Gabrielle Giffords and the Meaning of Civility in Living

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords

I cannot help but feel devastated by the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords this past weekend in Tucson.  (see the LA Times article ) I’ve pondered whether I should comment on the shooting and the horrible toll it took on the victims, the highly charged rhetoric of our society, and an obviously seriously mentally ill and deranged young man.

The rhetoric and vitriol of the past few years have bothered me for quite some time.  It’s not a sign of a healthy society when one cannot discuss ideas or views without feeling threatened or feeling the need to make a threat.  It’s not a good sign of mental health to ‘amp up’ intolerance and intemperate speech to the point that civility and safety are threatened.  I cannot say whether this young man was influenced by the angry rhetoric of late.  I can certainly say it does not help in any healthy way whatsoever.

Words have power.  Words have consequences.  Whether perjoratives are used (“f*gg*t”, “tr*nny”, “n*gg*r”, “traitor”, “unAmerican”, “Marxist”, “Communist”, “tea bagger”, “wingnut”, “fascist” or more); whether more cloaked language is used (“taking away our freedoms”, “not born in the country”, “uppity”, “Kenyan”, etc); whether groups are wrongfully targeted with hate speech for their views, it is ALL a sign of declining ability to communicate in healthy ways with each other.

It is possible to discuss and disagree.  It is possible to have very strong emotional reactions and still be civil and honest about our feelings without making threats.  It is possible to stop and consider what we’re about to say in a charged atmosphere.  And it is time all of us were doing more to make it possible for people to disagree with each other without feeling threatened that such a disagreement will invite violence or reprisals.

I’ve worked with gender variant individuals (transsexuals, transgendered, intersex, etc) and the fear of violence is one of the greatest fears they have about whether or not to “come out” and be honest to the world and to themselves.  This rhetoric doesn’t help.

We should want people to be honest and truthful with us and themselves.  We should reward that.  We should honor the great challenge people face to be seen for who they are, and to be seen as good people simply trying to get through life in one piece.  But that can only happen if we as a culture really want people to be honest and civil.  It can only happen if we’re ready to swallow our fear and hear, really hear, what the other person has to say.

Fear, not based upon facts, is simply irrational.  And it is irrational states that lead to violence.  It is irrational states that lead to intolerance and hate.  Haven’t we had enough of that?

I know I have.

I’m out in my life; and as a therapist I feel a responsibility to set an example.  And I am not going away because of my fears or those of others.  I strive in this world to live honestly and with civility.  My views are my own and I do not believe I have the right to enforce them on others.  To talk about them and discuss them, yes.  But I will never force you to agree with me.  And I hope you will want the same as well.

Is this not what we should want for everyone?


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