Arizona Tragedy Breathes Life into Discourse Debate

Jan 14, 2011 | Updated May 25, 2011

When Sarah Palin's team of marketers ill-advisedly placed a few crosshairs on a map of Democratic districts that included U.S. Congresswoman Gabby Gifford's, they probably hoped to invigorate their base and rally some support. They couldn't have known that within a few months a crazed Jared Loughner would open fire on Arizona innocents, critically injuring the Congresswoman. Regardless, the Palin team's map took a six-person killing and breathed life into a national debate about public discourse.

A New York Times editorial recently declared, "We live in the age of opinion." And with so many opinions bathing us on a daily basis, it is often the most ridiculous, most inflammatory, most contentious perspectives that rise to the top. As a result, we also find ourselves living in an age of incivility. Sniping pundits crowd our airwaves while the mouths of politicians are filled to overflowing with personal attacks and heated rhetoric.

Take, for example, the king of vitriol himself, Glenn Beck. I used to generally enjoy watching Glenn Beck. Not because he is a great intellectual -- he isn't -- but because he is a decent entertainer. When I decided to stop watching and listening to Beck several years ago, it had nothing to do with his political ideology -- which I often find couched in revisionist history and absurd by turns -- but rather it was because of his extreme language.

In 2001, Beck said he wanted to beat-up U.S. Representative Charles Rangel with a shovel. Just six years ago, he joked about killing Michael Moore:

I'm thinking about killing Michael Moore, and I'm wondering if I could kill him myself, or if I would need to hire somebody to do it. No, I think I could. I think he could be looking me in the eye, you know, and I could just be choking the life out -- is this wrong? I stopped wearing my What Would Jesus -- band -- Do, and I've lost all sense of right and wrong now. I used to be able to say, "Yeah, I'd kill Michael Moore," and then I'd see the little band: What Would Jesus Do? And then I'd realize, "Oh, you wouldn't kill Michael Moore. Or at least you wouldn't choke him to death." And you know, well, I'm not sure.

Of course, Beck is not specifically to blame for this and neither is Palin. And, I might add, neither are the spinsters on the other side of the aisle who are just as bad, if not worse. This was the act of a loon, a crazed madman with a clinical disorder. And yet, the sum total of our words and actions and imagery are a petri dish that, when laced with the spores of aggression, can mature into the fungus of violence. In that sense, culpability rests on all our shoulders.

Americans are fed up with such rhetoric. Even before this tragedy, a Public Agenda Research Group poll showed that almost 80 percent of Americans said that lack of civility is a "serious national problem." More than six in 10 agreed that social behaviors were ruder than in the past. These trends are stunting an already violent society and continue to coddle a culture that produces road rage, sports fan rage, cell phone rage, and yes, even raging maniacs like Jared Loughner.

As I've spoken with other Americans -- especially young ones -- it seems many have grown weary with explosive arguments that fail to get to the heart of substantive issues. Americans desire what John Murray Cuddihy called a "culture of civility." They long for the day when the American public square will be a place of passionate but reasonable discussion -- more like the Greek agora than the Roman Colisseum.

The reasons people crave a civil society are both personal and pragmatic. Personally, people feel the offense of harsh words even when they are directed at others. I had beefs aplenty with President George W. Bush when he was in office, but I bristled when I heard Senator Harry Reid called him a "liar." I winced when Al Gore growled, "He betrayed this country" before a rally of Tennessee Democrats. There is a reason that picking on someone for long enough, even if they deserve it, will make you a bully and your opponent a martyr.

Additionally, a coarse culture is an unproductive culture. Especially in a democratic society that runs on compromise and coalition building. When incivility reigns, progress is stymied and compromise is replaced by stalemate. Judiciousness is eminently practical in such a system. As Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson
writes, "On the whole, people drawn to a cause like to feel that those representing the cause are both amiable and peaceable."

The Arizona shooting is an unmitigated tragedy, but if this event can fuel a transformation in our public discourse, it will be a small glimmer on a dark moment in history. Not only will a more civil public square yield less violence, it will hopefully produce more substantive solutions in a political environment where solutions are noticeably absent.

Jonathan Merritt is a widely published faith and culture writer and author of Green Like God: Unlocking the Divine Plan for Our Planet.