US Rep. Giffords: Our Anger, and Our Responsibility

Earlier this week, I vowed on my blog that I would not post political articles except when they bore some relationship to justice, equality or faith. I find myself regretting that decision after the events of yesterday, but the events of yesterday in Tuscon seem to warrant exception. There is much to say, and not to say, about what occurred in the shooting of public officials and private citizens in Tuscon. But we certainly must not lose the opportunity to reflect on our own language, vitriol and anger that can give rise to such tragedies.

Ever since the early 1990s, we have witnessed a racheting up of extremist language and angry rhetoric in our American society. All of us are guilty of accusing those on our political right or left of being uncaring, unAmerican, a Nazi, or immoral. This is not a problem that belongs to the Right alone. Regardless of party, all of us have allowed our speech about the “other side” to get out of control. The damage is that we are becoming two Americas at a time when we desperately need to come together. And frankly, all the negative portrayals of Congress, members of Congress (seen coverage of Nancy Pelosi lately, who happens to be a very good person?), and the federal government just needs to stop. Honest disagreement is welcome. But, as our new Speaker said last week in his speech on Wednesday, “We can disagree without being disagreeable.”

The maps above are of course innocent. I do not believe that Sarah Palin endorses violence, and neither do Democrats. But these maps illustrate the careless way that we have grown accustomed to communicating as a society about our politics. The map on the left is Sarah Palin’s 2010 “target” list for congressional races. Among those “targets” was the congressional seat of U.S. Rep. Giffords. The map on the right is a “target” list of a Democratic organization. While innocent in their intent, surely we could articulate our political strategies and motivate donors without the use of militaristic or violent language. Again, this is a bipartisan problem.

We always should have a respectful and vigorous debate about the issues facing our nation, but the kind of angry words and false accusations that we have seen from our cable news ideologues, radio personalities, political parties, preachers, and around dinner tables does not come without consequences. “Target” lists become actual targets in the wrong hands. Disagreement is fine, but the extremist portrayals of those who disagree with us have consequences when one follows another so that anger simmers in those who have no emotional control. This past week, U.S. Rep. Darryl Issa called President Obama “the most corrupt president in history.” When confronted by reporters to explain what he meant, he changed his statement to “most corrupt administration.” When asked to explain what exactly had been corrupt (there are probably fewer accusations of corruption against this Administration than any in modern memory), he said that the amount of spending had been corrupt. There’s a huge difference between a disagreement over spending priorities and an allegation of corruption. Yet, Rep. Issa evidently thinks that words are just mere words. I hope he learned yesterday that they matter.

I hope that Beck and Olbermann, FOX and MSNBC, Rush and all of us will begin to change our words and our ways. Last night, Sarah Palin deleted her “No Retreat –Reload!” tweet. Olbermann, to his credit, apologized last evening for any words that may have caused any extremist action. Beck should do the same. We should have a vigorous debate, but that debate must be factual, respectful and dignified. That is the most important of obligations that we have to each other as Americans in this democracy where free speech and representative government demands responsibility and respect.

Finally, there are 300 million Americans in our country, and the great majority of them are good people who love our country and their neighbors. Even those who hold a different opinion than our own on the issues of the day are not our enemies, and we enjoy the exercise of democracy around our dinner tables, over water coolers, and on Facebook. Most of us do not speak or act with violence. But we must learn from the events of yesterday that language that is innocent but extremist and violent, in the wrong hands, can be a national tragedy. Many of us have been begging our fellow Americans to turn down the tone and turn off the extremist shows for two years. Now we’re demanding that we each do our part to heal our land.

4 Responses to “US Rep. Giffords: Our Anger, and Our Responsibility”
  1. Fred Reed says:

    Healing begins at home.

    While I don’t disagree that extremist language and angry rhetoric is tending to drive people into camps, diminishing the open discourse necessary to solve our county’s problems, I see the devaluation of accurate language into “ideologic spin” as both pervasive and a more insidious impediment to substantive discussion.

    To wit:

    “Governor Brewer has herself fanned into flame some conservatives with her own language and her anti-immigrant policies”. Here you attack Governor Brewer with inaccurate “spin”. Governor Brewer proposes anti-ILLEGAL-immigrant policies which are generally supported by a solid majority of the American public. No matter how ones feels about her policies, mislabeling them, along with the set-up phrase “fanned into flame” is clearly pejorative and inflammatory in itself. The constant use of the inaccurate term “anti-immigrant” by the left, essentially prevents an intellectual policy discussion of what approach to take concerning illegal immigration.

    While you call for bipartisan calm, your liberal bias is coming through, loud and clear: “This is not a problem that belongs to the Right alone, though we also must be honest and note that we haven’t seen shooters that are liberals”. What we see is a media that can’t wait to label some mentally deranged individuals as “right wing”, while a left leaning shooter like Amy Bishop is not primarily characterized by her political beliefs. Go back in history but a few years and many of the “shooters” were, unlike these deranged individuals, cold calculating left wing political operatives (e.g. SLA).

    Progress is impossible so long as all the sides of the argument are unwilling to come to the table with clearly spoken shared reality.

    • toddbouldin says:

      Fred, thank you for your thoughtful reply. You were correct about my comments on Brewer, and my comments about the rightward bias of shooters may have been a bit one sided (since I’ve been alive, that certainly has seemed to be the case). I have removed both in an effort to model the kind of rhetoric and behavior that I encourage in the article.

      Yes, we should have a vigorous debate. But that does not require that we vilify members of Congress, the president and public servants as evil or corrupt. Most are not, and most are well intentioned. All good Americans should be able to say that John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi are good people and decent public servants, then articulate why we agree or disagree with them. Some humor and exaggeration is to be expected, but I think we can do better than the behavior of the last two years.

      At the end of the day, this was an act by a deranged person, not a good American who just happened to disagree with Gabby. I think we should keep that in mind and not over blame any person or any rhetoric, but also not “waste a crisis.” 🙂

  2. neal boortz says:

    Mr. Bouldin, call from Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, line one, will you take it?

  3. toddbouldin says:

    Neal, I had intended to remove the line about liberals and shooters, and I overlooked it. I apologize. I have removed it now.

    I”m not trying to defend one side or the other, especially at this time. I’m trying to say we all have a responsibility to improve first, our attitudes, then our speech. Yesterday, during a time when we all were self-reflecting on our own anger and speech, Rush Limbaugh immediately began his defensive strategy of “Words don’t kill people; people do.” That’s really shameful, and I expect all good Americans to decry that kind of response to Tuscon.

    Liberals and conservatives shoot people. Most of them have been crazy. Good Americans don’t speak of one another as evil and unAmerican.

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