Sic Transit Civility
At nine years old, Christina Green’s political career was just starting. An elected member of the student council at her elementary school, she was eager to see government in action. It was an innocent trip with a family friend to meet her local Congresswoman at the neighborhood grocery store that cut short her life too soon. As the youngest victim killed in Tucson, Arizona by gunman Jared L. Loughner, this loss is particularly tragic as we look for answers to explain the atrocity that unfolded this past Saturday.
Unfortunately, the events at the Safeway shopping center did not come as a complete surprise to many, both those who knew the shooter and those who did not know him but know about the state of affairs in our nation. Any student or teacher of American History or Government need look no further than the Soldier Readiness Center at Fort Hood in Texas, Norris Hall on the Virginia Tech campus, the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, or Dealey Plaza in Dallas to know about our history of violence. And all of us need look no further than the incendiary rhetoric of political campaigns, the blogosphere, and the 24/7 shout-fest offered by talk radio and TV, often with violent references and undertones, to know that we are living in a society littered with what appears to be a growing lack of mutual respect, thoughtful discourse, and reason.
However, have things really changed? The presidential election of 1800 in which Vice President Thomas Jefferson defeated incumbent President John Adams, was no tea party (to use the old meaning of that phrase). It was a lengthy, bitter rematch of the 1796 election, characterized by slander and personal attacks on both sides.
And are things limited to American history? At a social gathering, opposition leader William Ewart Gladstone once said to then British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, “I predict, Sir, that you will die either by hanging or of some vile disease.” Disraeli replied, “That all depends, sir, upon whether I embrace your principles or your mistress.”
Notwithstanding this history, however, I am continually reminded of the wisdom and perspective of youth when we provide them with the opportunity to engage in meaningful conversation. A few weeks ago in an online discussion, my AP Government class was discussing the mid-term elections and campaigns. One student asked a profound and now eerily timely question: “Is there a danger in the tone of the talking heads we see on TV, hear on the radio, and read on the internet? There is a lack of civility that makes me scared to enter politics. What are the consequences when people stop listening and focus instead on spreading unfounded hatred?”
As my colleague Martha Infante wrote earlier this week, words have consequences. It is increasingly difficult to find arenas for honest, respectful, and intelligent conversation. Rather than in-depth analysis of often highly complex and nuanced issues, self-anointed and self-promoting experts now discuss policy and spread divisive ideas in just 140 characters. No confirmation of facts or detailed explanation is required.
The opportunity for honest debate and discourse is what makes this country so remarkable. American politicians since our founding have never played nice. However, there is a difference between being rude or insulting and calling for the elimination of your opposition. As Paul Krugman pointed out in his editorial this week:
“There’s room in a democracy for people who ridicule and denounce those who disagree with them, there isn’t any place for eliminationist rhetoric, for suggestions that those on the other side of a debate must be removed.”
It is not clear what drove the shooter to cross the line and act out in violence. The actions of what appears to be a very disturbed individual may never be completely understood. However, many immediately thought of the hyperbolic and violent rhetoric that fills our airwaves and computer screens. While both sides seem quick to point fingers and cast blame, the real lesson lies elsewhere. Are we smart enough, are we courageous enough, as a society to match our rhetoric with the type of world in which we want to live?
As I engage with students who will be our next generation of thinkers and leaders, I often find them acting more “adult” than the adults. They seem to relish and want to promote, rather than fear and want to eliminate, the range of opinions that exist in our democratic society. They also understand and appreciate that the best moments of our country’s history, the real accomplishments we have made as a nation, are the direct result of mutual respect, in-depth study, consensus, and reasoned compromise.
The debate, in its many and often disturbing forms, will continue on Capitol Hill, in state legislatures, within our communities, and throughout the Internet. However, the most appropriate forum may be our own classrooms, where we can continue to be a model of civic education, tolerance, and the common good.