Need for civility: a dissenting view
Much has been said since the Tuscon shooting involving Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) about the need for civility in our discussion of political issues and people. From the President on down, both left and right, politicians are falling over themselves trying to look good by taking this “high road,” no matter how hypocritical it may be in the context of the speaker's own rhetorical past.
The most passionate voices of both the right and the left have come under fire for their rhetoric on subjects unrelated to Giffords or her shooting. Keith Olbermann, the most inspiring, uncompromising voice of the left, was canned by left-leaning MSNBC (though ostensibly for reasons unrelated to his rhetoric). That move led many progressives (e.g., Democrat strategist Mo Elleithee and State Rep. Rich DiPentima (D-NH) in Politico's discussion in The Arena) to press right-leaning Fox News to shed rhetorical flamethrowers Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, and even opinionated moderate Bill O'Reilly, and for individual stations to disconnect the Rush Limbaugh radio program.
I respectfully dissent.
I'm a big-time First Amendment guy. I view all attempts to stifle free expression of ideas with great suspicion. While courts have extended First Amendment protection to such things as sexually explicit artwork, it is undeniable that speech on political topics is at the very heart of the amendment's protection. It is also undeniable that physical violence is not a protected expression of free speech.
Many politicians and media personalities have seized on the Arizona tragedy to suggest that the incident was the result of predictable reaction to heated political discussion. That's nonsense. And even if it were true, the occasional tragic response of an irrational sociopath to controversial expression is a small, necessary price to pay for our broader fundamental freedoms. After all, traffic accidents cause thousands of deaths every year, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be allowed to drive automobiles.
The fact is, the most virulent expressions of opinion are often the most effective. Displaying photographs of coffins of dead soldiers, though offensive and insensitive to some, is a legitimate, effective way to promote ending war. And I must admit that Sarah Palin's characterization of the Federal Coordinating Council for Comparative Effectiveness Research as “death panels,” though offensive and insensitive, is legitimate and effective in promoting the arguments of health care reform opponents. Those who seek to stifle so-called “toxic” speech are really seeking to suppress the effective, persuasive communication of ideas that they oppose.
Certainly responses to disagreeable expressions of ideas are equally protected and encouraged. Outrageous expressions should not go unchallenged, lest acquiescence be inferred from the silence. Unfortunately, today's society prefers suppression of ideas they don't like over vigorous, reasoned debate, as illustrated by popular culture's favorite retort, STFU. Censorship is wrong, unless there is a clear and present danger to national security. While the First Amendment only limits the government from interfering with free speech and does not prohibit private citizens from doing so, bullying speakers into submission with orchestrated public outcry is just plain wrong.
We don't need to monitor our “tone.” We need more ideas, not fewer. We need to return to the richness of their unintimidated expression. Self-imposed "civility" won't get us there.