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Paul Schmitz
Public Service Leader

Paul Schmitz

Paul Schmitz is CEO of Public Allies, which, through AmeriCorps and other programs, identifies and prepares young community and non-profit leaders.

May this be a wake-up call

Question: Vitriolic political rhetoric is on the rise for one simple reason: it works. In the wake of the tragic shooting in Tucson, what can political, business and community leaders do to change the political dynamic so that demonizing opponents is not a winning strategy? How do we end the rhetorical arms race?

All of us are horrified by the tragic violence in Arizona last weekend. Our grief knows no party or ideology. When an aspiring student council member, concerned citizens and public servants are gunned down at a civic activity that should if anything be more prevalent in our democracy, our nation suffers. We all pray for the victims and their families.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, many have questioned whether it is the lone act of a madman or whether it was the result of our nation's increasingly hostile civic discourse. There is no question that the murderer, allegedly Jared Lee Loughner, is personally responsible. But we all wonder what could make someone turn to such extreme violence.

First, there are allegations and assumptions that mental illness played a role. We do not yet know if he has ever been diagnosed or treated for mental illness. And regardless of his diagnosis, we should be careful not to react to this situation with stereotypes of people with mental illness as violent. As the National Alliance for Mental Illness pointed out, "the overall contribution of mental disorders to the total level of violence in society is exceptionally small."

The other main allegations are that our civil discourse has become more insane, and may have contributed to this tragic violence. While we don't know yet the motives of the killer, I believe that when leaders attack people and distort their ideas or work to make them fearful and hateful, it does have consequences.

I experienced this during the election campaign in 2008. Because of my organization's past relationship with President and Mrs. Obama, we were attacked in several media outlets and blogs as running "Marxist re-education camps that trained impressionable young people to hate America," among other things. For the record, we are not Marxist and love our country and our communities, which is why we are devoted to supporting diverse young people to begin careers in public service and to lead in ways that bring individuals and groups together from across cultural, issue and sector boundaries to solve public problems. We are supported by Democrats and Republicans, and grew significantly with support from the Bush administration.

We initially just thought the rhetoric was so absurd and distorted that it would go away. But like a bad game of "telephone," the distortions and vitriol grew in the blogosphere. A YouTube video compared our Marxist re-education camps to Hitler youth camps. Then there were the hate calls, hate emails and hate mail. "You don't deserve to live." "We won't just stand by while you turn American into a Marxist concentration camp." A gun club posted our addresses and asked members to spy on us, and their blog included posts calling photos of our diverse staff "a horror show" and suggesting they make effigies of us to drag around their ranch and use for targets. We were relieved they were only just words.

Then on July 18th, 2010, Byron Williams was pulled over in California en route to assassinate leaders at the Tides Foundation and the ACLU. He wanted to start a revolution against the left-wing agenda, and had allegedly learned of Tides from Glenn Beck's regular attacks of the organization. Words have consequences.

Leaders set a tone. When leaders in public life speak about their opponents in hateful, over-the-top vitriol, it makes people more fearful of those they disagree with and what they are doing to our country. When "lock and load" and "second amendment remedies" are part of the discourse, it sets a tone that seems to wink at violence. Fear is a powerful motivator and is great tool for building media audiences and getting people to the polls. However, we should differentiate between getting people to disagree with others and getting people to fear others. Leaders have a responsibility, especially in public life, to distinguish between the two. In the face of difference, a strong democracy requires civility, honesty and compromise.

The health-care plan provides an instructive example of the breakdown in discourse. One may disagree with the plan and question whether it is necessary, effective, affordable or may lead to unintended consequences. But opponents instead scared people about "death panels" and described a program that supports both private insurance and private health-care delivery (and rejected a public single-payer system or even a public option) as a "government takeover of health care" and "Marxist." The goal of this rhetoric is not to create disagreement with policy, but to generate fear that our country and our way of life is being taken over and made communist, which it is not. Yes, this happens on the left too, where opponents can be demonized and dismissed instead of disagreed with.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan once famously said, "You can have your own opinions, but not your own facts." Leaders have a responsibility to be fact based, not fear based. All of us who lead, whether in government, business, nonprofits or communities, have a responsibility to model civic leadership. In public life, there needs to be more space for civil, fact-based debates of ideas. Leaders should, as a rule, build relationships and learn from people they disagree with, rather than defining them as enemies. It makes us better leaders. It strengthens our ideas. And it leads us to better solutions. Nonprofits already create this space, and need to do more of it.

I proudly attended the Rally to Restore Sanity because I believe we should be able as a country to disagree without being disagreeable. I agreed with Jon Stewart that we should reserve terms like Communist and Nazi for those who actually hold those ideologies. I hope that this tragic event will be a wake-up call that will help our dialogue and disagreements become more sane.

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By Paul Schmitz

 |  January 11, 2011; 6:59 PM ET
Category:  Accomplishing Goals , Congressional leadership , Ethics , Failures , Government leadership , Leadership weaknesses , Political leadership , Wrong-Doing Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Comments

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"we should reserve terms like Communist and Nazi for those who actually hold those ideologies."

Absolutely!

Posted by: SarahBB | January 16, 2011 5:21 PM
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Admittedly it is difficult to show a clear-cut cause for Jared Loughner's violence. But he did not shoot a taxi driver or a co-worker; he targeted a particular politician -- one that Palin had in her cross-hairs. Palin's militarized political language wouldn't affect an average person. But her violent words and that of the "shock jocks" on the Right can have unintended consequences. Giffords warned Palin of this. How prescient she was.

Posted by: Sion1 | January 14, 2011 5:27 PM
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While the Tucson shootings apparently had no connection whatsoever to the state of political rhetoric, I can understand why Obama would want to downplay any possible connection. His "in your face" comments over the last three years make him as guily as anyone of using inflammatory language. Additionally, a president because of his authority has a greater responsiblility than anyone to use moderate language.

When leftists stop their daily hateful assaults on Sarah Palin I'll perhaps take seriously their desire for rhetorical peace.

Posted by: hit4cycle | January 14, 2011 3:11 PM
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Theaton writes:" I don't believe political rhetoric can cause rational people to become violent."

I agree with your other statements that most attending Tea Party rallies have been generally civil. Those with racist signs or threatening language have been made increasingly unwelcome in some parts of the movement. I have friends who attend TP events, and I know some are concerned about some of the fringe participants.

But re your statement above, consider this: As the leader of the German people, Hitler never killed anyone with his own hands. How do you think he persuaded millions of average people, nor more evil or virtuous than the rest of us, to take violent action? He never even said "I will kill the Jews". How did he manage to become the epitome of evil??? It was not through his silence.

Posted by: post-it2 | January 14, 2011 2:50 PM
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I think it's important that you used the word "leaders." It reminds me of Bush 43's oft quoted statement that, "I'm a leader because I lead." While it seems solipsistic, it's true. The simple term "leader" does not indicate whether the leader is a good or a bad leader, one uplifting to people, or one who takes them, as Bob Dylan once sang, "down in the hole they're in."

The issue in terms of how leaders and followers go forward, is how do you want to lead, and who do you want to be aligned with? Do you want to strive for a higher expression of individual and national purpose, and if so, how? What means do you want to use to go there?

Or do you want to be lower on the rung, not calling for the best in folks, but appealing to lower motivations—to win, to beat out the other side, to grab the mantle of power at all costs, unity be damned. No compromise?

Or even lower. Perhaps you are perfectly happy being a junk yard dog as they say in politics. Go for the jugular, no holds barred, bare knuckled.

We each have a choice to make of what we want to achieve, and who we want to be to achieve that.

My hope is that more politicians will chose higher ground because the issues I believe we face as a nation—notably peak oil, declining resources, economic delusion and even collapse, crumbling infrastructure, our children subject to the vagaries of a soulless market that promotes base values by and large, personal and national debt, and the very real threat of climate change—are all way too serious for us to spend our time as the nation of petty bickerers, a national stage of left v right that looks like a mid 90s Geraldo Rivera/Ricky Lake/ Montel Williams, Leeza show writ large.

I'm for the vote that we can do better. I'd say we have to do better. We don't have to be the lowest versions of ourselves. There is another way. We just have to choose it, and then re choose it every moment and every day. I have faith that we can do it. BUt we need those leaders who choose not simply to be leaders, but to be leaders of "the common good" to show us the way every day.

Posted by: lindsaycurren | January 14, 2011 1:26 PM
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I think it's important that you used the word "leaders." It reminds me of Bush 43's oft quoted statement that, "I'm a leader because I lead." While it seems solipsistic, it's true. The simple term "leader" does not indicate whether the leader is a good or a bad leader, one uplifting to people, or one who takes them, as Bob Dylan once sang, "down in the hole they're in."

The issue in terms of how leaders and followers go forward, is how do you want to lead, and who do you want to be aligned with? Do you want to strive for a higher expression of individual and national purpose, and if so, how? What means do you want to use to go there?

Or do you want to be lower on the rung, not calling for the best in folks, but appealing to lower motivations—to win, to beat out the other side, to grab the mantle of power at all costs, unity be damned. No compromise?

Or even lower. Perhaps you are perfectly happy being a junk yard dog as they say in politics. Go for the jugular, no holds barred, bare knuckled.

We each have a choice to make of what we want to achieve, and who we want to be to achieve that.

My hope is that more politicians will chose higher ground because the issues I believe we face as a nation—notably peak oil, declining resources, economic delusion and even collapse, crumbling infrastructure, our children subject to the vagaries of a soulless market that promotes base values by and large, personal and national debt, and the very real threat of climate change—are all way too serious for us to spend our time as the nation of petty bickerers, a national stage of left v right that looks like a mid 90s Geraldo Rivera/Ricky Lake/ Montel Williams, Leeza show writ large.

I'm for the vote that we can do better. I'd say we have to do better. We don't have to be the lowest versions of ourselves. There is another way. We just have to choose it, and then re choose it every moment and every day. I have faith that we can do it. BUt we need those leaders who choose not simply to be leaders, but to be leaders of "the common good" to show us the way every day.

Posted by: lindsaycurren | January 14, 2011 1:24 PM
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While I would love to see more rational political debate, my bigger fear is that people will use, even shamelessly, this unrelated tragedy to try to cool overheated debate. All the evidence from this tragic event is that it was a failure of the mental health system with Zero connection to politics, discourse, etc. You don't make honest progress by using unrelated suffering to advance even a noble cause.

Posted by: Drew95 | January 13, 2011 11:46 AM
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We know that the shooter was never diagnosed as mentally ill. Mentally ill diagnoses is a disqualifier for legal purchase of a firearm. We know that the shooter bought the firearm legally. Such purchase requires a NICS check, which he obviously passed. So no mental illness diagnoses unless you are willing to admit that a government solution doesn't work. The lack of diagnoses in no way means the shooter wasn't nuts. The shooter asked one of his professors if he could unteach him math? He thought the government was employing mind control via grammar. He thought dreams were another reality.

The shooter focused his interest on Rep. Giffords long before the Tea Party existed and long before Sarah Palin became so popular. There is no evidence that the shooter heard or read anything Palin said. Two of his favorite books were Mein Kampf and The Communist Manifesto.

Single sided blames is irrational. The Daily Kos Put a Bulls Eye on Gifford's district. Two days before the shooting the a Daily Kos post said about Giffords "my CongressWOMAN is dead to me." The DLC regularly uses bulls eyes on their political maps and talks about targeting certain people. The Massachusetts School of Law at Andover wanted to hang President Bush like the German and Japanese war criminals. Hollywood made a movie titled "Death of a President" in which President G. W. Bush was assassinated. Bill Maher said "Sorry the assassination attempt on Dick Cheney failed." This is just a short list of similar and even worse rhetoric from the left.

There has not been a single arrest or violent act at any Tea Party or Glenn Beck rally. At a rally for Senator Reid in Nevada, many from the left through eggs at a Tea Party express bus that drove down the road. Reid supporters threatened violence against Andrew Breitbart at the same rally. At another rally, SEIU members beat Kenneth Gladney so bad he required treatment at a hospital. The perpetrators called him an "Uncle Tom" and beat him for selling Gadsden Flags. At another rally, a person came out of a MoveOn.org crowd and confronted someone at the rally on the other side and bit off his finger.

I don't believe political rhetoric can cause rational people to become violent. I do know that it comes from both sides. If you believe it causes violence you must also admit that movies, lyrics and video games can cause violence. You must also admit it comes from both sides. Irrational people need no words to push them to violence.

Posted by: theaton | January 12, 2011 2:39 PM
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Paul Schmitz has made a superb comment on the issue of civil public discourse. May it be widely read and may it influence the behavior and attitudes of all of us.

Posted by: DStoneman | January 12, 2011 2:32 PM
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