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Exploring Leadership in the News with Steven Pearlstein and Raju Narisetti

Katherine Tyler Scott
Business leader

Katherine Tyler Scott

Katherine Tyler Scott is Managing Partner of Ki ThoughtBridge, a leadership consultancy, and is author, most recently, of Transforming Leadership: The Episcopal Church of the 21st Century. She is a board member of the International Leadership Association.

Our role in this tragedy

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?

We can begin by recognizing that incivility is not just a characteristic of the political sector; it exists in many other spheres of our lives. Verbal assaults, witty put-downs and character assassinations occur so frequently that we seem to have become numb to their potential consequences until a tragedy like the one in Arizona occurs. Our pattern seems to be a brief awakening during a crisis, at which time we are startled and sickened by the horror of what happened, but then we soon return to a semi-conscious state that serves to distance us from toxic speech and its potential for harm. Inevitably we lose the ability to see any connection between our silence or passivity and the evolution of a culture noted for demonization of differences.

We didn't buy the gun or amass the ammunition that the assailant used to kill and maim those individuals who were peacefully assembling and exercising their civic duty; but when we won't speak out against selling weapons to anyone--weapons that should only be used in warfare--we allow those with fragile minds to cross the boundary from hunting animals to hunting human beings. No, we didn't place the cross hairs of a gun over Congresswoman Gifford's district, but there was no general public groundswell of protest from reasonable people about the destructive power of such symbols. Some sought to legitimize this incivility with repeated statements of resignation that "people are angry." This reaction conveyed the notion that the reprehensible words and pictures on posters and placards at protests were understandable because, after all, "people are angry." No clear distinction was made between the legitimacy of feeling such an emotion and the irresponsible expression of it.

The economic adversity facing the country was used to give such demonstrators a pass even when their behavior was blatantly vicious. When a few spoke out against the growing incivility, they were portrayed as opponents of free speech, enemies of the Constitution, a danger to democracy. Anyone who labeled their behavior for what it really was became a target of more hateful rhetoric.

No, we weren't in the classroom with a clearly disturbed young man whose strange behavior evoked such fear among classmates and faculty that he was thrown out of the school; but our silence watch over years of dismantling mental health services has had tragic consequences. Dumping the mentally ill out into communities that are ill equipped to treat them is not a treatment plan.

I have been impressed by the thoughtful, reflective tone of some civic and political leaders and some television newscasters covering the story of the Arizona shootings. I hope that this continues. How might the culture change if political and community leaders, and those in the media, continued to model true dialogue and the rational practice of making meaning from the flood of data that gushes into our daily lives? What if we demonstrated how to deal with differences through respectful listening rather than defensiveness and reactivity? What if our religious leaders exhibited the courage to speak out against vitriolic verbal attacks, no matter the source?

We can refuse to accept excuses for such behavior. Those saying, "the other party has been uncivil too," are not leaders who own responsibility and who hold themselves accountable.

All of us can look within ourselves and pledge to never remain silent in the face of incivility, no matter what form it comes in or whatever political party or movement from which it originates. We can start by showing through both words and deeds what it means to be a healthy democracy in which the citizens know the difference between free speech and hate speech; citizens who will cherish the first and not accept the second.

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By Katherine Tyler Scott

 |  January 11, 2011; 7:10 PM ET
Category:  Accomplishing Goals , Congressional leadership , Crisis leadership , Ethics , Failures , Government leadership , Leadership weaknesses , Managing Crises , Political leadership , Wrong-Doing Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: May this be a wake-up call | Next: Making the case for civility

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Why do we keep on insisting on blaming the rhetoric for this tragedy? This was a sick man whose friends have said he didn’t listen to talk radio, pay much attention to politics or anything else. How about we just blame the shooter? If more of us would learn to take the blame for our own actions, rather than lay it elsewhere when we clearly deserve it, the world would be a better place. This article explains how fessing up to a problem is a good place to start for a business with issues: http://www.upyourservice.com/learning-library/customer-service-guarantees/when-service-goes-wrong-bounce-back. If businesses can fess up, why can’t we?

Posted by: Julie-Ann1 | January 16, 2011 2:17 PM
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Why do we keep on insisting on blaming the rhetoric for this tragedy? This was a sick man whose friends have said he didn’t listen to talk radio, pay much attention to politics or anything else. How about we just blame the shooter? If more of us would learn to take the blame for our own actions, rather than lay it elsewhere when we clearly deserve it, the world would be a better place. This article explains how fessing up to a problem is a good place to start for a business with issues: http://www.upyourservice.com/learning-library/customer-service-guarantees/when-service-goes-wrong-bounce-back. If businesses can fess up, why can’t we?

Posted by: Julie-Ann1 | January 16, 2011 2:16 PM
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"This reaction conveyed the notion that the reprehensible words and pictures on posters and placards at protests were understandable because, after all, "people are angry." No clear distinction was made between the legitimacy of feeling such an emotion and the irresponsible expression of it."

This is an Information Age problem. Nothing is private, all must be shared, we throw our emotions out as we feel this is part of our "participation" entitlement. To some extent, even the very dignified memorial service in Tucson was marred by this audience insistence at whistling and whooping to be sure we all knew how they felt. Not enough to let speakers speak for them.

"All of us can look within ourselves and pledge to never remain silent in the face of incivility, no matter what form it comes in or whatever political party or movement from which it originates."

Let the bipartisan responsibility begin.

Posted by: post-it2 | January 14, 2011 2:38 PM
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