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Yash Gupta
Business School Dean

Yash Gupta

Yash Gupta is Professor and Dean of The Johns Hopkins Carey Business School.

We need more Joseph Welch moments

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?

Some of the louder voices in our society these days seem to believe that extremely bitter criticism of the government equates with the deepest patriotism. That's not necessarily the case. Certainly one of the most distinctive features of our nation's greatness is the freedom of the people to call their leaders to task when the situation warrants it. But we have lately created an environment in which the rhetoric has taken on an alarmingly violent tone. That's not what our society should be about. To use such language, in fact, violates the principle of civility that has distinguished most of American discourse over the past two-plus centuries.

Our freedoms, including free speech, carry a moral responsibility to use those freedoms with a consideration of others' well being. People who make these harsh statements need to understand that there might well be a link between violent words and acts of violence.

I'd like to see our elected leaders at all levels of government, as well as members of the media, take the brave stand of calling out people who make unduly vitriolic statements. It would be good to see some Joseph Welch moments. Welch, remember, was the lawyer who confronted Sen. Joseph McCarthy at the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings by accusing him of "reckless cruelty," and saying, "You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?" Seeing some of our leaders challenge the worst examples of vitriolic speech might go a long way toward cooling the temperature of the discourse in the United States today.

On a practical level, the politicians might also do well to keep in mind that extremist language turns off the independent centrist voters who decide many of the elections. Elected officials who embrace extremist tactics do so at the risk of alienating this crucial voting bloc.

The president has a special role to play in this situation, given the power of the bully pulpit in the Oval Office. With the nation's attention focused by the tragedy in Arizona, this is an opportunity for President Obama to use his exceptional oratorical skills to address the broader issue of our discourse and then issue a call for an approach that reflects our traditions of civil debate and the common good. The tone of things has to change. If it doesn't, and if it keeps getting worse, then our democracy could be at risk.

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By Yash Gupta

 |  January 11, 2011; 11:47 AM ET
Category:  Accomplishing Goals , Congressional leadership , Ethics , Failures , Government leadership , Leadership weaknesses , Political leadership , Presidential leadership , Wrong-Doing Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Mr. Gupta, regarding patriotism, there are two kinds. One says "my country right or wrong." The other, "my country please do right and no harm."

The first, unfortunately, prevails in America.

Gary Brumback

Posted by: garybrumback1 | January 15, 2011 7:40 AM
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"Our freedoms, including free speech, carry a moral responsibility to use those freedoms with a consideration of others' well being."

That moral responsibility is also a deep personal responsibility. Our Founders understood the need for strong language, but they studied the ethical use of language in debate. They read, in both Latin and Greek, the lessons of ethical rhetoric.

What we are seeing now is the very unethical use of strong language (particularly on talk radio programs, on the right mostly, but there is some use on the left as well) --- verbal tactics of stereotyping, scapegoating and dehumanization.

This is strong language as it was used by Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and Hutu extremists. These hosts do not intend "extermination". But how are the unstable to discern the difference?

Limbaugh, Beck & others are deeply unethical and lacking in personal responsibility when they use these tactics.

Posted by: post-it2 | January 14, 2011 2:58 PM
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