In his speech after the tragic shooting of 19 people in Tucson, President Obama brought great consolation to the American people. He explained his presence in humble terms: “as an American” come to mourn with all those present. But he played another, very significant role, however. The president came as a national leader who held up a mirror before the American public, reflecting its own best face. As Mr. Obama described the dead and wounded and those who helped them, he showed a group visage of fine, civic-minded, family-loving people, some of them selflessly heroic, as he pointed out. “Heroism does not require special training or physical strength. Heroism is here, all around us, in the hearts of so many of our fellow citizens, just waiting to be summoned…”
Then the president tried his best to summon a less dramatic kind of heroism, available to the whole American family, some 300 million strong, if only they would reflect it. “What is required of us going forward?” he asked.
The specifics the president proposed, were the citizenry to follow them, could change the tone and the substance of today’s shrill political discourse. Not because hateful discourse explained the violence in Tucson, he said, but because we need serious, civil discourse if we are to solve our national problems going forward. Mr. Obama suggested that we citizens talk with each other “in a way that heals, not a way that wounds,” and that we discuss events “with a good dose of humility” rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame. He further proposed that we not waste this tragic occasion, but rather use it to “expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.” This, Mr. Obama said, describes the “never-ending process to form a more perfect union.” Civil discourse, in other words, is the act of a true patriot.
None of his ideas would stifle debate or the expression of legitimate differences on divisive issues either. Yet they could rein in hateful, demeaning, dishonest speech—those “when did you stop beating your wife” allegations that send the accused rushing off-stage to their own defense. Mr. Obama’s ideas could rein in talk that attacks individuals and groups, not their ideas, and incites anger and violence against them. This is what polarizes and poisons public discourse. That is what citizens should refuse to abide. It is possible to turn off radios and tv shows, to call sponsors and networks and to protest that kind of speech, once and for all. It is harder to do with the Internet, however. There messages can be sent without accountability, under the cloak of anonymity or false identity. Damage can be done before the facts can be mustered. Most blogs, including our own, would be improved if posters and those who write comments followed the president’s injunctions.
In his line about forming “a more perfect union,” President Obama quoted from the Constitution, which the new Congress has made a point of reading aloud. I don’t know whether they read all the constitutional amendments or not. But these are important for the nation’s humility, for they show clearly that the founders, as prescient and dedicated as they were, were also dependent on other patriots and citizens—the men, women and children who would come after them—to move the nation toward, not perfection, notice, but … union. That is the goal.
Today we need conversations and actions that unite us and remind us of “all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.” We the people have a responsibility to practice discourse that heals, not wounds. We have a responsibility to speak and listen to one another with empathy, and to expand our moral imaginations. It isn’t up to Congress or the president. It is up to us.
Wouldn’t it be the height of folly if we, a nation that fought a war and struggled to pass constitutional amendments to enfranchise both blacks and women, a nation that has worked hard to overcome the kind of ethnic and religious divisions that drag other nations into civil wars, were to let our unity be hampered by ideological differences?
(I hope readers will consider the president’s proposals. I know some will rush to comment. If you are a mild-mannered reader who can express your own thoughts in a way that heals, please send us your comment and include your real name.)