Violence, Rhetoric, and America
© Dr. Walter Greason
14 January 2011
Mohandas Gandhi wrote that “nonviolence is not to be used ever as the shield of the coward. It is a weapon of the brave.” Representative Gabrielle Giffords, Christina Taylor Green, Daniel Hernandez, and Gabe Zimmerman led a cast of heroes whose courage and sacrifices reminded the nation about this lesson over the last week. There are limits to civil debate even in a democratic republic. Although we may not always share common motivations or goals, the success of our civilization relies on our compassionate respect for each other, especially when we disagree. The paranoid rhetoric of outrage that stretches back in American history at least to the First Red Scare in 1920 (and perhaps to the xenophobic riots between 1840 and 1860) should finally be silenced at the start of the second decade of the twenty-first century.
The slow process of national maturation saw its growing pains when Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. demonstrated that nonviolent direct action could mobilize masses of Americans to stand up for justice and dismantle legal segregation in public facilities nearly fifty years ago. The next generation of Americans struggled to abandon the legacies of racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia between 1970 and 1990. Only when the entertainment industry began to integrate performers ranging from Run D.M.C. to Michael Jordan did the global appeal of consumer capitalism begin to forge a new opportunity for democracy in human experience. Terrorist assaults like the Oklahoma City bombing on April 19, 1995, and the Al-Qaeda attacks on September 11, 2001, drove us back into our reliance on violence to seek safety and security in our lives. The shootings in Tuscon on January 8, 2011, must inspire us to embody the virtues of the victims and to abandon the myopia of the perpetrator.
President Barack Obama asked the nation to “talk with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.” His request symbolizes the best ways we can honor the heroes and victims of every tragic moment in American history. We can live better, fuller lives right now. Our political leaders will rely on the editors and producers of our media outlets to help every household and family achieve this goal. The commercial success of our editorial selections cannot rely on the clichés of violence and anger to grab headlines. Instead, let us take the most frequent lunatics of the echo chamber of the last decade into quiet conversation away from the media spotlight, while new orators of deliberation and patience hold the stage. The national audience starves for content that informs and inspires us to connect with each other in pursuit of both our individual and our national happiness. To return to the same divisive agendas that existed in 2010 is to maintain a miserable society where hatred and death are unbound. Please celebrate this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day with more than a few hours of community service. Embrace the legacy Gandhi offers us. Fulfill the nonviolent rhetoric of republican promise in 2011.
Dr. Walter Greason is an Associate Professor of History and American Studies at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania.