Thought Possible

notes & magnifications, by J.E. Robertson
JANUARY 9, 2011 10:33AM

Nothing Justifies Extremist Rhetoric or Violent Threats

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In the wake of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) and 19 other people, six of whom have already, tragically, died from their injuries, the national political establishment (media, pressure groups and elected officials) has turned its attention to the perils of extremist and vitriolic rhetoric. We are being asked to consider whether the use of metaphorical violence (putting Rep. Giffords in the crosshairs, which both Sarah Palin and her 2010 opponent did) leads to actual violence, and while direct responsibility is not being alleged, the ethical obligation to honor our democracy with civil discourse must be considered. 

There is no question that specific individuals and specific organizations have very consistently ratcheted up the vitriol and hostility in our political rhetoric, for personal and partisan gain. Former Rep. Bob Inglis (R-SC) yesterday repeated his criticism of the last year of his party's near religious commitment to extremist rhetorical distortions and misleading statements about Pres. Obama and the nature of the reform legislation he and the Democrats in Congress have passed. 

He urged "even the staunchest Republicans" to have the integrity and the civility to say "We are all Democrats today, for Gabby". And while civility has been the watchword, and we have heard outraged disdain for the shooter and for anyone who believes this kind of action is legitimate, in concept or in action, political strategists have already begun seeking to defend individual politicians and specific conservative groups against the rhetorical "attack" that their rhetoric has been too violent and extreme. 

So let's say it clearly and resoundingly, and let's all say it defiantly, together: THERE IS NO CIRCUMSTANCE IN WHICH VITRIOLIC DISTORTIONS OR HATE-SPEECH ARE JUSTIFIABLE; THERE IS NO CIRCUMSTANCE IN WHICH THREATS OF VIOLENCE, METAPHORICAL OR LITERAL ARE EXCUSABLE.

People who have ideas and a will to serve have no time and no use for such disgusting distortions, and people of conscience know this. However heated political debate may become, metaphor ceases to be useful when it becomes outright distortion. Some politicians have chosen to view extremist distortions as politically expedient, even openly calling for armed rebellion, to capitalize on populist anger and anti-establishment feeling. But that political expediency comes with a cost.

One election may be easier to win if such ideas spread at the right pace over the right landscape, but the landscape will then become a distorted form of what we once hoped were its best aspirations, possibly in dangerous ways. False claims can turn out to hurt those who make them, when the fact that they were false finally gets through to the people whose votes decide the shape and direction of government. 

To honor the principled, and always civil service of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and the tragic sacrifice of her community outreach director Gabe Zimmerman, federal district Judge John Roll, 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green and the other victims of this disgusting atrocity, let's commit ourselves to marginalizing any public figure who uses lies, distortions, hate-speech, or the language of incitement, to defame his or her opponents and to manipulate the American people. Their actions are a stain on our democracy and a perversion or our country's great spirit. 

Let's commit to being principled and coherent in our devotion to building a more perfect civil order, a system of debate and idea-sharing aimed at constructing pragmatic responses to real-world problems. Let's commit to being better than any ideology, better than any tribalist camp, better than any Balkanizing defamation, better than the sordid temptations of internecine conflict that threaten to undermine the meaning and the quality of public service to an open democracy.  

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