Felicia Muftic: Do we have the will to tone down our rhetoric?
Grand County, CO Colorado
When the founders of our democracy constructed the form it would take, they were reflecting the age of their times … a belief that educated, rationally thinking people could engage in public discourse, debate legislation, and successfully shape the course of a nation.
While there were no talk show hosts in the late 1700s or emails and bloggers, there were pamphleteers and broadsheet newspaper publishers who provided an outlet for airing political passions. Our forefathers feared that the uneducated masses and mob mentality could cause instability, so they devised a representative democracy in which those masses elected the educated rationalists to thoughtfully carry out the wishes of their constituents.
Since then, most citizens have obtained a decent education, yet this nation has had its share of demagogues, sharp-tongued name calling, physical violence, and just plain rude, angry and insulting shout outs, even in the halls of Congress.
Every once in a while an event causes us to look in the mirror and wonder if the words we used contributed to violence or tragedy. Tucson was one of those events. It has made the word of the month “civility,” and some representatives are now trying to watch their tongues. They should. Our representatives we elect have the implied obligation passed down by our forefathers to be the most rational ones.
Some failed the “civil” test the other week: using hackle-raising allusions to Nazi tactics or a making the accusation that a legislative act would kill people. Those comments could have been re-worded to avoid the Nazi reference and violent terms.
The problem is rational words are not likely to get much public attention. The truth is, readers, viewers, and listeners find rational discussion a bore and those in media knows this; messenger and message receiver feed on one another. CNN’s more centrist approach had cost them market share as FOX and MSNBC heated the rhetoric to appeal to their respective ideological bases.
How far should we go in muting a volume turned up high by anger and accusatory name calling? We should expect our elected officials to make the effort. Can we expect the media messengers to lower the provocative temperature of their rhetoric and to use other words to convey their passions?
Keith Olbermann’s surprising show end last week may signal a change in tone at MSNBC. He had already put the kibosh on some of his more red meat features. Equally liberal, but less volatile hosts like Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell are slated to be moved to earlier time slots to fill the void. It remains to be seen what FOX executives will do, but they have achieved such rating success with their angry table thumping stars, they may not want to tinker with their talkers.
How can we spur any change in media tone? In some religious groups in our history, a device of “shunning” was used to change and punish unacceptable behavior. If enough of those in the center shun the angry flame throwers and deprive them what they crave the most, audience share, there just might be a change in heart.
Shunning does not mean tuning out just those with whom we disagree. One of our obligations as citizens is to listen to all sides and draw conclusions using reason. We also cannot expect cable TV or radio stations to change their appeal to groups who share an ideology. They have branded their product with a certain slant, their audience knows what they can expect, and their respective fans find a comfort level with their content.
We still have the responsibility in our democracy to seek out rational thinkers, even if their positions move us out of our comfort zone. We also have the power to surf channels and push the button on our radios. The question is: Do enough of us individually have the will to turn down the anger volume to collectively force a change in tone?
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