Words represent our core beliefs
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?
What are the ethical and moral implications of incendiary political rhetoric? Heck, what are the implications of ANY such rhetoric?
Just yesterday I was in conversation with a student about how the energy we put out in a heated encounter often can be turned against us - that the best way to disarm someone may well be not to put out the kind of anger and venom that can feed the fire and engulf us in it. Aren't the martial arts all about using the other's energy against them? Anybody read "The Devil and Daniel Webster" lately?
Beyond just the practical, there is, appropriate to this panel, the religious intonation used in Jewish and Christian entreaty before an action: "May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight...." And in the Muslim tradition, the prayer before an action, "Bismillah, ar-Rahman, ar-Rahim" - in the Name of Allah, the Merciful and Beneficent. Would the rhetoric of supposedly devout politicians and commentators be as vitriolic if these sentiments were not only expressed before statements - but taken seriously?
Jimmy Carter got into trouble during his presidential campaign for responding in Playboy (what WAS that Southern Baptist thinking?!) to the question, "Have you ever been unfaithful to Roslyn?" with the answer, "Not in the way you are asking, but I have lusted after others in my heart, and according to my faith, that is just as bad as committing adultery." He may not have impressed the more permissive among us, but he did reflect accurately Jesus's recognition that thought precedes action, that too often "As a person thinks, so is s/he."
Does using language of "targeting," "I'd like to kill so-and-so," and of placing bulls-eyes over people and places marked for "elimination" have any effect on people's actions - especially in a super-heated environment of anger, enmity, suspicion, and opposition? The answer probably falls in the "DUH!" category. I do hope we can learn as a society from the tragedy in Tucson and tone things down. Early evidence, however, after a brief flurry of breast-beating, doesn't seem to be encouraging. There is too much money to be made, too many reputations to be made, too much power to be gained from the kind of culture we have created in the media and in politics.
At the same time, though, we should remind ourselves that while six innocents were being gunned down in Arizona, our own policies were killing many more in the border deserts and in foreign lands. Other nations' policies and other individuals' greed, anger, and addictions also lead to violence. There are no simple solutions to the reasons we do violence to ourselves and to others. Addressing political rhetoric would be good - but it is only the tip of the iceberg.
In my Quaker tradition, "plain speaking" is a deeply held value. It means more than using the "in-house" language of "thees" and "thous." Much more importantly, it goes along with George Fox's famous advice, "Let your lives preach." Our words and our actions should speak directly and plainly to our core beliefs and commitments. Perhaps if we took this principle more seriously, our words would be measured much more carefully and we wouldn't speak in hyperbole or overblown phrases that are inconsistent with our true beliefs.
And if our words do truly represent those core beliefs - and they lead to such horrors as those witnessed in Tucson...or in the deserts...or in policies that harm others...then, well, perhaps we just might should examine our core beliefs!
January 11, 2011; 4:32 PM ET
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