Divergent Responses to Giffords Shooting Underscore Difficulty of Changing Political Discourse

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In the days since a 22-year old gunman killed six and injured 14 others, including Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, a debate has raged about both the tone and content of political discourse in the United States.

Vigorous, sometimes contentious, heated and vociferous debate about ideas, positions, policies, and evidence is an essential part of a democracy.  Freedom of speech is a cherished American value, and is not only a part of our history but also a right protected by our Constitution and our laws.  To protect our freedom, we have to tolerate the full spectrum of speech, including what many might consider hate speech, irresponsible speech, or offensive speech.  But political and social maturity requires an understanding that with free speech comes responsibility, and that our words do help create a climate in which actions take place, whether the situation in question is a principal dealing with an environment of bullying in a school, or a political leader dealing with a heated political discourse that veers into the use of violent metaphors. And sometimes we need to all take collective responsibility.

Moreover, whether or not Jared Lee Loughner was directly or indirectly prompted to action by political rhetoric, the evidence of a rise in violence and violent rhetoric in political campaigning in the past two years is unequivocal and worthy of deep examination on its own.  There is and can be a simultaneous truth that a shooting carried out by an individual who is ultimately responsible sheds light on a broader political environment based on violent and hateful rhetoric that is deeply unhealthy, whether or not there is a direct connection.

But the responses by political leaders and talk show hosts to this tragedy have been wildly divergent, underscoring how difficult it will be to make concrete changes in the either the tone or the content of our discourse. Many have spoken on the need for collective reflection on and responsibility for the tone and content of a political climate riven with language and analogies of violence; others have lashed out at the very suggestion that the environment created by recent political debate should even be examined, whether or not it contributed directly or indirectly to the tragedy in Arizona.  Some appear not to understand the difference between “fighting ideas with ideas and evidence” and fighting a political battle with violent imagery, misleading statements and character assassination.

For example, former President Bill Clinton, speaking from Haiti in response to the shootings said that politicians and others who engage in verbal battle “cannot be unaware of the fact that – particularly with the Internet – there’s this huge echo chamber out there.”

According to NPR, he said the House — now under Republican leadership — should lead the way in toning down the rhetoric.

“This is an occasion for us to reaffirm that our political differences shouldn’t degenerate into demonization, in the sense that if you don’t agree with me you’re not a good American,” Mr. Clinton said. “I’m hoping there will be a lot of good debates that go beyond turning this into politics.”

On MSNBC’s Meet the Press, Congressman Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO), Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, also spoke to the broader environment and to collective responsibility, consistently using the pronoun, “we.”

We are in a dark place in this country right now, and the atmospheric condition is toxic.  And much of it originates here in Washington, D.C., and we export it around the country to the point that people come to Washington, they come to the gallery, and they feel comfortable in shouting out insults from the gallery.  We had someone removed last week shouting out some insult about President Obama’s birth.  I think members of Congress either need to turn down the volume, begin to try to exercise some high level of civility, or this darkness will never ever be overcome with light.  The, the hostility is here.  People may want to deny it.  It is real, and if we, and if we don’t stop it soon, I think this nation is going to be bitterly divided to a point where I fear for the, the future of our children.

On the same program, Congressman Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) took the same tone of collective responsibility and collective action when he said:

ou know, part of what we need to do as leaders is a discourse.  You know, Arizona is at the center of a lot of division and a lot of hard politics.  And from the top to the bottom of our, not only elected leadership, but community leadership, it’s about the civil discourse, it’s about the tone of how we do things.  And Congressman Nadler said something on television yesterday.  He said, you know, “We are opponents, yes, but we’re not deadly enemies.” And I think unless we pass that on and lead by example with our civil discourse and our good debate on these important issues like health care, people feel that there’s impunity to continue to act…

By contrast, a video released by Sarah Palin this morning accuses the media and others who question the role of violent campaign imagery in creating a climate of hate of engaging in a “blood libel,” completely side-stepping the question of whether it is a good thing to promote that same violent imagery in campaigns.

Sarah Palin: “America’s Enduring Strength” from Sarah Palin on Vimeo

Palin’s reference to a “blood libel” is particularly strange given that Giffords is Jewish and the term comes from a centuries-old anti-Semitic claim that Jewish people murdered Christian children to use their blood in religious rituals, in particular the baking of matzos for passover.  As the New York Times notes, “That false claim was circulated for centuries to incite anti-Semitism and justify violent pogroms against Jews.” 

Rather than reflecting on the broader environment he helps to create, Rush Limbaugh instead criticized the response of the Democratic Party and the media, saying that the event has been used to advance the Left’s political interests.

According to ABC News, Limbaugh said: “The left, including the media, cannot accept the reality of a madman slaughtering innocent people. It cannot be ‘individual responsibility’ — they reject that concept anyway.”

Rather than reflecting on the violence, Glenn Beck charged that the “left” was “creating” and “exploiting” the issues.

To his credit, Pat Buchanan, known for his own questionable rhetoric, did speak to collective responsibility for the environment in which we find ourselves on the MSNBC program Morning Joe.

“I’d give everybody the advice to tone down the rhetoric and to get away from the military or the armed metaphors,” he said Monday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

Host Joe Scarborough (R-Fla.), asked Buchanan whether outspoken conservatives ought to apologize for the violent imagery they’ve used in the past.

Buchanan said conservatives “ought to be more careful in the future” but stopped short of criticizing specific examples of such imagery, such as Palin’s map, saying “it is wrong to scapegoat Palin, who is taking heat for having “targeted” Rep. Gabrielle Giffords on her website in what appear to be cross hairs.”

“I do think it is the effort to sort of draw in Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann into something that is a real tragedy, when what we’re hearing out of Arizona is it had absolutely nothing to do with this individual who, for some reason, is obsessing.”

We still, however, lack a cohesive reflection on the violence, vitriol, character assassination that appear to have become commonplace. And as with anything else, we can’t solve a problem until we agree on what the problem is.

Indeed, if this screenshot (circulated yesterday by colleague @StopBeck of StopBeck.com on Twitter) of Glenn Beck’s homepage in the aftermath of the shootings is any evidence, many of us still remain unclear on the concept.

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Follow Jodi Jacobson on twitter: @jljacobson

  • freetobe

    Thanks Jodi for mentioning Morning Joe on MSNBC. It is one of my favorite shows now. I see a whole range of ideas from right and left many are good ones and they are always civil towards one  another. Shocking for todays world.

    Before the internet I lived in bliss thinking that the world had become a more civilized place and that women and minorites were finally being treated as equals. To my horror I have found just the opposite!

    I wonder if knowing the truth and when it happens is causing so much anger?

    The world has never had so much access to itself until the internet became available. I have found myself in constant anger with the otherside (the right) and I came from a right and left family. I remember my mother had many parties that were Dem- Rep full and all I ever remember was people leaving laughing and jesting with each other. What happened?

    If a husband (dem) and wife (rep) could stay married until death did them part I know where there is a will there must be a way for us to get along at least to get important things accomplished.

    Where are the manners? Another thing I have noticed in public is that very few know the words “please “and” thank you” anymore. It is mostly push shove or get out of the way! We need a course in manners all of us. Respect one another  is the only way to survive in peace.

    I still have  some hope but it is fading fast…

  • harry834

    Some time ago, I read a book Guilty Until Proven Innocent about the Duke University faculty/student reaction to the false accusation of rape against those three white frat boys. Every so often, I’ve mentioned this as an example of what happens when our side doesn’t watch ourself. I’ve made these comments on Facebook (but with lots of posts/comments in between, hard to find now). I tried to phrase it in a way that didn’t exaggerate the claims by the right and that didn’t undermine the general established premise that women and racial minorities are still more likely to be victimized and disbelieved when telling the truth than they are for making false accusations.


    Maybe I didn’t always get it right, or maybe I brought in that idea in a digressive way. You might want to send me a private message on Facebook to maintain the current topic (real name: Harry Nagendra)


    I am writing this because this you said gave me pause:


    “There is and can be a simultaneous truth that a shooting carried out by an individual who is ultimately responsible sheds light on a broader political environment based on violent and hateful rhetoric that is deeply unhealthy, whether or not there is a direct connection.”


    Now I wonder, inspite of what I thought was true from Guilty Until Proven Innocent, I wonder to what extent the “rush to judgment” that the authors accused faculty of was really trying to bring up an important issue. I know we have this rule “don’t read their books” but I am hoping you might check it out at a library or some other way where it might avoid supporting the author’s salaries. Because I feel that was an important story for liberals and feminists, whether or not it is typical.


    Again: Real name Harry Nagendra. Find me on Facebook. I will not comment on this topic on this post. Continue with current topic.


  • jodi-jacobson

    I think I may not be totally clear on what you are asking/saying, but even so do not think it is a digression if it pertains to how we view this incident as relevent to our political environment.

    If I think I understand what you are getting at, I will say this, first using an analogy:

    I hold those who speak with hate about women’s rights and abortion, with vitriol and with condescencion accountable for the general climate of stigmatizing women and health providers who provide abortions.  I hold those who vilify gay people as partly responsible for a climate in which hate crimes against gays (or blacks or Latinos) are dismissed as anything other than “isolated incidents.”  I hold those who are silent when they should be outspoken about rights and equity and non-discrimination partly responsible for the climate in which mysogyny, homophobia, discrimination against immigrants, and other groups become marginalized.  They may not be directly responsible for example for an incident of violence.  But there is a climate in which such things become more or less acceptable, and in which those pre-disposed to hatred or those who are mentally ill may act out their violence.

    Likewise, I am not saying that anyone on the right is “guilty” of shooting Congresswoman Giffords or any of the other people.  I do however personally believe that they–by using falsehoods, innuendo, misinformation and other forms of vitriolic political behavior–are guilty of helping create a climate in which these things become more likely.  If in fact that were not true, then we would not have seen threats to many Congresspeople in Arizona and elsewhere in the months before this event; there would be no use of the kind of violent imagery and character assassination that have become routine staples of the likes of Glenn Beck, Limbaugh, and Palin; we would not see at least three government officials (Republicans) having resigned this week because of threats (from rightwingers and tea partiers) to their lives……

    I think there is more than enough evidence and that evidence has been accumulating for some long time now of the fact that our political climate has become more violent rhetorically if not actually.

    don’t know if i addressed your point.

  • harry834

    Good, though had wondered about that book Guilty Until Proven Innocent and if you had read it or had a take on it. It was the case where three white frat boys were falsely accused of rape on Duke University, with the liberal/feminist faculty joining in…or so I thought. I was wondering if you had any info that the authors didn’t tell, but I suppose I can find that info for myself. I’ll search Duke rape case on Daily Kos or something. I’m sure a liberal response came a long time ago.

  • arekushieru

    Harry, I believe you may be correct.  That the climate of desensitization to violence has lead to a subsequent climate where either side, although not equivalent, has taken up arms to whitewash the crimes that were perpetrated by the leaders of their movement.  But, there are level-headed responses, as well.  And the authors may have mistaken that liberal/feminist movement’s intentions.  It is very much similar to the current accusations of rape made against Julian Assange.  There is one side, the liberal side, that refuses to believe that these accusations may be true.  Then there is the other side, which claims that Julian Assange deserves the punishment he’s received.  However, there is also a middle road, taken by those such as Amanda, Salty, myself and others.  The one that declares that Julian Assange is innocent until proven guilty, but that these charges should be taken seriously.  And that is what I believe the true intentions of the liberal/feminist faculty really were.

  • crowepps

    It’s also possible that the liberal/feminist faculty had dealt with a numbing progression of situations where they suspected that male entitlement had led to their concerns being minimized and dismissed and so their hair-trigger went off when they were presented with this particular situation.  I’ve got to say, although the behavior of the young men involved turned out to be legal, it sure was sordid.


    We liberals can also over react in particular cases and get defensive about our past mistakes.  We can also be arrogant and condescending to those we consider ignorant and uninformed.  We even have our very own leftist nuts who kill people like Ted Kaczynski.  Which is precisely WHY we should both demonstrate and demand civilty; violent imagery, accusing ones opponents of being traitors and saying they deserve to die/should be shot are a bad idea no matter WHO is doing it.  If the Right continues to resist giving it up so strenuously, it may be because it’s the only thing they’ve got.  They’re not going to get many votes on a platform of “taxes are for the little people”.