National Institute for Civil Discourse
by David Goodloe

In nearly two months, I haven’t encountered anyone who believes that what happened in Tucson, Ariz., on January 8 was not a tragedy. We all seem to agree that it was.

But that, apparently, is where the agreement ends.

Some people have insisted on blaming the shrill political dialogue from the Tea Partiers and Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh — when, in fact, there is no evidence that the gunman was motivated by them in any way.

All evidence of that link seems to be circumstantial, but the proponents of that particular theory are loathe to let it go. Consequently, plans for a National Institute for Civil Discourse were announced Monday by the University of Arizona.

Stephen Stromberg of the Washington Post observes that the idea was “[i]nspired by the debate that surrounded the shooting” and points out that former presidents from both parties, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, will be co–chairing, similar to (I presume) their service following Hurricane Katrina.

Stromberg, incidentally, wonders if a civility institute really is necessary — and he makes a legitimate point.

“Civility isn’t that hard,” he writes. “A fundamental rule in good opinion journalism is: Always try to consider an opponent’s argument honestly, and accept that there can be principled takes on both sides of most debates, even if one seems unhinged to you. Mistrust people who are too sure of what they’re saying — even if you’re one of them. And, while you’re doing all this, try not to compare your opponents to Stalin, Hitler or Pol Pot unless they literally are Stalin, Hitler or Pol Pot, respectively.”

Stromberg is skeptical that a National Institute for Civil Discourse is what the situation calls for — and I tend to agree.

Granted, the Tea Partiers are good suspects if one is determined to find some sort of conspiracy behind the shooting in Arizona. Their rhetoric has been incendiary, and the shooting played right into the hands of those who have been warning that “this kind of thing” became inevitable when people started bringing guns to rallies and carrying signs that equated Barack Obama with socialists — let alone the ones that compared him to Hitler.

But I haven’t seen a shred of evidence that the gunman paid any attention to the Tea Partiers. His act appears to have been inspired by his own twisted logic. Those closest to him have said repeatedly that he sympathized with neither the right nor the left, that he was, essentially, apolitical.

That seems to be irrelevant, though.

The Prescott (Ariz.) Daily Courier appears to have bought into the notion that whether the shooting was motivated by the political debate or not is not important. What is important is that”something good” comes from it.

As far as the Daily Courier is concerned, “something good” apparently is more bureaucracy wrapped in a package of workshops, programs, classes and research, all designed to tell people things they should have learned in grade school, if not kindergarten — Play nice. Wait your turn.

“Is it sad that it took a national tragedy and elementally named institute to remind Americans how to converse respectfully?” the paper asks. “Absolutely.”

Nevertheless, it must be done — because (I suppose) the next shooting might actually be the result of the extremist rhetoric. And we must prevent that before it happens.

I suspect, though, that the target (if you’ll pardon the pun) of the institute’s efforts will be the right wing, not the left, which has been guilty of some extreme rhetoric of its own.

The main difference has been the right’s blatant use of violent language and images. For the most part, the left has avoided that.

But it is far from guiltless.

In fact, as long as this institute is going to be a reality, I have a good place for it to start its work — Wisconsin, where pro–union protesters have been carrying some pretty extreme signs at their rallies.

Once again, I’m with Stromberg.

“Call me a pessimistic realist,”
he writes, “but I’m not sure more workshops are really going to help.”

David Goodloe got his bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Arkansas in 1982, and his master’s degree in journalism from the University of North Texas in 1991. He publishes the thoughtful weblog Freedom Writing. This post is cross posted from his website.

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