There is an old Cherokee proverb that speaks of two wolves that exist within each of us. These wolves compete in a lifelong struggle for control. At stake is the eternal impact we have on the world around us.
As a grandfather explained to his grandson, one wolf represents good – peace, love, compassion, empathy and all that makes us inherently decent. The other, evil – avarice, envy, fear, hatred, lying and all that makes us uniquely virulent.
The grandson then asked, “Which wolf wins?” And the grandfather replied, “The one you feed more.”
In light of the recent shootings in Arizona, I hope we all take a step back from our rhetorical existences and take a long, hard look at reality. We must be mindful of the kind of energy we as individuals put out into the Universe on a daily basis. We must stop using words as weapons to incite violence, breed anger and fan the flames of fear. The damage done can be irreversible and the consequences catastrophic.
Primum non nocerum. (First do no harm.)
As many know, I’ve been quite vocal and critical of today’s radical conservative movement. But there is a difference between a substantive debate of policy positions using cogent & respectful fact-based arguments and resorting to unmistakably violent imagery that speaks directly to the disturbed inner voices of the most unstable among us. The use of inflammatory rhetoric and nonsensical hyperbole can compel those teetering on the edge of sanity to act in a manner consistent with the messages being spoon-fed to them by irresponsible pundits and entertainment-news personalities.
To insist that the vitriolic and caustic political atmosphere had nothing to do with Jared Loughner’s reprehensible actions last Saturday in Arizona is absurd. We all accept as true that we are what we eat, but it’s much more than that. We are what we consume – physically, psychologically and emotionally. Anger breeds anger. Fear breeds fear. Violence breeds violence.
We cannot paint those with whom we disagree as treasonous, traitorous, unpatriotic or somehow less human, as so often happens today. You are no more American than I. I am no more American than you. Our ideologies may differ, but we cannot allow those differences to be used to dehumanize or demonize each other. We all breathe the same air. We give. We take. We laugh. We grieve. We live and love the same way. We also bleed and die the same way.
Deadly Consequences Foretold
Tonight Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords fights to recover along with 13 other living victims of senseless violence, motivated – at least in part – by politics. 6 Americans died horribly and needlessly on Saturday…murdered by a man compelled by an ideology based on maliciously manufactured threats to our freedom. Not long ago Congresswoman Giffords pointed out the potential for violent imagery to have dire consequences. What an excruciatingly painful irony.
How many more tragedies must we face before those crafting the messages that drive our political discourse understand the influence their words have on those most likely to take them literally?
We cannot continue to take such a nonchalant attitude toward implicit and explicit incitement of violence. We cannot separate our words from the impact they may have on those who hear or read them.
References to bearing arms and bringing up arms are not the rhetorical equivalent of encouraging citizens to use their vote, as some of the most notoriously reckless with words now claim. To tell a group “to bring up your arms” is an explicit message condoning the use of guns to bend elected officials to their will under threat of death. That is not rhetorical. That is not a metaphor. That is a directive.
When blind followers carry out violent acts against those who have been purposely identified as “targets”, regardless of whether the term is intended metaphorically or literally, those who have planted the seeds of hatred, judgement, malice and contempt are morally responsible.
The implied message – whether intentional or not – of, “…don’t retreat, instead RELOAD!”, “…2nd Amendment remedies…” and the graphic to the right is that committing violent acts against those with whom you disagree is an acceptable and legitimate solution. Not everyone can discern between literal and metaphorical.
Viewers of cable news are constantly inundated with purposefully violent metaphors designed to provoke a visceral reaction in the woefully ignorant, painfully impressionable and violently inclined. Journalism has taken a back seat to sensationalist Entertainism. And violent action is not only considered acceptable by voices on the radical right, it is subconsciously encouraged.
Many Americans mistakenly trust in the supposed facts presented by pundits and political actors in the theatrical production that passes for news. The message, “be afraid…be very afraid…be angry…get ready…you’re in danger…America is in danger…democracy is in danger…your freedom hangs in the balance…real patriots have guns…” is repeated over and over and over again. Eventually they accept that message as true. And some choose to act on that message.
Learning From Past Mistakes & Moving Forward
The unenlightened thinking of many of today’s radical conservative radio & television personalities is indicative of a dangerous cultural and societal devolution the likes of which this nation has never experienced. It is 2011, not the 1770s. We no longer exist in a world where pitchforks, torches, muskets and threats of violence can play a constructive role in solving our nation’s problems.
Ours is a world of automatic weapons and homemade bombs. A single act by a mentally ill man shatters lives and destroys families. A momentary break with sanity paired with a semi-automatic handgun & an extended magazine have left an indelible hole in the heart of our nation. We must conduct ourselves accordingly. We must all act in a manner consistent with what is at stake.
The world has evolved. And our approach to solving problems, big and small, must evolve as well. These days messages of cooperation and compassion are drowned out by the aggrandizement of violence, angry bombast and an unrelenting pledge of allegiance to sensationalism – facts & truth optional.
We can’t prevent every heinous act of violence and terrorism committed by crackpots and lunatics. But we can temper our anger with empathy and compassion. We can think about how our words and deeds may influence those whose grip on reality is weaker than most. We can do away with the nonsensical hyperbole, the over-the-top rhetoric and the violent imagery.
We can feed to excess our good wolves while purposefully attempting to starve our evil ones. For every word intended to arouse fear and foment anger brings us one step closer to our next national tragedy. Stand with me today and vow that your words will never inspire the murderous acts of the deranged and demented. We owe that and much more to the victims of last Saturday’s tragedy.