Hate Speech and Tuscon
by Daniel Schroeder
First let me make perfectly clear: There is no direct connection between statements by any political leaders of either party and the shootings perpetrated by a deranged individual in Tucson. Any attempt to make political points out of this tragedy would be a disgrace to the innocent victims, and to all Americans who are affected by it.
Still, we as a people are obligated to make sense out of this senseless act, if only to feel that in doing so we may become empowered to prevent a recurrence. So we ask ourselves, is there a way to better identify unbalanced or dangerously disaffected members of our community before they resort to violence? Having been identified, how could intervention be accomplished? Is it possible to at least keep powerful weapons out of the hands of such individuals? And finally, the question we ask so often these days, at what point do we draw the line in abridging the individual freedoms we prize so highly in order to protect ourselves from those who would do us harm?
As difficult as the issue of identifying and dealing with mentally sick individuals may be, we cannot stop there if we seek to understand this tragedy. Individual personality traits, including aberrations, do not develop in a vacuum but within a societal context. Medical science is still at a loss to explain what combination of errant hormones or neurons cause the shadow of mental illness to obscure the light of reason. But surely the norms and values of society also come into play. We must at least ask the question: Could a public discourse which emphasizes mistrust, suspicion, and a sense of being under threat, be having some effect on those whose mental state tends towards those same obsessions?
I am neither a Communist nor a Fascist. I do not seek to overthrow the institutions of our democracy. I was born a United States citizen. I am a Christian. I have never advocated the establishment of an extra-governmental police force. Yet many whose minds are not clouded by paranoia have nevertheless chosen to believe these lies about me, even in the face of contrary evidence. This mode of thought is not mental illness. In fact, demonizing an opponent is a practice we all have at times allowed ourselves to descend to, today and throughout history.
What may be different now is that the hate-speech is amplified by the media and is constantly available via the internet, even as there are fewer sources trusted to provide objective truth. In this atmosphere, even those who know better have been willing to encourage or allow distortions of fact to vilify their enemies, the better to rally their own troops.
We will never know the extent to which those who promote a climate of fear, distrust, and hate in our public arena may contribute to pushing our most mentally vulnerable citizens over the edge. But for the mental health of our whole society, we must now call upon our leaders to act like leaders. Leaders boldly call out those of every political stripe who, whether by ignorance or intention, lie and distort. Leaders debate but never disrespect a contrary point of view. Leaders do not resort to personal attacks. Leaders do no compromise the truth to win an argument. Leaders inspire us to be our best, most clear-thinking selves.
I will attempt, to the best of my ability, to be such a leader.
Daniel Schroeder, Depew
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