Civility is on life support. But the body politic was sick long before James T. Hodgkinson assaulted the GOP congressional baseball team, critically wounding Rep. Steve Scalise and wounding four others after asking whether the people on the field were Republicans or Democrats.
Kentucky witnessed a similar event eight weeks ago when a machete-wielding Transylvania University dropout attacked students at a campus coffee shop after asking their political affiliation. Nineteen-year-old Mitchell Adkins claimed he suffered from ridicule for his conservative beliefs. He reportedly let those who identified as Republicans go.
The politically motivated violence is troubling enough but the festering hate, like an infectious wound deep within, is coming to the surface through social media devices.
“Too bad he’s not hurt worse,” said the Twitter post by @DPconsultants referring to Scalise. “He and GOP trying to hurt, strip healthcare from millions of us presently. It’s unfortunately deserved.”
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If only such comments were outliers, but Facebook and the Twitterverse are lit up with them. Social media exchanges reveal systemic breakdown within the body politic and the prognosis for the free and healthy exchange of ideas in public is not good.
So what’s the prescription to restore the political health of our republic? For starters, incitement of violence must stop. Holding a severed head of the president isn’t comedy any more than a Fresno State professor’s tweet “Trump must hang,” is political speech.
Nor is it academic freedom for a University of Alaska Anchorage assistant professor’s painting of Captain America holding the severed head of the president.
Influencers must realize that with a big platform comes great responsibility. Institutions like the the New York Public Theater should know this. Their modernized version of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” that depicts Trump as a modern Caesar stabbed to death by women and minorities incites the unstable to harm the president.
Salvos of grotesque images of bloodied political leaders, even in the name of “artistic expression,” blunt our sensibilities. When we shoot each other with words and messages meant to cripple we shouldn’t be surprised that verbal bullets eventually find themselves becoming the real thing and loaded into the kinds of assault weapons that put Scalise in intensive care.
The rhetoric needs to be toned down but preceding destructive rhetoric come suspicions, which I experienced firsthand recently. I briefly shared my concerns with the Shelby County Human Rights Commission after it presented a controversial ordinance that would designate sexual orientation and gender identity as civil rights.
Others shared their concerns. In fact, there was some level of civil conversation, that is until one person said that law enforcement was monitoring extremist groups that have moved into Shelby County. Then she looked at me and asked, “Are you from Shelby County?” Another person after the meeting angrily told me that I should stay out of Shelby County.
Cast suspicion. Ridicule beliefs. Marginalize opponents. When done in succession, the end result is to have identified the “other” and to isolate them. They’re no longer neighbors, coworkers or fellow Americans, but the enemy. In those tense few moments, I felt what this was like.
Just because I have a different idea on an important matter doesn’t make me a bad person. Nor does it mean that I cannot respect you as a person and uphold your dignity. It means we have different views. Too many people today have a difficult time accepting that.
We should be able to dialogue and debate ideas, even passionately. We can disagree, passionately. We even have a special designated time to see that our ideas prevail. They’re called elections. What we cannot disagree upon is that each person is valuable, that each person has inherent dignity and that violence employed to settle a dispute is never justified.
Civility is languishing and every citizen must play a role in resuscitating it. This means that good citizenship transcends party affiliation, stops the poisonous rhetoric that makes enemies of our fellow citizens and political leaders, and musters the courage to tell the hyperpartisans that incitement to violence isn’t welcomed here.
Richard Nelson of Cadiz is the executive director of the Commonwealth Policy Center, a Kentucky-based nonpartisan public policy organization.