Thursday, 13 January 2011

The need for responsible rhetoric

Several of my fellow bloggers have this week focused on the horrific events in Arizona, during which Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head on her way to a constituency event. Twelve others were injured and six lost their lives.

Congresswoman Giffords has undergone potentially life-saving brain surgery and I am sure we all wish her a full recovery.

These shocking events have triggered a debate on the killer's motivations. 22-year old Jared Loughner appears to have a complex and rather disturbing psychological profile. Without knowing a great deal other than the merely superficial about this young man's history, it is probably best to leave such speculation to the psychiatrists.

However, there have been concerns expressed about the role of the media and political debate in shaping this man's views - and potentially preciptating his murderous actions. President Obama has pointed towards "sharply polarised" political debate: "at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do - it's important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds." Others have argued that the shootings reflect the state of political debate in the US, while some have blamed the media for its irresponsible and sometimes intolerant political reporting.

Unhelpfully, Sarah Palin - who has been criticised for inciting disharmony and cultivating tensions in targeted areas - has already attacked as a "blood libel" suggestions that divisive rhetoric could have contributed to the shootings. This is short-sighted and only contributes further to the already unpleasant political climate in the US.

The truth is this - we don't know what possessed a 22-year old man to shoot 19 people, leaving six of them dead. Speculation is unhelpful and it isn't for politicians to be apportioning blame. In recent years, there have been a number of tragic shootings in America (I myself played in a soccer match against members of Columbine High School in memory of Cassie Bernall, who was killed in the 1999 tragedy) and there are obviously a number of reasons why these have happened. It can't simply be assumed that in this case there must be political motivations. But at the same time we can't rule it out, and it's a wake up call to all of us who are involved in political activity to be more responsible in how we engage and communicate.

It is undeniably true that American politics have witnessed increased polarisation in recent months. The rhetoric of intolerance and, at times, extremism has become the hallmark of political discussion. As debate becomes more divisive, this is inevitably reflected within the media and ultimately within society. President Obama is right - whatever our beliefs and principles it is vital to "behave in a way that heals, not a way that wounds". That applies to politicians, sections of the media and society as a whole.

There is a danger that people can be influenced by seditious rhetoric. UK politics, while clearly not as polarised as America's, are becoming more febrile. When burning effigies of Nick Clegg passes for legitimate political debate it is patently necessary for the media and politicians of all parties to use responsible rhetoric and to move away from a culture of blame.

The "new politics", anyone?

Obviously my thoughts are with those injured in the Arizona shootings and the families of those killed. With this in mind, I'd like to give the final word to a fellow blogger:

It's completely heartbreaking that a 9 year old child has died. The poor wee one. I can only imagine what his or her parents are going through & I feel for them so much.

Let's hope that this tragic & appalling event leads to politicians on both sides of the Atlantic taking a long hard look at some of the language they use & that in the future debates are confined to robust analysis of the issues.
(Caron's Musings, 8/1/11)

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