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Attempted Assassination and Civil Discourse

11/01/2011

Possibly the biggest story since Saturday has been the senseless attack on a constituent gathering in Tucson, Arizona, from which Representative Gabrielle Giffords in critical condition after a bullet shot at point-blank range traveled through the left side of her brain, and in which a nine-year-old girl, a federal judge, and one of Representative Giffords’ own aides were murdered. Since then, the blame game has begun with each side of the political world pointing fingers at the other. It’s because Sarah Palin put gun crosshairs on a political map, or because President Obama exhorted us to bring a gun to a knife fight.

The only person who’s managed to get it completely right so far is Jon Stewart. The Daily Show, despite being a hit “fake news” show on Comedy Central, is consistently a source of more accurate, nonpartisan news coverage than is available on any of the mainstream news networks. If you want conservative or liberal spin you know where to go; if you want to get closer to the truth, however, you go to Jon Stewart.

Watch: Arizona Shootings Reaction

I’m guilty of contributing to the problem, as is everyone who continues to point fingers. The bottom line here is that political discourse in the United States has gone from civil disagreement that maintains a respect for one’s political opponents to an ongoing flame war in which each side tries to demonize the other faster and more harshly. People aren’t encouraged to campaign for issues about which they are passionate; they are encouraged to lambaste the people who represent the ideas with which they are taught to disagree.

Voltaire said, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” Today’s discourse cleaves tightly to the first half of that sentiment, but has warped the second half to something more akin to “I’ll defend my right opinion to the death, and to hell with you.” As long as it is considered acceptable or ideal to belittle those who disagree with us, we will continue to cultivate a society where vitriol is the common currency and the biggest thing we’ll have to fear is the next person who decides that words are not enough.

We have the opportunity to really take to heart the central lesson of this weekend: disagreement is natural in our political environment. It is impossible to make everyone happy. But expressing thoughts, beliefs, and opinions is possible without vilifying others — instead of calling names and fueling anger, look for facts and encourage mutual respect, because right now our society is more in line with another Voltaire gem: “As long as people believe in absurdities they will continue to commit atrocities.”

Let’s return to civil discourse, and apply the lessons of this weekend to make ourselves a better society.

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