ScreamFree Politics? Wednesday, January 12, 2011
By: Hal Runkel, LMFT
Can we have a civil conversation?
Screaming is everywhere. From Olbermann to Beck, from Sheriff Dupnik to Rush. From me to you.
I think it’s safe to say that we’re all a bit horrified by the recent assassination attempts and murderous killings in Arizona. Here’s praying to God for Rep. Giffords’ healthy recovery, and for comfort to the families of the murdered. I cannot imagine what they all must be going through.
In the meantime, as we wait and see the legal developments of the case, we are all left to ponder the fully unanswerable questions of “why?” Why did Jared Lee Loughner do it? Why did he seek out this particular Congresswoman, and why didn’t he just stop once he shot her? Why was this obviously mentally disturbed man never treated, even though he was kicked out of college for his deranged comments and behavior, and why did he have access to guns?
Yes, those are the questions knocking on the doors of our brains, but frankly, I am much more interested in another question, a question that can only be answered with time and thought:
Are we to understand this incident as a random blip, or is it simply a stark example of what’s possible, even likely, in our current political, economic, media-fueled climate?
Sheriff Dupnik of Pima County definitely believes it’s the latter. In fact, in words I could’ve said myself, he believes that this kind of thing happens when we all scream too much:
“When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government. The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous… It's not unusual for all public officials to get threats constantly, myself included. That's the sad thing about what's going on in America: pretty soon we're not going to be able to find reasonable, decent people willing to subject themselves to serve in public office.”
Now, what has happened since his initial comments has been nothing short of fascinating. Because of Sheriff Dupnik’s political affiliations (liberal Democrats) and his recent political attacks (against Tea Party supporters of the Arizona immigration laws), it has been assumed that his comments about “vitriolic rhetoric” were only directed against rightwingers. So, everyone from Rush Limbaugh to Sarah Palin to Rep. Jack Kingston here in Georgia are going out of their way to show how Dupnik is “accusing the right of causing these murders,” “using this tragedy to trumpet his own politics,” and “falsely linking our good, healthy, fiery dialogue to the actions of an insane man.”
Unfortunately, Sheriff Dupnik has jumped into the ring with Rush and others, specifically mentioning the conservative talk-show host as the culprit in all this 24/7 vitriol. That has, of course, simply furthered the vitriol about the vitriol. Now, we’re all screaming about the screaming.
What this has all done, in my opinion, is distorting what could have been a productive conversation about our times. I mean, I lean toward the right, particularly on financial issues, but I can easily accuse both sides of fomenting the vitriol to serve their own purposes.
--Keith Olbermann, you’re guilty of screaming from behind a desk and a camera, igniting passions around the country, and then simply going home to your very comfortable, responsibility-free lifestyle. You’ve even stopped hiding behind journalistic objectivity, using your own money to support Democratic candidates!
--Glenn Beck, you’re guilty of using multiple media formats to enrage your followers, without having to take responsibility for any of your comments, like the recent one you made about estimating the percentage of Muslims who are actually extremist terrorists at “closer to 10%.” Seriously? So out of the 1.7 billion Muslims, there are 170,000,000 terrorists in the world?
The truth is that we do live in a highly politicized, 24/7 climate of vitriolic rhetoric. And apparently, we love it. We all eat it up like candy. I mean, just do a thoughtful reflection on the media shift that’s occurred in our lifetime. Gone are the days of Cronkite, Brokaw, Lehrer, & Koppel. It seems that you cannot have a news program dedicated to calmly discussing the issues; the best we can get is a self-mocking treatment like The Colbert Report.
Is it any surprise that we are more politically divided than ever before? We should not be blind to the coinciding creation of the 24/7 media cycle and this increased division. These are not unrelated, folks. Yes, we have always had political division in this country. Yes, there have been abhorrent acts of politically-motivated violence as long as humans have lived in community. What is different now is that we can have mass-broadcasts of infotainers doing whatever it takes to get ratings, and then escaping any responsibility by simple cries of “we’re not doing anything different than anybody else,” or “we’re just trying to balance out the other side,” or “our viewers are demanding it.”
And it’s that last one that I like to focus on. As I said above, we all apparently love the vitriol. We cannot get enough of it. In our frustrated lives, our weakest selves are always looking for an easy place to locate blame, especially on other people who aren’t like us, who actively oppose us, or who are working just as hard to blame us for their frustrated lives.
Are Olbermann and Beck to be held responsible for Loughner’s actions? Of course not. He and he alone is to take full responsibility for his actions. However, do all the political opinionaters have a responsibility to the public for their use of the most powerful mass media vehicle in history? Absolutely. And frankly, I was quite surprised to find Mr. Olbermann doing just that earlier this week: "Violence, or the threat of violence, has no place in our Democracy, and I apologize for and repudiate any act or any thing in my past that may have even inadvertently encouraged violence."
Wow. That’s a good step, sir. But you have a job because we want you to have one. You have an unelected, largely unaccountable position of influence because we either want someone to voice our frustration and target our blame, or we want someone to attack and become the target of our blame.
The real truth is that we all bear some responsibility for the amount of screaming in our society. I mean, you’re subscribed to this newsletter because you’re aware of your own screaming in your own home, right? The only way to change a society from a reactive one to a responsive one is from the inside out, and that means us. We all need to actively work on seeking out the most objective news reports, even if it means reading and viewing opinions from all sides. We all need to stimulate multi-sided discussions in our homes, in our workplaces, in our houses of worship, by first modeling the type of calm discourse that leads to rational thinking. We all need to call our public officials on their own misuse of their rhetorical platform, and communicate that the way a position gets communicated is just as important as the position itself. Because communicating in extreme tones only gets extreme tones in return.