Is this a wakeup call? Is it wrong to look at the unspeakably tragic shootings in Arizona as an opportunity to call for the toning down of political rhetoric and the return of civility to public discourse? I think not. But will those who are advocating a return to civility walk the walk?
Ironically, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, now fighting for her life, seems to have been the kind of individual who could bridge gaps. Decidedly centrist, she is a supporter of the health reform law as well as a strong defender of Second Amendment gun ownership rights. She supported John Lewis not Nancy Pelosi for House Minority Leader. She was a Republican; she’s now a Democrat. She appears , on issues and style, able to communicate with disparate individuals and groups.
Many have noted that Giffords was targeted by Sarah (“don’t retreat, reload”)Palin, who put Giffords’ district in the cross hairs of a gun sight and whose Tea Party endorsee, Jesse Kelly, used the language of gun violence to go after the Congresswoman during the campaign. But, according to many sources, she was also “targeted” by the left-wing dailykos.com blog for her vote against Pelosi. In fact, we often use the “targeting” metaphor as a way of focusing on goals. In the wake of this tragedy, we don’t want to be calling out the language police.
But it’s not just words; it’s tone and spirit. Rhetoric on both ends of the spectrum needs to be dialed back. As Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupink said, those who use inflammatory speech seven days a week, including the media, can have a very real, negative impact, especially on individuals who are unbalanced to begin with.
As kids we chanted, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” We know that this is not true. Vicious speech can fuel hate and can give license to the unbalanced to act out their anger in destructive and obviously criminal ways. As House Speaker John Boehner noted, a violent attack on one Congressman is an attack on all.
After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the country came together. Many felt optimistic that there would be less divisive rancor in the country. And there was, for a while. But, much as New Year’s resolutions quickly fade away, the post 9/11 spirit gave way to nasty, ad hominem, hateful speech, often including metaphors of guns and violence. Technological innovations in communications since 9/11 have virtually eliminated any filters on our expression. Media competition puts a premium on black-and-white simplistic arguments. And too often our political leaders dance to their tunes, playing to the worst in us.
Strong debate – on all the issues facing us, from health reform to taxes and the deficit, to energy and environment – is essential to the workings of our democracy. It is damaging to label those whose ideas are different as traitors to the country. Giffords herself was practicing the values of the First Amendment, which she had read on the floor of the House early last week. Viciousness and hatred in the exercise of First Amendment freedoms may be lawful, but the lack of self restraint and comity undermines the fabric of the democracy it was designed to serve.