Dis­arm the lan­guage po­lice

Over­re­ac­tion un­der­mines the pub­lic dis­course

The Washington Post Sunday - - OPINION - KATH­LEEN­PARKER kath­leen­parker@wash­post.com

As a long­time cham­pion of greater ci­vil­ity in pub­lic dis­course and one who has led the charge for di­aled-back rhetoric, may I re­spect­fully take most of it back?

OMG, as we mut­ter qui­etly to our­selves. Heaven for­bid we should say some­thing of­fen­sive or slightly provoca­tive, or, gasp, use a metaphor that slips the grasp of the men­tally chal­lenged.

The purse-lipped gos­sip for­merly known as the lit­tle ol’ lady next door has be­come the su­perego of the vox pop­uli. We may be at risk of be­ing bored to death by our bet­ter an­gels.

In the con­test for pop­u­lar ou­trage the past few days, we have sev­eral pos­si­ble tar­gets. Wait, scratch that. We don’t “ tar­get” peo­ple any­more. We trace them with hearts and dot our I’s with smi­ley faces.

Most in­fa­mous, of course, is the hys­te­ria around Sarah Palin’s po­lit­i­cal map, wherein she, or some­one in her den of mama griz­zlies, placed cross hairs over con­gres­sional dis­tricts held by Democrats or other un­de­sir­able in­cum­bents. One, alas, was over Tuc­son, where Ari­zona Rep. Gabrielle Gif­fords was gunned down.

That ter­ri­ble event, per­pe­trated by a ran­dom killer whose po­lit­i­cal lean­ings are un­clear but whose mental in­sta­bil­ity is not in doubt, thus has been con­nected to Palin. This his­tory is well-known so there’s no need to re­hash, but the de­bate about words and con­se­quences shouldn’t end there.

Palin re­acted as she al­ways does when crit­i­cized — “I am not go­ing to sit down. I’m not go­ing to shut up,” which we know to be lit­er­ally true — but she is surely jus­ti­fied in re­ject­ing blame for a crime com­mit­ted by a stranger, who, as far as any­one knows, has no affin­ity for Palin or any other hu­man.

Her un­re­lated in­struc­tions to her min­ions — “Don’t Re­treat, In­stead — RELOAD!”— sound ut­terly ap­palling in light of what hap­pened, but ev­ery­one knows Palin wasn’t urg­ing vi­o­lence. She’s an out­doorsy kind of gal who has made shtick out of her one­ness with na­ture. When she uses the lan­guage of hunt­ing and shoot­ing, she isn’t speak­ing code to killers. She’s dog whistling to Ted Nugent and other Sec­ond Amend­ment com­rades.

You want real trou­ble in free speech­ery? Sug­gest that some­one is Hitler-es­que or a Nazi, as Demo­cratic Rep. Steve Co­hen re­cently did. Co­hen was try­ing to make the case that, in his view, Repub­li­cans have cre­ated un­truths about health-care re­form that have be­come cred­i­ble through rep­e­ti­tion. Inart­fully, he para­phrased a quo­ta­tion of­ten at­trib­uted to Joseph Goebbels: “ If you tell a lie big enough and keep re­peat­ing it, peo­ple will even­tu­ally come to be­lieve it.”

Co­hen should have re­mem­bered the fa­mous quip that a lie trav­els half­way around the world while truth is still putting on its boots. A feather is bet­ter than a cud­gel if you want to change peo­ple’s minds as op­posed to re­ar­rang­ing their skulls.

For my two cents, any­one who in­vokes Hitler or Nazis should be dis­qual­i­fied from pub­lic de­bate for mud­dled think­ing and lack of orig­i­nal­ity. But the ou­trage that in­evitably fol­lows any ut­ter­ance that dis­pleases any­one’s ear these days has be­come dis­pro­por­tion­ate to the of­fense. This is partly a func­tion of our Twit­ter driven cul­ture and the in­ces­sant re­play of ev­ery fleet­ing thought — not to men­tion the rav­en­ous ap­petite of the me­dia beast — but it’s also partly ow­ing to a creep­ing tide of speech mon­i­tor­ing and sen­si­tiv­ity on-that de­serves our at­ten­tion.

Ev­ery now and then a pub­lic per­son is go­ing to say or do some­thing re­gret­table. I am be­yond cer­tain that our most beloved lead­ers were im­per­fect and must have said some­thing in­ex­act, with­out proper fore­thought or pre­science. Ben Franklin, Thomas Jef­fer­son and Franklin Roo­sevelt, among other no­ta­bles, would be deeply grate­ful that they avoided these hyper-ob­ser­vant times.

Clearly, lead­ers are held to a higher stan­dard and should be guardians of the light. Or, as the French philoso­pher Bernard-Henri Levy re­cently put it with pas­sion­ate pre­ci­sion: “We are guardians of ze words!”

But hu­man be­ings are not built for per­fec­tion or for con­stant scru­tiny. We need time alone in our caves to re­flect and imag­ine. We also need to be able to ex­press our thoughts with­out fear of in­stant con­dem­na­tion, granted time to reshuf­fle and re­gret, time to say, hey, I was wrong about that. Per­haps most of all, we need space to think more and talk less.

While we pon­der that con­cept, at least we should hoard our ou­trage for the truly out­ra­geous and our dis­dain for the truly hate­ful.

Sarah Palin re­sponds in a video to crit­i­cism af­ter the Ari­zona shoot­ings.

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