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Tucson events can be a 'watershed moment'


1:00 P.M. EST January 25, 2011

A web-only photo by iStockphoto, Bryce Newell.
A web-only photo by iStockphoto, Bryce Newell.

On the heels of the tragic shootings in Tucson, politicians everywhere are calling for an end to incivility in politics.

The question is: Can they do it?

Can we, as a culture, change how we debate our differences?

Nastiness has become ingrained in our political discourse. It’s no longer enough to simply disagree. In our political campaigns, and in our capitals, the polarization of our political process turns opponents into evil demons. This evolution from disagreement to hate has infected the political spectrum, contaminating Democrats and Republicans, and conservatives and liberals.

Within minutes of the shooting, journalists and partisans began the blame game. First it was Sarah Palin and other right-wingers. And then it was Keith Olbermann and left-wingers. The truth is no one really knows what caused the tragedy in Tucson. It may simply turn out that Jared Lee Loughner is another of those insane persons who feel possessed in some way to go after a public official.

No matter what the shooter’s reasons end up being, these events can serve as a watershed moment in American political life. Our discourse – on both the right and the left – has gotten way out of hand in recent years. Civility has become a relic, when it should be one of our key values.

In many places, even being seen having a casual conversation with an opponent is seen as disloyalty, say nothing of sharing a meal with your political opposite. It happens in Washington, D.C. It takes place in state capitals, and in county courthouses and city halls across the United States.

Come election time, political consultants of every philosophical stripe tell candidates they must go negative in order to win.  Extensive research repeatedly shows that extremely negative campaigning does work. It moves polling numbers.

Anyone who watches television during campaign season recalls the grainy, dramatically voiced television commercials that make opponents appear to be a bad people. Not simply an opponent, but a truly bad person deserving of scorn and hate, and maybe by extension, deserving of a bullet to the brain.

Demonizing your opponent is no longer confined to campaigns. We see and hear it on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. We see and hear it on the news every day.

Stephen Drachler
Stephen Drachler

While the immediate aftermath of the Tucson shootings sparked a bipartisan call for civility, politicians continue to fall prey to the temptation for the extreme negative. During debate on repealing the 2010 health care bill this week, one House Democrat compared Republicans to Nazis. It seems he just couldn’t resist the razor-edged quote.

This latest rhetorical episode shows it’s going to be really difficult to change the behavior of our elected leaders.

Fixing this problem will require a lot of people stepping forward: One, to take responsibility for their words and actions of the past. Two, to learn and practice better, more civil ways to debate the important issues of the day. Three, to hold one another accountable for the language we use. And, four, to begin teaching our children to model this new behavior. Remember that children mimic adults. That’s not a comforting thought in today’s environment.

This is a problem of the heart and soul. It’s not about needing more laws, especially laws regulating speech. They won’t work.

For those of us who profess to follow Jesus, we should do just that. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offers a clear lesson on hate speech, and how we should respond. It’s no stretch to say this should apply to political speech as well.

“I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44, NKJV).

As our nation continues to examine its heart and soul in the wake of this senseless violence, I pray that a change in how we deal with our differences will begin to emerge. I pray that our leaders will begin to talk with one another, not simply yell at each other. I pray that our leaders will learn the power of building relationships across the political and philosophical divides.

Disagreement is a vital part of our democratic process. Let’s learn how to disagree in a healthy, not destructive, way.

*Drachler is executive director of United Methodist Advocacy in Pennsylvania and former executive director of public information at United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tenn. This is an adaptation of a commentary first published in the Harrisburg, Pa., Patriot-News.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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