This post originally appeared on skirt.com on January 13, 2011
You have been getting a lot of grief after the horrible tragedy in Tucson — given the inflammatory nature of much of your political rhetoric. Your soundbite savvy 2nd amendment references including your plea for reloading instead of retreating; the crosshairs image burned in the collective national consciousness, accompanied by the now chilling words of Gabrielle Giffords, “The way that she has it depicted has the crosshairs . . . over our district. When people do that, they’ve got to realize there’s consequences to that act.”
I feel badly for you. To be blamed for the unspeakably horrific acts of a deranged killer must be terrible. As you have said, the acts of criminality start and stop with the criminals themselves. Barack Obama echoed your position at the memorial service in AZ when he said, “Let’s remember that it is not . . . a simple lack of civility [that] caused this tragedy. It did not.”
But here’s the thing. Every time you open your mouth and start to “rally the troops” to your cause, you make a choice. You may not be responsible for the tragedy in Tucson, but what you say does matter.
Just because a phrase is catchy and will score some political points and make for an irresistible boomerang on the cable TV loop . . . doesn’t mean you should say it. Just because you CAN do something, doesn’t mean you SHOULD.
Last night Obama observed, “We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know how we treat one another is entirely up to us.” Ahhhhhh, Obama. Now there is someone with an incredible way with words. And I am not just saying that because I am a liberal Democrat who voted for him in the last election.
Even though we are on opposite sides of the political aisle I have found YOU fascinating since you first entered the political scene, and I have followed you with interest — irritated only when you inexplicably decided to pick on Michelle Obama regarding her quest to end childhood obesity . . .
And also during those times when you have insisted upon recklessly embracing inflammatory speech.
Please trust me when I say it’s not about being AGAINST you when I point out Obama’s gift of gab. But I think it is incredibly useful to note his knack for RAISING the bar of discourse. Think of the POSITIVE power that comes from using words and rhetoric to reveal the best of ourselves! To make us proud to be Americans, to make us want to be better citizens, better friends, better parents, better people . . . .
You may find this fairly amusing, coming from someone who writes a blog anonymously, who drops the F-bomb with some regularity, and who is clearly not afraid of a little snark. Point taken. But one important difference between you and me is that YOU have incredible influence, and the responsibility that comes with your SERIOUS position of LEADERSHIP in our country.
Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that you abandon rhetoric altogether.
I am a fan of rhetoric, actually. I am a lover of words and I wallow in their power. Every week I attempt to write, and I hope for a showering of insight, of accuracy, of emotion, of inspiration. Sometimes it comes; sometimes it doesn’t. But when it does, there is nothing in the world like it. I am reminded of what the third century philosopher Longinus wrote in On the Sublime (translation by Prickard, 1906):
. . . a choice of the right words and of grand words wonderfully attract and charms . . . it brings greatness, beauty, raciness, weight, strength, mastery, and an exaltation all its own, to grace our words as though they were the fairest statues . . . For beautiful words are, in a real and special sense, the light of thought.
More recently, A.B. Wilson (2003) fashioned a defense of rhetoric based on the admirable rhetorical acrobatics of Judge Noah Sweat, who argued both for and against prohibition by calling to question the definition of the word “whiskey.” Similarly,Wilson explains:
If, when you say rhetoric, you mean windy effusions and empty promises . . . if you mean the lowest form of oratory . . . bigoted and incendiary speech that . . . dethrones reason; then, certainly, I am against it.
[and, I might add here, if you mean that which uses violent images or embraces our basest propensity to celebrate violent means, then certainly, I am against it ]
But . . . if, when you say rhetoric . . . you mean the ability to render complex issues in a clear and simple language . . . to breathe poetry into policy . . . if you mean the gentle art of charming an audience and sending ripples of laughter through a crowded ballroom . . . if you mean the powerful and passionate language that elevates the heart and frees the mind . . . well, then certainly, I am for it.
Here is the choice: Use your words to push the discourse UP, or use them to play to the LOWEST common denominator.
There is a guiding principle I really like – It comes from Marianne Williamson who wrote, among other things, a treatise on faith titled A Return To Love. She says that every time we act, we make a choice between LOVE and FEAR. The challenge, of course, is to choose love, even though we are constantly tempted to embrace fear.
What if you applied this idea to your speech? To reflect upon the possibility that every time you address your constituents, you make a choice to promote love, or to promote fear. Injure, or heal. Inspire, or agitate.
With everything we face as a nation, Sarah, wouldn’t you agree . . . the time has come . . . to word UP.
Thanks for listening,