Programming

Editorial: Dial It Down

1/17/2011 12:01:00 AM Eastern

In the wake of the incomprehensible horror in Arizona, it is important
to separate two things. There is angry and violent rhetoric that,
as former President Bill Clinton pointed out last week, demonizes the
other side of political debate in a way that is hurtful to others and
unhelpful to the arguments being legitimately raised and debated.

Then there are the actions of someone who, by
virtually all accounts, was a troubled person seemingly
disassociated from the world around him,
political or otherwise. Whether he is insane by the
legal definition of incapacity is for others to judge,
though that very important distinction brings up
a third point which we will address here as well.

But in the immediate aftermath of a tragic
shooting that took the lives of a 9-year-old girl,
a federal judge and the sort of people we would like
to have for neighbors and friends, as well as gravely
injuring a congresswoman, it is understandable that
Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ supporters
and friends would
lash out at political opponents,
including one who
put crosshairs on her district
and spoke of “reloading” in
the heated fight against President
Barack Obama’s healthcare
plan. It is human nature
to try to make sense of what
is senseless. But both sides
have engaged in just such
unfair play. As one MSNBC
anchor pointed out back
when Sarah Pailin chose that
unfortunate gun-related imagery:
“Campaign rhetoric
and war rhetoric have been
interchangeable for years.”

“Blame” aside, there is the
issue of extreme rhetoric and ad hominem attacks.
Isn’t it time to stop calling people you disagree
with ‘Nazis’? Like ‘Holocaust,’ the term should be
reserved for the unspeakable horror that belongs
to that specific time and place alone.

How one side characterizes the other should
not be ugly or thoughtless business as usual, even
if contentious debate makes for more compelling
programming.

“The fact that cable television is ravenous to fill
the time—and people fill the time often by going
to the extreme—makes better television,” conservative
columnist George Will said last week. “It is
the structure given by technology that gives our
debates a kind of artificial ferocity and clarity.”

And it doesn’t take a Harvard lawyer or an
FCC chairman—in the present case one and the
same—to see that the Internet is changing how
we live and interact. Clinton said last week that
it has become an echo chamber for the unhinged.
If so, then perhaps we need to pay more careful
attention to the impact of what we say.

That would be a good thing. Dialing down the attacks
does not, and should not, involve government,
beyond the individual legislators who need to lead by
example. But let’s be clear: Fixing blame and allowing
the debate over polarizing rhetoric to further polarize
the nation would be a disservice to the memories of
the victims. To use the shooting,
horrible as it was, to justify
any attempt to regulate
political speech would be to
dishonor them as well.

Only days before the
shooting, in fact, Giffords
was on the House floor reciting
the First Amendment as
part of a reading of the Constitution
to mark the convening
of the new Congress.

Another disservice was
the fact that those following
media coverage of the
shooter’s arraignment last
week had to rely on artist
renderings and secondhand
observations on his
state of mind, which could
be a crucial factor in how he is treated inside the
legal system. That is because federal trial judges do
not have the discretion to allow cameras or microphones
into their courts. That is something that,
along with the rhetoric, ought to change.

As for that rhetoric, it would be a good idea to
bring more civility to our dialog without losing the
passion with which each side should rightly defend
their views. It is that passion that founded and has
forged the nation. But we should also not rush to
shift responsibility to either the media, or even violent
language, for what happened last week.

“I don’t think this will change the way people
vote on the issues,” Will said, “but it may change,
and for the better, the way they talk about the issues.”
Let’s hope so.

 

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