So, how's that improve-y discourse-y thing workin out for ya, anyway?
Heading into day 3 of post shooting reactions, lefty bloggers and news types have settled into a discussion of the "toxic political discourse" storyline, even though it has essentially nothing to do with the actual events surrounding the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords and 19 others; and even though saying "we need a a better discourse" followed by "and here's why the other side is awful" is kind of... well, not rasing the discourse to some new level.
Don't misunderstand - I get all the "too much violence in their rhetoric" commentary, the use of the targets and crosshairs, the over-reliance on war metaphors. I even get the "there's no quivalence" argument though I don't entirely share the sentiments; I think both sides have a cheerfully selective memory of just who did what to whom when that fits the storyline each side prefers to tell.
Mostly I think this weak line of argument will fade in short order; a lot of people will promise to be nicer and we'll try for a while... and then the next big disagreement will arise (in this shorter heightened news cycle time, let's give it oh, 5 days or so), and pretty soon the tone of discourse will go right back down to where most people expect it to be anyway.
Jack Shafer at Slate (who I generally find annoying) did make a worthwhile point: if there's no way to "police" some standard of rhetorical conduct, then the idea of creating one is kind of absurd. People talk about "going too far", even providing examples... but aside from flailing and decrying... there's precious little to be done about it. People will go to extremes. People will talk in gun metaphors and sports metaphors and killing and crushing one's popponents. We don't mean it literally - except, you know, when we kind of do. And the only real way to try and not lower the discourse... is to, well, not participate in lowering it. Start with you... see where it gets you.
The myth of "high minded discourse" is a powerful one, especially for lefties; it plays to liberal ideas of doing good by being good, and to baby boomers dreams of Kennedy-esque Camelot fantasies of some time when our discourse was actually on this higher plane. Neither idea is especially true (it wasn't better then, and being good is rarely good enough), and the liberal faith in them is probably counterproductive to getting the practical things we want to see done actually getting done.
It should go without saying that, yes, I too think words matter, the use of language matters, the way we say a thing matters deeply. I'm a writer. It's what I do, what I think about, what I live. I've spent my life - my writing life - believing that trying to be nice, giving out what you want to receive, shying away from extremes and violent rhetoric is preferable to the alternatives. Here's what I know: none of that means anyone else will change, none of it means our discourse will be better, and none of it will stop the violence. If we're trying to figure out how to stop another shooting like the one that just happened... "let's talk nicer" is really no solution. It won't happen... and if it did, it wouldn't change a thing.
As I said in commentary to Steve Benen over at Washington Monthly:
Finally, there's a point to be reiterated: whatever the tone of "our discourse" this shooting was committed by a disturbed man for reasons that cannot be fully explained or understood, probably having a lot to do with mental illness that was not properly identified or treated. We can do some concrete and ultimately helpful things about identifying and treating mental illness. And that would probably help in the long run a lot more than trying to regulate our "discourse."
David Broks says it similarly:
I have no love for Sarah Palin, and I like to think I’m committed to civil discourse. But the political opportunism occasioned by this tragedy has ranged from the completely irrelevant to the shamelessly irresponsible.
The good news is that there were a few skeptics, even during the height of the mania: Howard Kurtz of The Daily Beast, James Fallows of The Atlantic and Jonathan Chait of The New Republic. The other good news is that the mainstream media usually recovers from its hysterias and tries belatedly to get the story right.
If the evidence continues as it has, the obvious questions are these: How can we more aggressively treat mentally ill people who are becoming increasingly disruptive? How can we prevent them from getting guns? Do we need to make involuntary treatment easier for authorities to invoke?
The tragedy in Tucson isn't a story about "our discourse"... it's a story, yet again, about untreated mental illness and yes, guns. The hard part is asking questions about mental health and guns. The easy part is blaming our discourse. Take the easy way out, by all means. But this argument about tone is the place I waited years to leave. And I'm not coming back to it.