Let’s think for a second about the National Rifle Association’s controversial new video, “The Violence of Lies.” Much has already been said about this one-minute video; critics say it advocates violence and racism, and defenders deny this and say “clenched fist of truth” is only a metaphor. So let’s break it down. It’s going to get a bit nerdy but bear with me; this video is a revealing piece of rhetoric and it’s worth taking a moment to understand what it’s saying and how.
In the video, the narrator Dana Loesch talks about the liberal “narrative.” But the video reveals the NRA’s narrative as well. The seemingly disconnected scenes—each shown only for a second, tell a story. The story has three acts: First, seemingly normal footage of schools and city life. Then, scenes of Los Angeles’s film, news, and music establishments, signifying the liberal media, and scenes of typically liberal spaces like downtown Chicago, Washington D.C., and New York City. Third, and flowing seamlessly from the first two, we see scenes of riots, fires, and property destruction, culminating with a victim wearing a Trump t-shirt and immediately thereafter an American flag.
The video makes use of what’s called the Kuleshov Effect, in which images shown in succession create impressions different than they would in isolation. The Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov discovered that, if people are shown images one right after the other, they will associate them in their minds and interpret the images in light of each other. Psychologists have tested this—if you show a person a short clip of a face making a neutral expression, then immediately follow that with an image of a puppy, viewers will report that the face looked happy. If you show them the same face but follow it with an image of suffering, viewers will report that the face looked sad.
Directors and editors take advantage of this effect to cue audiences into characters’ motivations and emotions. They also use it to create associations between two things; for example, showing an American flag immediately after the image of a bloodied Trump voter effectively shows the audience that the man is a patriot. Connected together this way, images can tell a story. So the montage of images in the NRA video—starting with schools and media outlets, then liberal spaces, then quickly descending into destruction—creates in viewers a sense of connection, even causation. The string of images suggests to viewers that what seems harmless nonetheless carries within it the seeds of chaos. Hence, even though riots are few and far between in America, in this video they are treated as part of a much larger liberal agenda. At first, this agenda may seem innocuous—just a movie, just a textbook, just an article—but look where it leads. The message of the video is not “There are some people rioting in cities, so be prepared.” The message is “Society will crumble if the liberals have their way.”
This story of how the left operates is also found in the verbs used in the video. Listen to the progression of verbs in order—teach, repeat, endorse, march, protest, scream, smash, shut down, bully, terrorize. The verbs are in this order for a reason. Were they scattered, it might seem like they could be separated—some liberals terrorize, some teach, some protest. But in this order, they build on one another. Presented in this way, the video suggests, in effect, “It starts with teaching and it ends with terrorism.”
The story proceeds forwards, but the logic projects backwards. Consider a farmer who finds an unfamiliar seed and decides to plant and water it. Weeks later, the mystery plant sprouts a jalapeño pepper and the farmer discovers that it’s been a jalapeño plant the whole time. The true nature is revealed in the end result. This video treats liberalism the same way. According to the narrative presented in this video, the violence of anti-Trump riots is the natural outcome of the ideas taught in public schools and spread by the mainstream media. It’s all the same ideology, and its true nature is revealed in the end result. The video does not let us make distinctions between peaceful Black Lives Matter protestors and lawless mobs, or between John Oliver and the man who opened fire on a congressional baseball practice. They’re all part of the same plant, as it were, and it needs to be pulled out by the roots.
This may seem like an overstatement, but there’s no denying that the video reinforces the idea that America is divided into two groups. There is an “us” and a “them,” and “they” are conspirators whose ultimate goal is to terrorize law-abiding Americans. Here’s a transcript with the “us” and “them” language highlighted.
“They use their media to assassinate real news. They use their schools to teach children that their president is another Hitler. They use their movie stars and singers and comedy shows and award shows to repeat their narrative over and over again. And then they use their ex-president to endorse ‘the resistance.’
All to make them march. Make them protest. Make them scream racism and sexism and xenophobia and homophobia. To smash windows, burn cars, shut down interstates and airports, bully and terrorize the law-abiding — until the only option left is for the police to do their jobs and stop the madness.
And when that happens, they’ll use it as an excuse for their outrage. The only way we stop this, the only way we save our country and our freedom, is to fight this violence of lies with the clenched fist of truth.
I’m the National Rifle Association of America. And I’m freedom’s safest place.”
This tendency to split America into groups has been a central feature of NRA rhetoric for decades. Wayne LaPierre, the CEO and executive vice president of the NRA, is typical in this regard. In his 1994 book Guns, Crime, and Freedom, LaPierre talks in terms of three groups of people: criminals, the government, and law-abiding citizens. Law-abiding citizens need to be armed, if for no other reason, because criminals and the government are armed. An armed, law-abiding populace acts, on the one hand, as a safeguard against lawlessness, and on the other hand, a safeguard against tyranny. Hence, though the government and law-abiding citizens work together to suppress crime, the partnership is an uneasy one.
This threefold distinction helps account for the fact that the NRA video is not pro-police, or at least not unambigiously pro-police. Police officers are, after all, agents of the government. The police are shown as militarized and threatening, and Loesch makes it clear that police action is a last resort. The police are not part of the “us,” and they are not part of the solution, as Loesch implies when she turns from the police to “the only way we can stop this.”
The “we” is law-abiding citizens, that much is clear. This category excludes not only criminals but also, it would seem, liberals. Movie stars, singers, teachers, CNN, the Women’s March, and Obama are all framed as being on the side of those who threaten law-abiding citizens. The differences between them are irrelevant, and whether they actually engage in violence is beside the point. They all contribute to the “violence of lies.”
In conclusion, what is most interesting about this video is not what it argues for, but what it assumes. First, it assumes that the left is a monolith, a unified “them” with a single agenda. Second, it assumes a narrative of how liberalism culminates in chaotic violence. Seemingly innocent events become threatening when made part of this narrative: a TV episode about racism, a neighborhood rally for gun control, and a college lecture on totalitarianism get interpreted as hostile acts in the left’s multi-front war against law-abiding Americans.
So is the video racist? Well, yes and no. The threatening “them” in the video is not racial minorities, but the political left. The scenes of destruction and violence shown in the video are predominantly perpetrated by white people. But characterizing those who denounce racism and xenophobia as part of a violent “them” seems to turn a deaf ear to their calls for justice. Nowhere in the video is there any sense that protestors may have a point or that they deserve to be heard. Furthermore, a few rioters’ acts—shown without context—are taken as representative of millions of people. The actions of a small subset are taken as revealing the essence of the whole group. That is the definition of a stereotype. At the very least, we can say that the logic of racism is at work in this video.
Does the video promote violence? Again, yes and no. There is no explicit promotion of violence, and “the clenched fist of truth” is clearly a metaphor. The video certainly doesn’t argue that one should grab a gun and start shooting liberals. But the rhetoric of “us” and “them,” with “them” being a monolithic, malicious threat to “us,” is a staple of wartime propaganda. We’ve all heard rhetoric like this before, and we know what it asks of us. If there’s an enemy and an imminent threat, viewers know how to finish the equation. If I told you a man is coming at you with a knife, I don’t have to tell you to defend yourself—the conclusion is implied. Finally, what a speech means depends to some degree on who’s speaking, and this video was made by the National Rifle Association. It would be a different video if it ended with “I’m Fox News, and I’m freedom’s safest place.” We can’t ignore what the organization stands for when we ask what the video promotes.
This video is fascinating not because of what it asserts but because of what it assumes. It cannot be faulted simply for making assumptions—it’s just a one-minute ad, after all— but we need to get clear on what these assumptions are and what role they play in the message of the video before we can talk together about what’s true and false about the NRA’s “clenched fist.”
By Russell Johnson
 I am speaking here only in terms of one sense of "racism." For further discussion of what "racism" means, see David's blog post, "Why We Still Need Racism".