“…Words Will Never Hurt Me” – Or Will They? What we can learn from the Gabrielle Giffords tragedy

Gabrielle GiffordGabrielle Giffords’ mentor, Robert Reich, has said that he believed Gabby would be the first or second female president of the United States. She was a rising star in the Democratic Party and much loved by her constituents in Tucson. Now she is fighting for her life. No one can make sense of such a senseless tragedy. Worldwide Spotlight

Reporters from the U.S., Germany, France, Mexico and the UK, among others, are covering the story. Of particular interest to them is the incendiary political rhetoric that many believe may have played a role in the Tucson killings. Much has been reported about Sarah Palin’s U.S. map that used a riflescope to identify the congressional districts on her “hit list.”

Of course, we will never know what impact Palin’s map, other negative images or violent rhetoric had on the shooter—Jared Loughner—but we do know that words and images have the power to harm or heal. If there’s one thing we should have learned from history, from Hitler to Manson, it’s that when violent ideas end up in the wrong hands, there can be dire consequences.

Is there a place for cruel and threatening rhetoric in our political discourse, especially since we know that tragedies can occur? In a democracy, competition is required for a healthy dialogue; but the way we have been expressing our differences is now under scrutiny worldwide.

The Super Bowl of Politics

Politics is not the only area where we see competition and aggressiveness. You can see it acted out every Sunday during football season. But the key difference between the competition and aggressiveness in football versus politics is that football players adhere to strict rules of conduct. Players respect and follow those rules because they are enforced. If players break the rules, they can be penalized, pulled out of the game, fined or suspended. There are consequences that are written into the bylaws of the game and we all accept them.

In our political system, however, there are no strict rules of conduct. People can say what they want. Politicians and others in positions of power can use violent language, metaphors and images of such things as guns, hunting, and targets to convey their point. If they don’t like their opponent, if they believe that they are promoting the wrong policies, they can put them on a “hit list.”

From Every Challenge Comes Opportunity

But this tragedy gives us the opportunity to question our political rhetoric—and that is one positive by-product of this tragic incident. We have a chance to reflect on the power of rhetoric not just in our political dialogue, but also in every area of life where words are important to us.

As a speech coach, I think about words a lot. I believe that words have inherent power and can be used to cultivate hope, optimism and goodness, or they can be used to stimulate fear, oppression and hatred. In speeches, relationships, families, societies, organizations, and yes, in politics, words matter. And just as violent themes, images, threats and aggression have no place in families, they also have no place in our political communication.

In football and other aggressive sports that entertain Americans on a regular basis, rules are required for the safety and civility of the game. Rules govern not just what happens on the field, but in the stands as well. The fans want to know that things are under control so they can root for their team of choice without fear of reprisal from the competing team. Fans want to be able to fully participate in the experience without fear.

Is that too much to expect from our political leaders as well?

I welcome your comments on this post.