Toning Down

January 11, 2011

Since Saturday's shooting of a U.S. congresswoman and many others at an event with her, there has been much discussion about what motivated the shooter. The record released thus far suggests a deeply troubled and unstable individual perpetuated the deed. Yet, some have argued that the increasingly violent rhetoric in American politics may have led to the situation--a claim that cannot be proven nor disproven. Either way, hopefully we can now reflect on the hateful, inappropriate, and dangerous rhetoric that often fills political discourse. Many have suggested Sarah Palin is to blame since she put a map with a gun crosshair on the district of Representative Gabrielle Giffords and defended that posting by tweeting her supporters to not "retreat" but instead "reload." Even if Palin's rhetoric did not inspire the shooter, her rhetoric was inappropriate and should have no place in American political discourse. Hopefully, she has learned this lesson as she has been unusually quiet and had the offensive map finally removed from her website (which seems to finally be an omission that it was inappropriate). Sadly, Palin is not alone in using inappropriate and violent rhetoric. Giffords's opponent in the election last fall--which Giffords only narrowly won--held a campaign event to "Help Remove Gabrielle Giffords From Office" by having supporters shoot an M16 rifle. Liberals have also invoked such rhetoric. For instance, during the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama once talked about how he was willing to take a gun to a knife fight. However, last year's midterm elections seemed to bring out a lot of violent political claims from calls for "Second Amendment remedies" to needing to "fight this battle at the ballot box before we have to resort to the bullet box" (see a longer list of examples here).

All of this violent political rhetoric must stop! It should have stopped much sooner, but hopefully people will now realize how inappropriate it is. Representative Giffords put it well after Palin's crosshair map originally came out:

I mean, this is a situation where--I mean, people don't--they really need to realize that the rhetoric and firing people up and, you know, even things, for example, we're on Sarah Palin's targeted list. But the thing is that the way that she has it depicted has the crosshairs of a gunsight over our district. When people do that, they've gotta realize there's consequences to that action.
While sane people may understand it is just a metaphor, it only takes one crazy person to misread it. Thus, even if that is not what happened in this case, Palin and other politicians should avoid such violent images and words. As Bob Schieffer of CBS explained:
Dangerous, inflammatory words are used with no thought of consequence. All's fair if it makes the point. Worse, some make great profit just fanning the flames. ... Those with sick and twisted minds hear us, too.
Similarly, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik spoke out against violent political rhetoric during a press conference about the shooting:
When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government. The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous.
Many politicians in both parties are now stepping forward to urge more civil political discourse. For instance, Democratic Representative Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri invoked biblical language as he declared:
We are in a dark place in this country right now. ... The hostility is here. People want to deny it, it is real. Members of Congress either need to turn down the volume, begin to try to exercise some high level of civility, or this darkness will never be overcome with light.
Republican Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee stated:
We ought to cool it, tone it down, treat each other with great respect, respect each other's ideas, and even on difficult issues like immigration or taxes or the health care law, do our best not to inflame passions.
Former Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan--who gave a speech filled with violent metaphors during the 1992 Republican National Convention--now offers some better rhetorical advice:
I'd give everybody the advice to tone down the rhetoric and to get away from the military or the armed metaphors.
Even Fox News head Roger Ailes joined in by stating:
I told all of our guys, shut up, tone it down, make your argument intellectually. You don't have to do it with bombast. I hope the other side does that.
The advice given by Ailes fits well with the title of my first book (For God's Sake, Shut Up!), in which I called on Christians to avoid inappropriate violent and militaristic metaphors. It is unfortunate it took a tragedy for many politicians and pundits to start realizing the need to tone down our violent political rhetoric. Hopefully, though, politicians and pundits will now watch their words more carefully.

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