Do we shoot the messenger or consider fixing the message?
Since the horrendous shootings in Tucson a few days ago, there’s been much talk about the tone of political discourse in this nation and, in turn, the role the media might play in the incitement of nastiness, hatred and even violence. I had planned to stay out of this discussion online, but today’s headlines and a recorded statement by Sarah Palin are forcing me to change my plans.
Like many people, I’ve noticed and despaired over how nasty some of the political rhetoric has been in recent years. I’m not sure where and when it began to get so vitriolic, but it seems in part, at least, to have taken a new turn when talk radio gained popularity in the mid- or late-90s. Much of it – not all – seemed to be conservative talk shows.
I can certainly understand how frustration with government and our politicians can lead to anger. Some of the shenanigans that have gone on in Washington and elsewhere have made me angry. But the vast majority of us don’t let that anger provoke us into violence, beyond possibly shouting at others when they disagree with us.
We may never know if the tenor of political rhetoric – whether at a campaign rally, on talk radio or reported in the news media – led to the senseless act of the gunman in Arizona. But we as a nation are correct to question how we discuss and debate politics and other sensitive issues. Have we, in general, become too hateful in our discourse? Have we gone too far in how we depict issues and those with whom we disagree, both in words and images that might connote violence or racism or other prejudice?
This week, our lawmakers and leaders, Republicans and Democrats alike, are asking these questions and most are not pointing fingers at each other. Most seem to be accepting joint responsibility and are urging all of us, Red or Blue, to try to tone it down. They do not seem to be calling for infringements on free speech, but rather for everyone to make the effort to put civility back into the political debate.
The news media for the most part, I feel, have not been the instigators as political discussion became more nasty in recent years. Except for some talk radio and a few of the syndicated weekend pundit TV roundtables, the mainstream media has been pretty much reporting on the political discussion. Where it’s taken a nasty tone, they’ve been doing their job recording and reporting it. They’ve been the messengers.
Some don’t like what the message has become, so they are now saying shoot the messenger rather than suggesting we re-examine the message and how it got that way. Sarah Palin is taking this tack and I don’t think it will serve her or the rest of us well.
A page on Palin’s website unfortunately used gunsights to show Congressional seats that the Tea Party was targeting for change. Now that the poor choice of graphics has come to the public’s attention as an example of how questionable discussion might lead to misplaced violence, Palin has gone on the attack. Her target this time – the media. In the midst of national handwringing and what can be productive self-questioning, she has the nerve to position herself as a victim of the media. How dare she! Her aides even had the gall to tell reporters the gunsight graphics were, in fact, surveyor marks and not gunsights. How foolish and gullible does she think the American public is?
I think Palin is one of the primary promoters of nasty and hateful political rhetoric. I felt it strongly from the first time I saw her speak, at the Republican National Convention in 2007. That was the first time most of us had seen her. Behind that pretty face and disarming folksy tone, I saw someone who seems to honestly relish calling others names. I understand that it’s part of the political process to say your opponent is wrong and to play on voters’ frustration. But she took nastiness to a new level and she seemed to enjoy doing it.
And then to make it even worse, Palin injected something very offensive into the pot she is now trying to stir. I wonder if she really knew the origins of the term “blood libel” when she used it in her recorded statement yesterday. As a Jew, I am deeply offended and hurt by the reference. (I won’t explain it here. Click here to read The New York Times’ explanation of the term and its origins.)
Palin has every right to state her position on issues, but like all of us -- citizens, politicians and the media – we owe it to ourselves as a nation to state and debate those positions with civility. Nastiness that elevates to hatred is counter-productive. Political leaders – and would-be leaders – need to be called out when they cross the line. Sarah Palin is one who has repeatedly crossed that line. Whether or not she will ever own up to it, her actions have contributed – even if in a very very small way – to the tone that may have added an ember to the flame that ignited in the Tucson gunman’s sick mind.
It wasn’t the messenger, but it may have been the message.