LETTER: Political discourse may get nasty, but is always necessary
In response to the tragic shooting in Arizona, several news sources like the New York Times, Time magazine and our very own CM Life have published articles that put political rhetoric on trial.
These articles cite an ad produced by Sarah Palin’s campaign that places a number of U.S. representatives in crosshairs. Political discourse like this, the argument goes, incites a culture of fear and violence.
Before we get swept up in concerns about a new era of McCarthyism propelled by throngs of Palin followers, we might remember that factional discord has been a staple of politics. Plato, still upset about the death of Socrates, wrote a scathing critique of democracy, alleging that the struggle for power corrupts the most well-intentioned politicians.
More recently, James Madison, in his Federalist 10, warned that differing opinions in democratic societies lead to animosity, oppression and violence. In politics, there will always be passionate disagreement; each side will always believe that it is right.
This is not meant to dismiss political discourse as “just talk” or “mere rhetoric.” Political discourse clearly matters; I’d be out of a job if it didn’t.
Rather, I wish to point out that “rhetoric” is not inherently a dirty word or a plague upon our democracy. We, the citizens of this country, are not involuntarily fueled by the flames of fiery discourse.
When we blame others for the actions that individuals take, we ignore our own power to extinguish the efforts of those who would reap discord. Just as people use rhetoric to tear us apart, so too can (and do) people use rhetoric to create unity and resist the temptations of division and hatred.
It is fitting that I write this less than a week prior to our national celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr., a person who employed a rhetoric of unity at one of the most volatile times in our history.
As we search for meaning in this political climate and in response to the violence, we might heed the call he advanced the eve of his assassination:
“Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.”
Through our own communication, we can improve the nation.
Assistant Professor of Communication and Dramatic Arts