Political Civility is a now a Matter of Life and Death
“Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” – Henry II
When King Henry II of England spoke these immortal words to his loyal knights in 1170 AD, complaining bitterly about Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Beckett, four knights took it as tantamount to a command and executed the priest.
No one, not even at the time, believed King Henry II actually gave a direct order for Beckett’s execution. Nevertheless, the King spoke and Beckett died as a direct result. His words had great power.
Loose Talk Costs Lives
The once popular phrase, today more often expressed as “loose lips sink ships,” was coined by the War Office to remind Americans that during war, thoughtless words can kill.
What was true during WWII, is even truer today in America’s growing conflict with radicalization and mass violence.
In a country of 325.7 million, almost evenly divided politically, the ability to preserve civility in disagreement is more crucial than ever.
Unlike Henry II, or even people in 1945, everything we say now has the potential to be amplified far beyond anything humankind has ever known.
Henry II might have chosen his words more carefully if they were being broadcast to 325.7 million people.
Imagine King Henry II venting his spleen in our modern context; not to a small group of supporters, but to millions. People from radically diverse backgrounds and values-systems, hailing from nearly every other country on earth, every variant of the human condition, young and old, male and female.
Including the mentally disturbed.
And as the events of this past weekend, and so many other chilling events of this nature, clearly illustrate, the mentally disturbed are listening. And they are vulnerable. Out among the reasonably-functioning members of society are those who are, quietly sheltering in place or loudly declaiming on social media, descending into the type of madness that drives a person to mass murder.
The head of any organization, any teacher, blogger, parent, movie star or television personality, anyone with a platform of any kind, has a personal responsibility to choose their words with care, now that you know who is listening.
People in the public, from President Trump to Rep. Maxine Waters, should proceed accordingly.
Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, Independents, Green Party; everyone in Washington needs to take this opportunity to unequivocally condemn violence and incivility in any form.
But a long-view look at this crisis reveals another key player with the biggest seat at the table and a larger platform than anyone.
The Power of the News/Entertainment Complex
Words brought down the Berlin Wall. Who brought down the Berlin Wall? Was it the people of East and West Germany? Bowie, Springsteen and David Hasselhoff held concerts in support of destroying the wall and everything it stood for. Was it them? Was it Reagan, with his unforgettable and unflinching challenge? “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Or was it an Italian reporter hardly anyone has ever heard of named Riccardo Hermann?
Mr. Hermann, covering a press conference the following day about a possible easing of travel restrictions between the two halves of Berlin, received a mysterious phone call the night before.
“Ask this question,” the caller, who remains nameless to this day, told the reporter, “When will these changes take place?”
The fumbling answer he received from a harried East-German bureaucrat held only three famous words: Ab sofort, unverzüglich (“from now, immediately”).
The resulting surge of people, galvanized by this complete mishandling of a sole reporter’s single, loaded question, soon overwhelmed the flabbergasted and unprepared soldiers manning the wall and changed the face of the free world forever. By the time the mistake was sorted out, it was much too late. The wall had already come down.
So what happens when the media misuses its great power?
You can’t yell “FIRE!” in a crowded movie theatre, or so they say. Everyone knows that. It isn’t in the U.S. Constitution, but it is understood to mean that there may be limits placed on free speech.
But what if you don’t exactly yell “FIRE!” in a crowded theatre; what if you just start a rumor in each row that the theatre is definitely going to be on fire any minute now?
That person over there looks like a pyromaniac, conditions are ripe for a fire; code violations, old wiring. It could happen. Is that OK?
Or what if you don’t yell “FIRE!” in a crowded movie theatre at all, and you don’t start any rumors about a dangerous fire situation, pyromaniacs in the audience, possible faulty wiring, either?
What if you just offer to pay certain people a dollar for each moviegoer they can panic enough to hit the exit bar?
What role does the media play in incidents like these?
Think the media doesn’t glorify serial killers? The Night Stalker is so popular, he has letterhead to answer his fan mail.