Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Heated rhetoric - near misses are close enough

I've been watching/reading/listening to a lot of the back-and-forth in the wake of the recent shootings in Arizona. And, I've been trying to clarify what I think about the whole thing, and trying to see if I thought I had anything useful to add to the conversation. For at least right now, I'm going to avoid the “is there more hateful/dangerous rhetoric coming from the right or the left?” discussion, and instead, just talk about hateful/dangerous rhetoric, and its effects.

Let me, if I may, use a metaphor I've been working on.

Let's pretend that you're a smoker. You go to the doctor, and s/he runs some tests on you, and tells you that you've got some spots on your lungs which look a lot like cancer. Panic stricken, you get some further tests done, wait a week or so, which feels like a month or two, probably, and then you get your results back. It turns out that, thank God, you don't have cancer. You can breath again. You've been spared. There was no connection, whatsoever, between what the first doctor saw in your test results, and your smoking.

Wouldn't this be, nonetheless, a wonderful time to think about quitting smoking?

Even if smoking didn't give you cancer, this time, it's pretty clear that smoking is a dangerous thing to do. You're really better off if you quit. The false positive might just be the impetus that you need to finally kick the habit. The fact that it was a false positive doesn't change that. Nor does it change the fact that, in the future, there is a very real chance that the positive won't be false.

Everyone seems so focused on whether or not this particular atrocity was committed because of the violent rhetoric so prevalent in our public discourse. But, even if there was no connection between all that vitriol and this terrible attack, doesn't it seem clear that we'd be better off without the vitriol? Even if this crazy man wasn't motivated by what he saw and heard on TV and radio, is it so far-fetched to think that someone will be?

In Judaism, our public confessions are always done in the plural. “We have sinned.” “We have transgressed.” “Forgive us.” Why do we confess together, when it's obvious that most of these sins are done by individuals? One answer which I've long loved (and long forgotten the source for) is that the point of these confessions is not to assign blame, but rather to get us all motivated to try to fix the problem. Together. Sure, it may be possible, even fair, to say that you are more responsible for this particular act than I am. But, so what? Rather than that discussion, wouldn't it be better to have the discussion which follows the question, "What can we do, together, to make it better?”

Is there any way in which our world is better for being filled with people who spew hatred and violent rhetoric? Is there any way in which it would be worse if we all did our part to tone it down, a little bit?

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, nothing focusses the attention like a near miss. If that's what this was, then who cares? Let's get down to work.


James said...

More civility in public discourse would be welcome.

I think your metaphor goes wonky when the cancer turns out to be just a scare. I see it as more accurate to say that the cancer was real and we got the cause wrong. Right now the evidence seems to say it wasn’t heated rhetoric, it was untreated mental illness.

I feel some frustration with the news right now because they’re insisting on speaking about the thing that could have caused a situation like this instead of the thing that actually caused it. I’m sure getting people riled up is far more profitable than looking at the abysmal track record we’ve had with dealing with mental illness in this country. Putting commercial interests ahead of human interest isn’t very civil, either.

It seems like those people who would like a rational discussion of what happened are just hosed.

Lorinda said...

Thank you for this wonderful post. I am sharing it with others.