Is it Time to Stop the Vitriolic Rhetoric in Politics and Business?

Last Updated Jan 21, 2011 3:03 PM EST

Time to Stop the Violent RhetoricA heated national debate has emerged in the wake of Saturday's shooting spree in Tucson, Arizona. The way I see it, there are actually three questions on the table:
  1. Does vitriolic political rhetoric incite violence against public figures?
  2. If so, should we tone down the rhetoric?
  3. Can we tone down the vitriolic rhetoric without jeopardizing our right to free speech?
Since this is a complex issue, let's try to break it down. Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik certainly seems to think the answer to the first question is yes:
"There's reason to believe that this individual may have a mental issue. And I think people who are unbalanced are especially susceptible to vitriol," said Dupnik at a news conference. "People tend to pooh-pooh this business about all the vitriol we hear inflaming the American public by people who make a living off of doing that. That may be free speech, but it's not without consequences."
And those comments are eerily consistent with those made by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords - the target of Saturday's shooting - in an interview with MSNBC regarding Sarah Palin's now infamous congressional district target map:
"The way that she has it depicted has the crosshairs of a gunsight over our district," Giffords said last March. "When people do that, they have got to realize there are consequences to that action."
On the other hand, in a blog post on Monday, I accused those who rushed to link Sarah Palin to this murderess rampage of "attempting to politicize and benefit from tragedy" and I furthermore said that behavior was "despicable, unprofessional, selfish, idiotic, and lacking in professionalism and class."
I specifically referenced Rep. Raul Grijalva who, when asked if the "Tea Party right was to blame for the tragedy," essentially answered in the affirmative. For that, I was lambasted by more than a few readers in angry comments and emails.

That surprised me because, the last time I checked, our nation considers even those accused of the most heinous crimes to be innocent until proven guilty. And yet, a sheriff and a congressman - two people who should surely know better - based their conclusions, linking Palin and the Tea Party to the shooting, on pure speculation. Hard to believe.

Moreover, as it turns out, the democratic party had its own "target map" from the George W. Bush presidency. Now, that didn't surprise me, not in the least. Frankly, I'd be hard-pressed to distinguish one party's vitriolic rhetoric from the other. Which sort of brings me to my next point.

Business leaders, corporate executives, managers, athletes, and the media, all employ that same rhetoric and those same metaphors. And don't even get me started on the violence portrayed on television, in movies and in video games. They actually portray assassinations and other violent acts.

Maybe I'm missing something here, but how can we consider censoring without condemning a broad swath of our democratic society and jeopardizing our first amendment right to free speech in the process. Moreover, how do we even begin to tone down our vitriolic or violent rhetoric and imagery when it's literally strewn throughout our entire society? We're all guilty, for example:

  • We use that same sort of rhetoric every day in business. We target customers, competitors, and markets. We talk about dominating an industry and defeating, destroying, even killing the competition. We have war rooms.
  • Not to be funny, but how about Target - the company - with its bright red bulls-eye logo? Does that have to go too?
  • In a recent presentation, I quoted an analyst who talked about my client "holding a gun to its customers' heads." The image I used was a cartoon of a bound person with a gun pointed at his head.
  • And guess what just appeared in my Inbox? An email from my local wine merchant entitled: ""A killer wine value" - Robert Parker."
  • There are literally dozens of sports metaphors that reflect violence, not to mention target practice in sports, bulls-eyes in archery and darts, even human images in weaponry targets.
  • Then there's the media. A quick search uncovered dozens of blog posts that used words like Destroy, Target, Kill, Conquer, and Sabotage in their headlines. Admittedly, some of them were mine.
  • And, as I said before, if we're worried about what we're teaching our kids or inciting violence, does any of this even begin to rise to the level of violence and vitriol depicted on TV, in movies, and in video games? Not even close.
So what are we really talking about here? Limiting free speech? Making certain words illegal? We're certainly heading in that direction. And if we're concerned about politicians as public figures, then how about CEOs, entertainers, and athletes?

And all that because of one madman's evil rampage. Sounds a lot like what we've done to airport security. We've made flying a nightmare and it's not even clear that the latest, most egregious intrusions into our fourth amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure would stop the bad guys.

Limiting free society. Limiting free speech. All in the name of security. It's a slippery slope. Where does it end? Benjamin Franklin said, "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." He was right.

So, back to the three questions at the top of the page: I think the first is speculative and the second is therefore moot. The only question that really matters is: Can we tone down the vitriolic rhetoric without jeopardizing our right to free speech? I'm with Ben Franklin 100 percent when I answer emphatically no. And if we tried, not only would we "deserve neither liberty nor safety," but we'd achieve neither, as well.

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Image courtesy Flickr user peacesymbols