Monday, January 10, 2011

The Ebb and Flow of Public Discourse

Words matter.  And incendiary words, especially, can stir both the passions and actions of people who are more susceptible to manipulation.  Particularly when those words are being not only condoned, but repeated and approved of, by people in power who have a much, much larger and broader microphone to reach out to the public.

But, you might argue, the 1st Amendment protects all speech, even the kind that makes your blood boil or makes you embarrassed to even acknowledge the speaker of it as a fellow human being.  Absolutely true.

The difference, then, is the vast gulf between what can be spoken and what ought to be spoken.  A question of decency, manners and a sense of responsibility to not begin a stampede in an entirely wrong direction make all the difference in the world, and ought to at least be expected from someone who might claim whatever piece of a mantle of leadership may exist in these days of political fragmentation.

While it is accurate to say, under the legal reasoning of case law stemming from Schenck v. U.S., that a fellow citizen may shout whatever he likes so long as that vitriolic spewing is not false, that is not to say that he ought to utter it.

For example, here's Sen. Jon Kyl on Face the Nation yesterday morning, talking about the local sheriff's comments that inflammatory political rhetoric may have contributed to the shooting in Tucson of an elected representative:
Who knows what motivates them to do what they do and then they could commit terrible crimes like this....I think we should be a little careful about trying to jump to conclusions and -- and get lessons learned from this before we know all of the facts.
In a sense, Kyl is correct that we do not yet know the full extent of what motivated the shooter in Tucson, and that mental instability may have indeed contributed to this.

But does that mean people who have contributed to our nationwide stew of violent rhetoric to stoke political passions, who have consistently looked the other way have no responsibility whatsoever to the rest of us in terms of the seeds of hatred and violence they are sowing in our communities far and wide?

I say no.

Because in this analysis in my mind, the questions are separate and distinct:

(a) is this the proximate or actual cause of the shooting -- the answer is we have no idea at this point what, if any, role it may have played in this incident; and

(b) should people in political office or their media/messaging amplification surrogates be using rabid, violent language and images to stoke herds of followers for political or personal gain?

I'd like to think the decent, thoughtful people among us would say no.

Again, from Face the Nation, this time from CBS' national correspondent, Nancy Cordes:
You know, going out into the community and meeting with constituents is the life blood of members of the House of Representatives. They hold hundreds of events like this. This is how they get to know their constituents. This is how they get re-elected. So it’s not really an option for members of Congress to barricade themselves in their offices and retreat from public life. This is what they are about. And it does make members afraid. You know, many people don’t realize that almost all of the members of the House of Representatives don’t have any security, except for the leaders at the very top. It would be just prohibitively expensive to give these four hundred thirty-five members security around the clock. And so, they are in a sense taking their lives into their hands when they go out into the community, especially in this politically-charged environment where so much violent rhetoric, violent imagery is becoming commonplace sending a message perhaps to the less stable among us that we consider our opponents, not just people with whom we disagree but actually our enemies. (emphasis mine)
And that's really the whole thing in a nutshell, isn't it?

The First Amendment guarantees your right to say what you like, how you like to say it, so long as you are saying something truthful and that doesn't endanger lives in its lack of factual basis.

But, as Digby points out, what we've seen thus far hasn't exactly been a profile in courage and leadership from elected political officials when it comes to allies who are overstepping the bounds of decency in rhetoric. 

I'd like to think we'd see better in the days ahead, but it is already deteriorating into finger-pointing, posturing, and high-ground seizing idiocy instead of the desperately needed critical evaluation and acceptance of responsibility that a large number of people in our political "leadership" bear for allowing so many violent words and deeds to go unchecked and tacitly approved for far too long.

I suppose it is too much to expect or even hope for real examination and a commitment to reform and work on behalf of the whole of the American public.  Not when political points might be out there for the scoring for any elected official able to seize the faux moral high ground of the moment.  But a girl can dream that the ebb and flow of political discourse might, perchance, take a turn for the factual and authentic, can't she?

(Photo via ashley baz.)

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