The most encouraging thing I’ve heard lately from the world of politics came in the wake of the tragic shooting at the Republican baseball practice on June 14. I was pleased by a number of news reports covering multiple politicians from both sides of the aisle calling to dial back the disrespectful, inflammatory rhetoric that incites this kind of behavior.
Most of us are unaware of how short and steep the slippery slope is from damaging words to damaging actions.
It’s actually a good thing that we disagree with each other on a range of issues — that disagreement leads to more thorough, healthy exploration of possible solutions. The problem begins when we make assumptions about the motives of our opponents and escalate that in our minds to assumptions about their character. We find ourselves painting them as evil people with evil intent instead of as human beings deserving of respect even if we disagree with their views.
Wouldn’t it be great if the standard in politics was Socratic discussion of issues instead of building support by super-charging people’s emotions around the issues? But politicians need to maintain their support base, and dramatic rhetoric works for that purpose, even if it is counterproductive for the health of our nation.
High drama also makes for more exciting media stories, and that makes money for the media.
Thus the needs of the politicians are served by inflammatory rhetoric, and the needs of the media are served by inflammatory rhetoric. So what if that disrespectful speech creates a culture where it’s a small step across the line to physical assault? Is that an acceptable price to pay to assure political and media success?
But as I’ve said before, the blame doesn’t really lie just with the politicians and the media. They’re listening to their audiences — the rest of us — and giving us what we’re asking for. They’re doing what works because we allow it to work.
Let’s work this chain backwards: A gunman shoots people he disagrees with because he’s constantly hearing how evil these people are. He’s hearing how evil these people are because that language raises support for politicians and the media. That support comes because we rally behind the people who make the biggest media splash instead of those who demonstrate respectful and rationale exploration of problems and solutions.
We like things that stir our emotions — and that’s a good thing. But we’ve lost the self-discipline individually and as a society to restrain our thirst for emotional satisfaction when reason would better serve all involved. Remember that the next time you assume the guy who cut you off on the freeway is of low character instead of extending the grace you would hope for when you make a bad driving decision.