A year ago, we introduced a new curriculum, Civil Discourse in the Classroom and Beyond, citing the “pressing need to change the tenor of public debate from shouts and slurs to something more reasoned.”
This weekend’s carnage in Tucson, with Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords gravely injured, six people dead and 14 others wounded, is a terrible tragedy, not just for the victims and their families. It is a tragedy for a nation whose political process depends on people airing issues, managing conflict and confronting controversy in the public square.
That process, essential to democracy, is messy and hard. Civic discourse in this country has never been particularly genteel. When the stakes are high, we should expect passion, emotion and even overblown rhetoric. The problem is that the “shouts and slurs” we warned about last year have been joined by violence-tinged rhetoric that demonizes opponents and implicitly suggests that we can no longer work out peaceful solutions to our problems.
In the wake of the Tucson killings, many people are rightfully asking whether our rhetoric has gone too far. The Pima County sheriff, Clarence Dupnik, defined the issue well on Saturday, shortly after the massacre. "There's reason to believe that this individual may have a mental issue. And I think people who are unbalanced are especially susceptible to vitriol,” he said in off-the-cuff remarks during a press briefing. “People tend to pooh-pooh this business about all the vitriol we hear inflaming the American public by people who make a living off of doing that. That may be free speech, but it's not without consequences."
That’s a lesson teachers always impress upon their students: Rights come with responsibilities. And words have consequences.
We hope that teachers will take time this week to explore some of the myriad issues raised by the shooting, including the nature of public service, the consequences of making public officials less accessible, services for the mentally ill, the availability of guns and the heroism of bystanders. Mainly, though, we hope that classrooms will ring with discussions about responsible speech.
It’s too soon to say whether it’s a watershed moment, but judging by what we’ve seen in the media, on blogs and in petition drives, we certainly seem to be entering a national conversation about the tenor of our discourse and whether vitriol has a place in it.
House Speaker John Boehner has postponed the normal business of the House for a week so lawmakers can, in the words of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, “take whatever actions may be necessary in light of today’s tragedy.”
Here’s a challenge for you and your students: What advice would you give to the members of the House?