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Language And Politics

Each time we are forced to deal with another attempted or successful political assassination or other violent act, we react in a slightly different way, depending on the political concerns of the moment.  Some past incidents have sparked calls for stricter gun controls.  Sometimes we have heard cries for more law and order.  You used to hear people blame overly permissive child-rearing practices for violent or disruptive behavior.  Sometimes violence has been explained as the result of injustice or prejudice in society.  This time, in the wake of the attempted Giffords assassination, we have heard a lot of talk identifying the high level of violent rhetoric among politicians and the media as a source of the problem.

Attempts to draw a connection between inflamed political rhetoric and this particular violent act started almost immediately.  I’ll admit I was pretty quick myself to draw what seems like an obvious connection between a heated political campaign featuring Congressional districts depicted with cross-hairs, and an individual actually targeting a Congresswoman with a gun.  The County Sheriff also identified the highly charged political climate in Arizona as a source of the problem.  More chillingly, the intended victim herself gave an interview last year, after her offices were vandalized, warning of the consequences of violent political rhetoric.  Given the nastiness of the recent campaign season, it seems only natural to attach some blame to those who have fanned the flames of hate, and seemed to encourage violence.

In response to all of this discussion about our poisonous political atmosphere, it is not surprising that a counter-reaction has already started.  Talk radio hosts and pundits from the right condemn the left for attempting to use this incident to score their own political points.  Instead of owning up to right wing campaign rhetoric that seems to encourage the violent overthrow of the government, they are making the weak suggestion that it’s all ok because the left sometimes does it too.  They suggest that we should focus on the shooter’s own personal responsibility, rather than blaming those leaders who have fomented fear and hate, and that there may not be much we can do, other than perhaps beefing up security, to guard against the actions of a few deranged individuals who will always be present among us.

It may be beside the point even to try to find out whether this particular suspect was driven to act out a political hate crime by political hate talk.  It may even be impossible to determine for certain what part charged political rhetoric may have played in any particular killer’s motivations, just as research never seems to provide a conclusive answer to speculation  about whether violent video games, or pornography, inspire violent actions.   The suspect listed on his MySpace page among his favorite books the Communist Manifesto, Mein Kampf, and Peter Pan.  Should we therefore blame Marx, or Hitler, or J. M. Barrie, for inspiring his alleged violent actions?  It also seems contrary to the effort of drawing useful lessons from this tragedy, to try to use it to score political points, from the left or the right.

But I still think that we should be concerned about excessively inflammatory political speech, regardless of whether or not this particular incident was inspired by violent political speech.  In fact, I would suggest broadening that concern.  It’s not just whether politicians or talk radio hosts sometimes use violent metaphors to describe political conflict.  The real problem is that we constantly view the whole political system as a fight or a sport, and we tend to demonize our political opponents, instead of trying to understand their concerns.  The main reason I started a political blog a couple of years ago was to address the issue of whether the Obama campaign represented a genuine opportunity to transform our political culture.  And one reason I have been developing a mediation practice is to further my interest in transforming our adversarial legal culture into a more facilitative, interest-based system.  So I have no hesitation in jumping on to this particular bandwagon.

It’s some consolation to see that it is suddenly fashionable this week to talk about toning down overheated political rhetoric. The more difficult question is how to do it.  Those who have studied the issue can tell us that changing the nature of our political discourse is a more involved process than just removing overt references to weapons and fights from our speech.  Ken Cloke is a California mediator who has been thinking about these issues longer than I have.  In his book Conflict Revolution, he includes a section on mediating political speech.  Here is how Cloke defines the problem:

The fundamental orientation of politics to power and rights, as opposed to interests, automatically reinforces the assumption that there is a single truth or correct outcome and, more bizarrely, that it is morally acceptable to lie in pursuit of it.  This leads directly to verbal chicanery, character assassination, prejudicial statements, demagoguery, and a pursuit of victory at any price.

I might add that our focus on power and rights, as opposed to interests; our belief that our side is in sole possession of the truth; and our tendency to demonize the opposition, can also lead to violence in language or action.

Cloke proceeds to give many specific examples of questions that can be raised among people of differing political viewpoints to drive political disputes away from unproductive debate to a genuine attempt to find common ground and satisfy divergent interests.  For example, Cloke suggests that we might try asking whether people believe that their communications have been effective in improving understanding in the other side, and what they might do to improve communication.  Or ask people what they have learned from, or appreciate about the other side.  Or how the parties’ relationship could be improved.   Then we need to transform political debates into dialogues, in which people are asked to identify what causes them to feel so passionately about particular issues, to search for values and interests they may have in common with the other side, to explore whether any part of the other side’s ideas could be incorporated into their ideas, and a whole list of other topics.

As Cloke explains:

The purpose of these questions is not to eliminate or discourage disagreements, but to place them in a context of common humanity and allow genuine disagreements to surface and be discussed in depth.  These questions reveal that political conversations need not be pointlessly adversarial, but can be transformed into authentic engagements by allowing opposing sides to come to grips with difficult, complex, divisive issues without being hostile or abusive.

(Cloke, Conflict Revolution, pp. 103-08)  Can we learn to transform our political dialogues in this manner?


Joe Markowitz

Joseph C. Markowitz has over 30 years of experience as a business trial lawyer.  He has represented clients ranging from individuals and small businesses to Fortune 500 corporations.  He started practicing with a boutique litigation firm in New York City, then was a partner in a large international firm both… MORE >

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