A Call For Rhetorical Nonviolence: It Starts With Me, Not My Enemy

Photo by Flickr user "S†e"

The tragic events in Arizona may well be a turning point. Many are calling for changes in policies, and many of these changes may well make sense. Many are also calling for a scaling back of the vitriolic political rhetoric that has marked public life these days. There is much blame being directed at political leaders on the right who use a nostalgic, hyper-patriotic, libertarian kind of language that includes repeated references to the Founders, and to Revolution, and veiled (and not-so-veiled) insinuations that it’s time for violence.

Now, like many, I don’t like that kind of rhetoric. I find it damaging. And it may be the case that it contributes to the kind of climate where the shooting in Tucson could take place (though I believe there is no valid way to test that hypothesis, as instinctively true as it may feel).

But many of the responses I have heard to the Arizona rampage seem equally intemperate. The call from many on the left is for a crackdown on these leaders, for them to be held accountable.

I don’t think the best way to reduce the vitriol in public life is to get mad.

The best way to reduce the level of vitriol is for individuals (me, you, friends, family, colleagues) to stop tolerating it from our peers.

For me to tell an enemy, “Quit that inflammatory talk,” will fall on deaf ears. The divide between us will only be further hardened. No, instead, what I ought to do is demand better behavior from the people who agree with me. We listen to like-minded people, and set our norms that way. When I am in a meeting and someone starts getting mad, and it gets over the top, I need to rush to the defense of moderation.

Indeed, I need to quit thinking there are enemies in public life. Because an enemy is someone I want to kill. There are opponents, detractors, people I disagree with, and others who are misguided. But there are no “enemies.”

We can’t demand better behavior from the other side. It won’t work. We can practice rhetorical nonviolence, right here and right now, with those in our immediate circle.

My favorite example of nonviolence in the day-to-day was provided by none other than Arun Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, in a seminar I had the good fortune to attend some time ago. I wrote a piece spurred by that experience here, but here is the salient portion for our purposes:

“Turn to your neighbor,” Arun Ghandi told us, “and make a fist. Pretend you are holding the world’s most valuable diamond.” I was at a global conference at Kennesaw State University, where Mahatma Ghandi’s grandson was giving the keynote. Mr. Gandhi is a potent speaker in his own right. “Now, neighbor: Try to get the diamond.” There ensued amusing antics as a roomful of people struggled in what looked like a cross-cultural arm-wrestling contest. My own neighbor good-naturedly stabbed my hand with a butter knife, to hoots of laughter at our table. I gave up the diamond.

After a decent interval, Mr. Ghandi raised his hand and waited. We stopped struggling and looked to the podium. “Tell me honestly. How many of you asked your neighbor if they would please give you the diamond?” Silence. He nodded slowly, as if he rarely got much response to that question. “See how violence seeps into everything we do? I did not ask you to attack your neighbor, only to get their diamond.”

Published by

Brad Rourke

Executive editor of issue guides and program officer at the Kettering Foundation.

4 thoughts on “A Call For Rhetorical Nonviolence: It Starts With Me, Not My Enemy”

  1. While I do not have people I call “enemies” (although some people might call me an “enemy”), I do not believe in tolerating calls for violence, from public figures, no matter who they are. I will speak out against calls for violence, whether or not a public figure generally agrees or generally disagrees with my stands on issues.

  2. Sorry … something went wrong with the edit function … so many Christians seem to forget the question “What did Jesus tell us to do?”, and you can be sure that the answer did not involve inflicting violence on anyone, regardless of political leaning.

  3. I really like the approach of assuming that both sides have legitimate issues and that there are simple, honest differences of opinion. This is the way negotiations can be fruitful.

    However, Republicans have taken themselves out of the realm of legitimacy. The rancor starts with them and is not equal on both sides. When Mitch McConnell states that his number one priority is to make Obama a one-term president, it is clear his goal is political and not betterment of our country. Time and again, they have rallied against proposals that they previously supported and many that they even initiated because they didn’t want the Democrats to have any victories. Moreover, they have decided that the truth is irrelevant and that lying can yield success if they only repeat it often enough. Deceit through statements like “Government-run health care,” “death panels,” “climategate,” etc. has become one of their primary tools. More important, Republicans have become nothing much more than shills carrying water for major corporations, regardless of their benefit or hinderance to America. Whether it is the health insurance industry, oil companies or telecommunications giants, they are the mouthpiece of multinational corps.

    Is it fair to paint Republicans all with one broad brush? Yes, when they all vote in unison to filibuster every good bill that comes along, regardless of its merit and their previous positions. Yes, when in places like California they all take a pledge to never vote for any tax increase knowing that we’ll never get the 2/3 majority needed to pass an increase. Yes, when any Republican that goes against the party grain becomes a target by their own party. Yes, when none of them will challenge outrageous statements by their own such as Sharon Angle’s call for “2nd Amendment remedies” if they don’t get what they want in the ballot box.

    This is not a normal situation where both sides can politely agree to disagree based on differing philosophies. This isn’t about philosophy for the Republicans. It’s about a full on takeover of our country by corporations and normal rules of the game don’t apply anymore. The Bush-Cheny administration were willing to toss out our Constitution to get their way. Democrats get swamped because they don’t fight back. They are not angels either. Many take the same corporate money to get elected. But they have not resorted to the guerilla tactics of the Republicans.

    I hope the day returns when we can believe that both sides just simply disagree. When Democrats and Republicans disagree on the House floor, then meet for a friendly dinner or golf outing after work. When we can at least agree on the facts, if not the remedies. We’re not there now. Until we are, it is wholly appropriate to call Republicans to start telling the truth, to stop the vitriolic rhetoric and to come to the table to negotiate moving our country forward.

    Ryan Snyder

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