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Pure Onsense

On Rhetoric

Scott Zuke

(Feb, 2011)  Early in the afternoon of Saturday, January 8, information about the tragic shooting in Tucson, Arizona, unfolded at an agonizingly slow pace, and what information was presented was difficult to verify. I recall CNN began by reporting rumors, and then announced that they had confirmed Representative Gabrielle Giffords had died. The claim was quickly retracted, and we know how that part of the story developed from there. Undeterred by this obvious signal for the need to slow down and wait for more official information to come in, the networks diverted their attention to speculating on the motive of the shooting—something they remarkably had even less ability to confirm.

What followed was one of the more aggravating and, frankly, embarrassing displays of the worst kind of liberal media bias. Within hours the prevailing opinion—or rather the uncritical assumption—was that the shooting was politically motivated. By that evening the blogs and liberal personalities like Keith Olbermann had dug up all the evidence they needed for a compelling storyline: the tragically prophetic protagonist, Rep. Giffords, who had voiced concerns about heated political rhetoric leading to violent consequences, and the recklessly careless villain, Sarah Palin, and her now infamous “crosshairs” map graphic.

For days the discussion bounced between updates on Giffords’ condition and discussions on the perils of vitriolic political rhetoric and the need for certain restrictions on speech and revitalized gun laws. The New York Times editorial board and columnists, particularly Paul Krugman, were fully on the bandwagon, decrying “right-wing extremism” as being the obvious culprit.

Personally, I found myself in the unexpected and uncomfortable position of coming to the defense of Sarah Palin and even Fox News, which was actually the only station asking critical questions about the shooter’s motives based on evidence being revealed through the investigation.

It took a week or two, but finally it was generally accepted by the media that the shooter had no apparent political motive, and was actually just an isolated and severely mentally disturbed individual with no coherent views. Nevertheless, according to a CBS poll, 32% of those surveyed believed that a “harsh political tone” was related to the attack. The media’s conversation on “civility in public discourse” continued unabated, even resulting in a ploy for Republicans and Democrats to intermix seating arrangements at the State of the Union.

Regular readers of this column know that I am a strong supporter of civil discourse, and may wonder why I’m complaining. First, it shouldn’t take a national tragedy to convince us that talking to one another respectfully is a good idea. Second, I want to promote slower, less knee-jerk communication in the public sphere.

The whole civility discussion, however valid the points made in it were, was founded upon an assumption hastily drawn from unknown and—as it turned out—false premises. The danger of this is that the real issue is overlooked. In this case, it might have been beneficial to talk about the breakdown of communications that allowed the shooter’s disturbed and threatening behavior to continue without meaningful intervention by the family, friends, schools, law enforcement—i.e. the community at large. Draw whatever other conclusions you wish, raise the discussions that need to be raised, but let’s give this incident its due respect by reading our lessons out of the known evidence rather than reading our own prejudices into it.

President Obama’s speech in Tucson struck the perfect note and elevated the stature of his leadership because he did two things that the blogosphere and mainstream media (and far too often he himself) do not do: He waited four days before speaking at length about the incident, and he chose to be thoughtful and reflective rather than shallow and reactionary. Rather than reciting the discussions dominating the airwaves, he stepped back, reevaluated things and spoke candidly, and as a result his few words rang out more true than anything in the days of media jabber that preceded it.

We should move away from obsessing over the idea that heated political rhetoric in some way caused the shooting in Tucson, no matter how indirectly, and instead consider why it was such an attractive explanation in the first place. Was this an expression of some sort of collective societal guilt, acknowledging that we all know our political rhetoric has led us to lose perspective? That we have forgotten that we are all working toward a common goal, and that disagreement is a healthy and necessary part of that process?

As President Obama put it in his State of the Union: “…There’s a reason the tragedy in Tucson gave us pause. Amid all the noise and passions and rancor of our public debate, Tucson reminded us that no matter who we are or where we come from, each of us is a part of something greater – something more consequential than party or political preference. We are part of the American family.”

Our problem is one of listening. Immediate and confident opinion may seem like a virtue of leadership, but there is much to be said for taking the time to understand opposing viewpoints, even if they are fundamentally unpersuasive. As Thomas Jefferson put it, “I see the necessity of sacrificing our opinions sometimes to the opinions of others for the sake of harmony.”

Part of the democratic challenge is for us to internalize others’ views and to temper our own proposals so as to try not to be fundamentally unacceptable to them. There is no practical point to calling for political action that one knows is entirely unfeasible. Skipping to impossible fantasies is not laudable “thinking outside of the box,” but rather an affront to other citizens of differing worldviews. It’s saying, “We’re done talking about practical ways to cooperate with you. We’re done compromising.” Man is a political animal, and politics is an art of skillful compromise. This is what we should be thinking about when we talk of “civil discourse” and cooling our rhetoric.

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