Let’s Stand for Something: Civility

I saw Black Swan Saturday afternoon, a really excellent but extremely dark and troubling movie. You wonder what demons people carry around inside them, and what motivates us to do things that might be harmful to ourselves and others. And leaving the theater I checked my BlackBerry, seeing several e-mail and text messages and Tweets about the real-life tragedy involving the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others in Tucson.

For me, and I expect most others, the story involving Giffords and those who died in the attack — including a 9-year-old girl who was born on Sept. 11, 2001 — is more chilling, darker and more troubling than anything Hollywood can produce.

And who knows what provoked the attack? As best I can tell, nobody at this point. Yet I heard someone on TV say that the suspect was “unstable.” Dude, unstable to say the least. Stable people don’t walk into a Safeway on a Saturday morning and start spraying lead.

I’ve posted on this blog on many occasions about the decline in civility in politics and government — and in many other areas of our lives and relationships with those we know and those don’t. And I believe this lack of civility — an unwillingness to treat people with respect even when disagreeing with them and acting according to some generally accepted rules of our society — has serious consequences today and in the years ahead.

(For interesting perspectives on this see the NYT article, “The End of an Era of Intolerance, or just the Beginning” — and an article by Howard Kurtz, “Should We Blame Sarah Palin for Gabrielle Giffords’ Shooting?“)

Maybe this is the right time to consider how — or even if — we can restore civility. Of all the things that have been written about in the aftermath of the shootings in Tucson, here’s something worth considering.

It’s a post by Amanda Terkel on The Huffington Post, “Rep. Clyburn Recalls Words of MLK, Says Americans Need To Speak Out Against Violent Rhetoric.” Here’s an excerpt:

Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), a lawmaker who faced several threats during the heated health care debate, is calling on the country to ratchet down its heated political rhetoric and calling on lawmakers to speak out forcefully and condemn such comments.

Noting that the tragic shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) — which, in total, left 20 people wounded and six dead — occurred just a week before Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, Clyburn said on “Fox News Sunday” that “good people” have a responsibility to not be silent:

“I think the sheriff out there in Tucson — I think he’s got it right. Words do have consequences, and I think that — this is nothing new, I’ve been saying this for a long time now. We’re getting ready to celebrate, this weekend, the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., who admonished us that we are going to regret in this generation not just the vitriolic words and deeds of bad people, but the appalling silence of good people.”And I think that what has happened here is the vitriol has gotten so elevated, until people feel emboldened by this. And people, who are a little less than stable, and people aren’t thinking for themselves or are so easily influenced, they got out and do things that all of us pay a great price for. I applaud the Republican leadership for doing what they’ve done in this instance, for giving everybody a chance to step back and take a hard look at this, and decide how we can go forward.”

Clyburn, a veteran of the civil rights movement, pointed to some of the “vitriolic” statements from the 2010 campaign, including Nevada GOP Senate candidate Sharron Angle floating “second amendment remedies” to control Congress.

“I believe that those of us who are in responsible positions owe it to the country and owe it ourselves and owe it to this great institution we call the United States Congress, to speak out against this kind of rhetoric because if you don’t, it will keep ratcheting up, up, and up,” added Clyburn. “And before you know it, as Martin Luther King has admonished us, the people of ill will will have won the debate.”

And here’s from Howard Fineman, also opining on The Huffington Post:

Now comes Tucson. The deaths there are not about politics, ideology or party. From what we know, Jared Loughman’s acts were those of a madman divorced from reality, let alone from public debate.

But that doesn’t make Tucson politically meaningless. The president need not, and should not, speak of ideas or programs or parties. What he can speak about, and what perhaps he will speak about, is civility.

Without a return to civility, we are going to continue to forfeit many of the freedoms that we take for granted in this country — access to our elected representatives among them.

That’s an extremely dark and troubling thought.

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