Be the Change You Want to See
The “debate over debate” that has arisen in the wake of the tragic assassination attempt of Congresswoman Giffords in Arizona on Saturday, which left 6 dead, including a 9 year old girl, a federal judge, and a bride-to-be has been, and sadly continues to be, perhaps the most childish and depressing debate I’ve seen in my nearly four years as a blogger. The victims, rather than being remembered and honored, are being used as cudgels and footballs to prove a point about how the other teams are more evil than one’s own team.
There will be, and can be, no winners in this “debate over debate.” Meanwhile, the time for us to mourn together for the victims, as a nation, is rapidly slipping away.
Few deny that the tone of debate in this country has become increasingly toxic ever since the all-too-brief era of national unity in the wake of 9/11. It’s also clear that all “sides” – and yes, the centrists count as a “side,” as do the libertarians – to the debate have contributed, and continue to contribute, to that tone in some fashion, regardless of whether we each have our own ideas as to which “side” or “sides” has been the bigger contributor. And I am not going to pretend that I am a neutral observer here – I have definite ideas as to which “side” has been worst and has contributed the most to the situation. On the other hand, it should not be ignored that one particular “side” is larger and thus more firmly in control of a major political party than any of the other conceivable “sides,” so under any circumstances their contributions to the debate will be louder and more noticeable than the contributions of anyone else.
The trouble with incivility and complaints about incivility is that it is an endless downward spiral and cycle. If Team Red attacks Team Blue in what Team Blue perceives (rightly or wrongly) to be an uncivil manner, Team Blue will respond in kind, regardless of whether it responds in degree as well. Such a response will be justifiable as self-defense, except that act of self-defense will not be perceived as an act of self-defense by Team Red, but instead as an act of aggression. And so Team Red will respond in kind, regardless of whether it responds in degree. Often, Team Purple will help make things worse by throwing a sucker punch and blaming it on someone else by pretending to be neutral.
After a point, Team Blue or Team Red will start complaining about the other team’s low blows, and the other team will justify those low blows on the grounds that they’ve taken their share of low blows as well – regardless of whether those low blows are objectively equal.
And then six innocent people were killed by a madman who doesn’t belong to any of the teams in the fight. Before we knew he was a madman with nothing to do with any recognized team, we understandably sought explanations. Clues in those first few hours strongly pointed towards someone on Team Red, and Team Red briefly started giving itself a hard look.
But then those clues turned out to be wrong. The narrative initially put forth by Teams Blue and Purple, however, changed only slightly. For the most part – albeit with some definite exceptions – they backed away from suggesting that Team Red’s prior bad acts inspired and directly caused this horror. But they only retreated so far as to say – without any direct evidence – that the killings could be blamed on the “rhetorical climate,” which of course was primarily in their view a function of Team Red; somehow they failed to see how this was indistinguishable from blaming Team Red for the tragedy. They demanded that Team Red put an end to its ways even as they largely or half-heartedly declined to acknowledge their own role in creating the “rhetorical climate.” In the alternative, they insisted that this attack was simply an example of what could happen if Team Red didn’t change the “rhetorical climate,” ignoring of course their own contributions to that climate and placing the responsibility for correcting that climate solely on Team Red.
Rightly or wrongly, Team Red perceived these acts – which may well have been intended as defensive acts – as instead acts of aggression. They certainly perceived attempts to blame it for the “rhetorical climate” as attempts to blame it for an unspeakable act to which they had no knowing connection (and quite likely no unintentional connection, either). Team Red responded vociferously, noting the lack of any evidence of a connection between the “rhetorical climate” and the tragedy, but also accusing Teams Blue and Purple of being the real causes of the “rhetorical climate,” or at least hypocritical equal offenders, of wanting to silence Team Red, and of playing politics with tragedy. They adopted the posture of victims, placing a greater priority on their (perhaps justified) sense of being wronged than any concern for the actual victims.
Teams Blue and Purple did not let this response slide; to the contrary, it only validated for them that Team Red has no qualms about inciting violence for political gain. They came back on all cylinders, complaining about how yes indeed Team Red has been the bigger contributor to the “rhetorical climate,” while also adding that Team Red’s policy principles deserve a good portion of the blame for the tragedy. At least two elected representatives of Team Blue raised the specter of censoring Team Red by accusing Team Red of yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater and thus being responsible for the tragedy. They, too, adopted the posture of victims, placing a greater priority on their (perhaps justified) sense of being wronged than any concern for the actual victims.
Finally, Team Red escalated the debate over debate to an even more disgusting level, with its most prominent leader making the claim that “What Mr. Loughner knows is that he has the full support of a major political party in this country.” Around this time, an elected representative of Team Red bravely declared that although political rhetoric doesn’t incite violent behavior, Loughner was as a “communist” and “the liberal of liberals.”
Meanwhile, six people lay dead, including a 9 year old girl who just wanted to see how democracy worked. Two incredibly brave parents stand grieving and harboring no desire to blame anyone, and interested only in remembering their daughter with respect and adoration.
It is indeed the case that political debate in this country is uncivil and inappropriate, dehumanizing and mean-spirited. But we cannot control what others say and do, we can only control what we ourselves say and do. Uncivil debate and a pervasively toxic “rhetorical climate” requires that more than one “side” play the game. It requires that no “side” make a concerted effort to figure out what the other “sides” are really trying to say in good faith, and focus instead solely on what they are saying in bad faith.
If we in fact are interested in improving the quality of tone and debate in this country, then we have to first commit to improving the quality of our own individual tone and debate rather than demanding that everyone else first do the same, and definitely rather than demanding that everyone else accept blame for everything they’ve done in the past.
We don’t need to apologize to one another, nor do we need an apology from one another. We just need to recognize our basic humanity and forgive each other without preconditions. Even if we can’t actually forgive, we can at least pretend to. We’re all stuck here together, and somehow we’ve managed to make it this long without the Republic falling apart, so maybe those other guys aren’t so bad after all.
Let us focus instead on honoring, remembering, and respecting the victims of this unspeakable act. Let us not dishonor them by pretending that it is we who were and are the real victims. Go say hello to the neighbor down the street with the Gadsden flag hanging from his porch and talk about the weather, your kids, sports, anything other than politics. Go shovel the driveway for your neighbor with the Pro-Choice bumper sticker. If we’ve learned anything from this tragedy it should simply be that life’s too short and fragile to waste on political and cultural grudges, and that there’s a lot more to life than either.