Incendiary political speech is aggressively selfish
After Saturday's tragic shooting in Tucson, some have pointed the finger at inflammatory political rhetoric.
Many singled out Sarah Palin's now-infamous "Don't Retreat, Instead - RELOAD!" tweet and her 'Crosshairs' campaign map, which included Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords' district, as a sign that some politicians have gone too far in stoking vitriol against their political opponents. (Since the shooting, Palin reportedly emphasized in an email that she "hates violence.") Others reject any connection between the shooter, who does not appear to espouse any coherent ideology, and our current political climate.
What are the ethical and moral implications of incendiary political language?
All of us -- from every spot on the spectrum of American politics -- mourn for the dead, condole with the families and friends of the victims and pray for the full recovery of the wounded in Tucson. All of us. One of the consequences of incendiary political language is that any of us doubt this truth.
Freedom of speech is one of the utterly essential pillars of government of, for and by the people. For me, the most serious moral implication of incendiary political speech is the way it exploits this necessary element of our body politic.
The reality is that there can be no law against any kind of political speech: We rely solely on the sensibilities shared among us of where the line must be drawn between what is helpful speech and what is harmful. This line is a good example of the concept called "obedience to the unenforceable."
The Bible can be seen as documenting God's own shift from trying to bind humans by laws in the Old Testament, to accepting that communion depends upon the unenforceable bonds of love, mainly in the New Testament. Both loving God and loving my neighbor depend upon obeying the unenforceable.
It may well be that the shooter in Tucson has no connection at all with the virulent political speech that has become commonplace in our politics. Yet many jumped to this conclusion.
This immediate connection is a serious indictment against the present political climate fueled by incendiary political language. Innuendo in campaign ads that borders on violating the Ninth Commandment, violent imagery toward electoral opponents and corrosive language about the whole enterprise of government all attack our body politic.
Our democracy is the victim of these kinds of attack. It is in critical condition and we ourselves are the only ones who can return our politics to health.
A central aspect of obedience to the unenforceable is a sense of responsibility for the community. Incendiary political speech is aggressively selfish, willfully denying responsibility for the great harm that can be done by our speech to the fabric of our political life together. Similarly, it is a moral failing to disown "the crazies" on the fringe of one's own place on the political map rather than accept responsibility for the effects of our words upon our own comrades.
Reweaving the tapestry of our political community -- reestablishing healthy boundaries on political speech -- is a responsibility we all share. There can be no finger pointing. We can shun those who so egregiously disobey the unenforceable restraints needed on political language. We can commit ourselves to obey the unenforceable ourselves (President Barack Obama is a good model to follow to the consternation of some Democrats.)
For me, these are some of the ethical and moral implications of incendiary political language. I pray that we will find our way together, as a people, to obey the unenforceable so that we won't even think of political speech contributing to a massacre like the one in Tucson last week.
January 11, 2011; 4:50 PM ET
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