Are we a nation doomed to be violent? How do we know when our political rhetoric has gone too far? How do we find or encourage a more civil discourse?
I was struck by the words of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. She objected to an advertisement last March by Sarah Palin: “The way that has it depicted has the crosshairs of a gun sight over our district,” Giffords said on MSNBC. “When people do that, they have got to realize there are consequences to that.”
She continued: “Chances are, you're going to have a couple of people, extremes on both sides, frankly, not just the Republican side. We have Democratic extreme activists as well. Most of our country is in the middle, but we do have these polarized parts of our parties that get really excited. And that's where again community leaders, not just the political leaders, all of us need to come together and say, there's a fine line here."
Words have consequences—and Giffords (and so many others) are innocent victims of those consequences. It wasn’t just painted targets but political campaign slogans of “lock and load” or “don't retreat, reload.”
I know the counter-argument. Don’t blame the rhetoric because the Tucson shooter was a disturbed young man. That may be. But that doesn’t change the weather; the political climate is threatening.
Just Google the words “Democrats are ...” Some 6 million entries pop up filling in that last word as being Marxists or a willingness “to rob us of our freedoms.” These words go beyond a simple political disagreement: We on the other side are wrong or evil. We listen to calls for us to be exorcised from the nation’s discourse.
The climate of the times does matter. It’s far more common to see violent acts infect our politics when people are unsettled. Instead of listening, learning, engaging in political debate, there’s an instant dismissal of those who disagree.
A target over a candidate is a stark reminder that we have forgotten how to agree to disagree. It’s the same with those stubborn refusals to accept the fact that President Obama won the election and is the legitimate leader of this democracy. Court rulings, documents, newspaper clippings—and common sense are discarded because they are convinced President Obama is not an American. That goes beyond civil discourse.
The very act that Rep. Giffords was engaged in at the time when she was shot should be the antidote to that idea. We need civil discussion more than ever. As the president put it: “It’s not surprising that today Gabby was doing what she always does—listening to the hopes and concerns of her neighbors. That is the essence of what our democracy is all about. That is why this is more than a tragedy for those involved. It is a tragedy for Arizona and a tragedy for our entire country.”
That is the essence of where we need to go as a nation. We need to encourage responsible free speech by condemning those words that go beyond civility. We need to remind ourselves that those who disagree are still Americans.
We are not doomed to be a violent nation. We can change that climate, remaking our political discourse. Let’s use this tragedy as the call to civility. When political rhetoric goes too far, say so. Seek out those disagree and praise them for their ideas, then politely dissent. We must praise those who agree to disagree. We need to make the politics of hate absolutely unacceptable.
Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. Trahant’s recent book, “The Last Great Battle of the Indian Wars,” is the story of Sen. Henry Jackson and Forrest Gerard.