HICKS: Civility matters, but don't blame murder on words

January 15, 2011

Like any tragedy, last month’s Arizona shootings unleashed both the gentle and intemperate angels of our nature. The goodness of our species that was on display at the shooting, from uncommon bravery to the consoling of grief, deserves more and better space than this column. But there has been some lazy and hotheaded response that needs an abrupt chastening.

I begin with an apology. This is an economics column, and I will not get around to economics until the end.

In the wake of the shooting, the loudest debate centers on the heated level of political discourse and its presumed effect on a shooter. This is at best silly and at worst malicious. The only evidence thus far is that the shooter was crazy, and the prime target was, in fact, among the most centrist members of the U.S. Congress. It is reprehensible to blame killing on vitriolic political language—but that does not make the tenor of political debate useful or appropriate.

The United States has always been a partisan country. It is the nature of a democracy, and things have often been much worse—we did fight a Civil War and are naturally loath to part with such a sweet freedom as open disagreement. But when we use the rhetoric of violence to engage our followers, we lead poorly. In such a rich and varied language as English, warfare and combat are meager sources of euphemism in political debate.

So, as TV and radio hosts, editorialists and politicians defend their truly God-given right to speak as they will and laugh at the absurdity of blaming murder on words, it would be likewise useful to glance in the mirror. Talk of bringing a gun to a fight (pure allegory by the president) or a Second Amendment solution (pure pandering by a Senate candidate) doesn’t incite violence, but it is poor leadership. Both of these politicians rightfully paid a heavy price for poor leadership in the last election.

This is not a call for less debate, or even less disagreement. Ideas matter, elections matter and policies matter. There are even universal truths buried deeply in our public actions. These things demand passion and conviction. But talk of those who disagree with us as foes or enemies to be dispatched with violence or persuaded with threat of violence crowds out wholesome debate.

When this happens in families, they fail. When it happens in countries, it is worse. How can we turn to the tasks of economic recovery, boosting worker productivity and wages, fixing a failing educational system and defending the country when we call those who disagree with us on the means to these ends enemies?

I know all too well that no time in our lives are we more needful of pity than when we look at another man through the sights of a rifle. It is an odd metaphor in a democracy, where our ultimate goal is to convince others we are right. So, perhaps we should all save fiery language for the times our ideas are wrong.•


Hicks is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at cber@bsu.edu.


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