On Saturday, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and a dozen other people were injured and six people were killed, when a gunman opened fire on a meeting the Congresswoman was hosting in an Arizona parking lot.
In the sermons that I preached yesterday at the church I serve as pastor, I called for turning down the rhetoric in American today. I said we need to change the tone of our public discourse. I said we need to stop calling names, stop pointing fingers, and stop using derogatory terms for politicians, for ethnic groups, for opposing football teams, and for our neighbors.
My comments were not fully formed or very eloquent. My ideas were not unique to me. Pima County, AZ, Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, liberal commentator Keith Olbermann, a Republican U.S. Senator, and others said the same thing.
However, writing on slate.com, in an article entitled, "In Defense of Inflamed Rhetoric," Jack Shafer said, No, we don't to turn down the volume. He specifically took argument with Sheriff Dupnik's comments that vitriolic rhetoric can create problems.
I disagree with Mr. Shafer.
In defending over-the-top speech, Mr. Shafer said that neither he nor anybody else he knows has been led to acts of violence due to heated, inflammatory rhetoric. That's good. But Sheriff Dupnik’s eloquent, off-the-cuff statements weren’t about Mr. Shafer and other well-adjusted people. His comments were about “unbalanced” people – people like Saturday’s shooter, like Lee Harvey Oswald, like Timothy McVeigh, like James Earl Ray, like the 9/11 airplane highjackers. We all hear the same language. Some of us (hopefully) have the good sense to know that political rhetoric is just that, rhetoric – maybe it’s even a game to some.
However, not everyone is able to make that nuanced distinction. Some, sadly, take those words of violence and think they are calls to acts of violence. I think Sherriff Dupnik (and the sermon I preached yesterday) and other calls to “deflame” the rhetoric are efforts to call us to public accountability. Words matter. As a journalist Mr. Shafer should know that. As a preacher I need to remember that. The call to turn down the volume of our public discourse is simply a call to responsible civil speech and behavior.
Mr. Shafer also wrote that for as long he's been alive, crosshairs and bull’s eyes have been an accepted part of the political lexicon. Maybe so, but that is poor logic. My great-grandmother could have written that for as long as she lived it was accepted to not let African-Americans vote. That doesn't make it right. Just because we’ve always done it that way, doesn’t mean that’s the way it should be done.
Third, Mr. Shafer wrote that, "Any call to cool 'inflammatory' speech is a call to police all speech." Not so. Just because I urge someone not to engage in a certain behavior does not mean I want their behavior monitored or made illegal. Mr. Shafer's statement there seems to cross the line between understanding the difference between 'can' and 'ought.' Jack Shafer, Sarah Palin, Keith Olbermann and most anyone have the right to say most anything at most any volume. That doesn’t mean they should say it. I don’t want anyone’s speech to be policed by anyone other than the speaker.
Finally, a nine year-old child was killed Saturday. Five other people are dead. A young Congresswoman lies gravely injured. A dozen or so others are injured. All due to a violent outburst. Yet Mr Shafer publicly supports violent imagery. And he caps his support with an offer to punch someone’s lights out.
His comments seem poorly thought-through, horribly ill-timed, and painfully insensitive.
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