Right now, conservatives are circling the wagons, defending themselves, claiming that the rhetoric of Palin, Beck, Coulter, Hannity (really, most of FOX News) cannot possibly be blamed for the actions of one psychotic young man in Pima, Arizona.
And they may be right: preliminary evidence suggests that the shooter was not, in reality, motivated by the rhetoric of the Right so much as he was suffering from a violently psychotic personality disorder. We could argue that Republican cuts on mental healthcare or the most liberal gun control laws are to blame, but I don’t want to focus on those issues at the moment.
What is illuminating is that many people across the political spectrum jumped to the conclusion that it was just this sort of outlandish conservative rhetoric that was behind the tragedy in Pima. And this fact alone — that so many thought it a not-unreasonable proposition that inflammatory words led to violence and murder — should cause those on the Right to reconsider their tactics, their language, their stance. It is fine to disagree, even strongly, but calling for the elimination of certain people with whom you disagree — putting targets over your opponents in campaign posters, for example — is a fundamentally dangerous proposition. For example, ignoring all facts and claiming our President is a violent Socialist Muslim bent on the overthrow of our country will obviously lead some unstable people to violence, and some splatter of blood will be on the hands of those who argued this fallacy, even if they didn’t pull the trigger.
For decades, conservatives have tried to enact laws prohibiting certain kinds of speech they feel is damaging to society. They’ve tried to criminalize specific forms of speech like flag-burning; they’ve brought lawsuits against rock and rap bands they feel are destructive to our moral fabric; they have called for the removal of certain books from public libraries.
In other words, conservatives understand very well that words matter, that words can incite dangerous, destructive behavior, and they have gone so far as to argue certain kinds of language should be banned altogether. Therefore, it is the height of hypocrisy to now claim that the words of those who spew hatred and fear on the Right are not in any way responsible for the culture of violence and intolerance which is brewing in our country.
Words matter. Words are powerful motivators. Everyone from Madison Avenue to the most petty dictator understands this fact. Before action comes thought. If Sarah Palin, for example, claims that her words don’t really drive violent action among certain individuals (mentally unstable or not), then she is either a blatant liar or pathetically stupid.
Therefore, I would say to those across the political spectrum, mind what you say. Our collective dialogue is devolving into dark and dangerous territory. If we don’t choose to change the tenor of our political discourse, we shouldn’t be surprised if yesterday’s events repeat themselves with greater frequency in the months and years to come.
And to my more conservative friends, you have a chance to say that you really do believe in the ethos of personal responsibility. Hold FOX et all responsible for their words, and demand a more reasoned, thoughtful dialectic. If you don’t, if you defend those in your ranks who continue to incite violence with their words, you lose the credibility to claim the moral high ground you so desperately seek.