” Democrats can now be  viewed as something hateful, and the cause of multiple deaths. 

  21. Nickname72

    It is not slander to suggest that rhetoric has consequences. The shooting was an <em>assassination</em> attempt – this was not the same as the shootings we often see. I understand that this kind of language is used sometimes even on the left, but if you are a creative professional you should know that we are talking about a specific audience, one that is particularly receptive to violent imagery. The left does NOT love guns. We are constantly being accused of wanting to take them away. You can’t have it both ways. 
    I understand that “target” graphics are used here and there but the symbols are not usually so specific as this. The symbol is specific to gun culture – the crosshairs you would see in a gun sight. I’ve seen the rebuttals with other targets but they are usually other kinds of targets, not gun sights. This is key.
    When you combine this graphic with the other rhetoric and visual imagery of gun violence towards liberals this is what we have been saying can result. For instance, Sharron Angle’s famous quote about “2nd Amendment remedies” for political problems like Harry Reid. 
    Look here at how Giffords’ recent opponent used imagery combined with language. It is CLEARLY a suggestion that she be taken out with a gun:
    How does anyone read that in light of what happened and not get a chill up your spine? 

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  23. Michael Dooley

    Obviously, there is currently no solid factual information to link Palin with Loughner, who, so far, appears to be just a very, very screwed up kid. And I’m much more heartbroken than I am angry right now over this horrific tragedy.
    Nevertheless, with the overabundance – and continuing escalation – of right-wing hate mongering this country has been subjected to over the past year – along with practically no denounciation of all this vile rhetoric from Republican and conservative leaders – it’s disingenuous to believe that – in the absence of solid facts – speculation of the “chickens coming home to roost” kind isn’t to be expected.
    p.s. to Darin: We can, and must, argue with “stupid.”
    Equally disingenuous is the “We never imagined…” and “It’s surveyor’s symbols” damage control rhetoric which, as the Alaska Dispatch article – link below – notes, fails to mention that Palin originally directed her fans to her infographic with a “Don’t retreat, RELOAD” Twitter notice.
    And equally inexcusable is the fact that SarahPAC only removed the map after the shooting, having already disregarded the initial public outrage over the crosshairs, way back in March.

  24. Darin

    While it’s true tha visual imagery has consequences and that a polarized nation is a weaker nation, singling out a ignorant fringe right “spokesperson” may only serve to polarize us more and help her rally more support. A wise man once said, “you can’t argue with stupid” let us just say that when one decides that their answers are the only correct answers, they need to be pushed aside as STUPID.

  25. francis levy

    I prefer to think of these matters from an evolutionary psychological rather tha geopolitical point of view. Has the mind changed in some way that man is becoming an even more violent creature than he has hitherto been and if so how is this to be measureed anecdotally aor statistically?The left side of the brain is usually associated with logical reasoning and the right with intuition. In the between these two areas  is something called the corpus callosum. Julian Jaynes wrote a book back in ’76 called The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. I haven’t read  this book, but I have a feeling I should.

  26. Skypager

    Thank you for your explanation, Mr. Heller. It is very fair.
    I suppose that it could be said that symbols are often intendend to prompt an action or, at the very least, help guide a user through an action. It is, then, very possible that a user may take a symbol more literal than it was intended to be.
    If this is your point; at least in part, then I agree wholeheartedly and conceed that it initially went buzzing over my head.

  27. Steven Heller Post author

    Dear Skypager
    Thank you very much for your comment. I respect your point-of-view, and to be honest, I did not jump into this issue when I felt the urge. But as designers we must always be aware that our images – signs and symbols – have the power to provoke and persuade. I truly am not saying that Ms. Palin is respsonsible. But whoever selected her “target” image, no matter how unintended, has made a statement.
    Okay, Target stores use a target, and there are crosshairs on all of our inDesign documents. In fact, I once wrote an essay about the use of EYES and CROSSHAIRS in 1930s advertising trade literature. But context is important. And unintented behavior can change meaning too.
    This may or may not be the wrong example to choose for the argument. I’ll leave that to the readers to decide. But for me, as a designer and design writer, I was struck by the subtle visual rhetoric and the terrible acts people will go to in the name of politics.

  28. Skypager

    Let me preface by saying that I am not a fan of Palin. But, Mr. Heller, I’ve always thought you were above such low forms of political slander. It is very irresponsible to say that you’re not implying then proceed to imply. However, I agree with your point in this blog: that symbols are powerful. It is just a very poor choice for an example.