(I’ve been hanging onto this for a few days in the hope of figuring out a better way to say what I’m trying to say, but it’s just not coming to me, so I’m going with what I’ve got.)
In the wake of the tragic shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords last weekend, we’ve been hearing the usual scolding from public figures worried about the anger and hatred in our political discourse:
Last spring Politico.com reported on a surge in threats against members of Congress, which were already up by 300 percent. A number of the people making those threats had a history of mental illness — but something about the current state of America has been causing far more disturbed people than before to act out their illness by threatening, or actually engaging in, political violence.
And there’s not much question what has changed. As Clarence Dupnik, the sheriff responsible for dealing with the Arizona shootings, put it, it’s “the vitriolic rhetoric that we hear day in and day out from people in the radio business and some people in the TV business.” The vast majority of those who listen to that toxic rhetoric stop short of actual violence, but some, inevitably, cross that line.
Here’s an example from an AP article by Charles Babington and Calvin Woodward:
Sen. Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Democratic leader in the Senate, on Sunday cited imagery of crosshairs on political opponents and Sarah Palin’s combative rallying cry, “Don’t retreat; reload.”
“These sorts of things, I think, invite the kind of toxic rhetoric that can lead unstable people to believe this is an acceptable response,” Durbin said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
The attack might be the work of “a single nut,” Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva, whose Arizona district shares Tucson with Giffords’ district, said Saturday, the day Giffords was shot. But he said the nation must assess the fallout of “an atmosphere where the political discourse is about hate, anger and bitterness.”
It seems like every time something like this happens, some people try to blame it on the rhetoric of their political opponents. They tell people to tone it down, to quell the vitriolic rhetoric, to be careful what they say, so that crazy people don’t violently overreact.
I say to hell with that.
First of all, if politicians and other public figures don’t want us to hate them, if they don’t want us angry at them, then they should stop doing stuff that pisses us off. I know that’s going to be difficult: Every issue has people on all sides of it, so no matter which side they take, someone’s going to be angry at them.
Tough. That’s the job. If they want to hold an important public position, then by definition they’re going to be responsible for making decisions that matter to people. They’re going to have to make hard calls, and they won’t be able to please everyone. That’s what having power means. Thinking you can hold public office without angering people is like wanting to be a race car driver without damaging any cars.
Second, the idea that we should tone it down is related to the pop-psychology idea that anger and hatred are “negative emotions” which we should try to suppress. That’s mostly nonsense. Feelings of anger and hatred are part of the perfectly normal human reaction to dreadful situations. So if you think the folks who run our government are doing bad things, it’s normal to be angry. It’s normal to hate them. How else should we feel about the people who are ruining everything?
That said, you don’t want to let anger and hatred consume you. Timothy McVeigh should not be your role mode. (And, for different reasons, neither should Fred Goldman.) But getting pissed off at the people you think are messing up our country…that’s normal. Don’t worry about it.
Third, anybody who’s ever given a speech or written a blog knows that it’s hard to make people understand what you want to say. Some people will misunderstand your point because they lack the background, or because they’ve had different life experiences, or just because they have a different way of thinking about the world. It’s hard work telling a story or making a point in a way that communicates clearly with most of your audience.
And that’s just with normal, sane, and intelligent people. Throw in some real insanity, and there’s no hope of being understood properly. Crazy people are quite likely to hear something very different from what you’re saying. We’re talking here about the kinds of people who watch David Letterman on television and think he’s sending them secret personal messages, or the kind of people who talk to Steven Spielberg for 30 seconds in a hotel elevator and think he’s agreed to produce their script.
There’s no way to predict how someone like this will understand the things you say, and it’s madness to censor yourself in anticipation of every possible reaction. You just can’t let crazy people run your life that way.
Finally, we have to look at the kinds of people calling for moderation: Politicians and media personalities. The prominent and the powerful. They always hate it when the rest of us have something to say.
In Pima County, Ariz., Sheriff Clarence Dupnik suggested “all this vitriol” in recent discourse might be connected to Saturday’s shootings. “This may be free speech,” he told reporters, “but it’s not without consequences.”
So we’re getting a lecture about violent rhetoric from a guy who has his own SWAT team? A dozen guys like Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann–or a thousand bloggers like me–couldn’t begin to do as much harm with words as Sheriff Dupnik’s SWAT team could do in one bad day. The Sheriff was probably even carrying a gun while he spoke, so those consequences he’s worried about are just one trigger pull away for him.
It’s the same with all the members of Congress. They’re funding big wars in two countries–not to mention the drug war here are home–and they’re telling us to tone it down? President Obama orders the assasination of an American citizen, but we’re supposed to be worried about violent subtext on talk radio? Police around the country are shooting innocent people as the unavoidable consequence of performing forty thousand armed raids every year, but we should worry about heated expressions of opinion?
I’m not saying it’s good to be a tough-talking jackass, but people who have the authority to kill–and who have on occasion used it–should lay off telling the rest of us to be careful how we say things.
Update: Since I wrote this, the Pima County Sheriff’s SWAT team has had their bad day. On May 5, they killed a United States Marine during a drug raid.